Return of the prodigal daughter

Back in November The Mole was sitting in his office one day, shuffling papers around, when he heard Penelope (Roedean) talking about having had dinner with his long departed researcher Penelope (Benenden).

"Well," Penelope had said, "she's bored out of her brain at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. She said she might even do something ghastly like finding a man and having a lot of babies."

"Yuk," said Penelope (Wycombe Abbey), who was far too brilliant to have a sensible love life.

"Gruesome," said Penelope (Cheltenham Ladies), to whom babies were like the malevolently mischievous monsters in the Gremlins movies.

"Gosh," said Miss Pringle Featherby (of the Berkshire Pringle-Featherbys), who was forever dreaming of a life full of kids and dogs.

The Mole smiled.

Penelope (Benenden) had been the bedrock of the office. Sometimes she had wished for more exciting roles in glamorous places, but she loved research. Her replacement Annabel had been a disaster, lacking the brains and the swan-like grace of a true Penelope. Thankfully after a relatively short period The Mole had been able to have her posted to the United States where, disguised as an author of bodice-ripping novels, she had worked in NASCAR until fiction and fact became rather jumbled one night after two too many Margeritas and she had ended up married to a man with a very big hat and an even bigger ranch. The word was that she had even started to like Country and Western music.

The Mole had looked for a replacement but in the end had called his pal The Mandarin and asked if, perhaps, he might get Penelope (Benenden) back. Two years had passed since her departure and he hoped that the FCO might be willing to let her go.

And so it was that on the first Monday in January Penelope (Benenden) had walked into the Motor Racing and Trade Development Department of the Secret Intelligence Service. The Mole had not told the others girls of his plan and there were sharp intakes of breath as they all eyed the new girl at the door.

"Hello girls!" she said with a big smile.

"Hey," said Penelope (Roedean). "You still got the hots for Max Mosley?"

In the old days Penelope (Benenden) would have blushed, but no more.

"He's old enough to be my grandfather," she laughed.

There was a clatter of conversation and a scraping of chairs as greetings were exchanged. The Mole pretended not to hear and waited for a knock at his door. When it came Penelope (Benenden) appeared.

"I have my Heckler & Koch USP," she said. "What I need now is some work to do!"

"A little assassination?" The Mole said, without looking up. "I have some good targets in mind."

He looked up and she was smiling. Some thought her a little plain when compared to her namesakes but when she smiled she could light up a ballroom. She was tall and lithe with dark hair and dark flashing eyes.

"Wow," said The Mole. "You are all grown up."

He set her to work, to use her distance from the sport to produce an analysis of the state of Formula 1 at the start of 2008.

The report arrived four days later.

"The FIA's plans to use F1 to lead a green revolution in the automotive world do not seem to be sustainable as a result of recent decisions from the European Commission," it said. "On December 19 the Commission proposed new standards to reduce the CO2 emissions of road cars hoping to force automobile manufacturers to meet stringent new limits due to come into force in 2012 or face fines of $30 per gram of CO2 per km per car. The European Union target is to have cars at 120 grams per kilometre by 2012.

"The problem is that not one of the 17 car companies doing business in Europe has a product that meets the new requirements and the average car now produces 160 grams of CO2 per kilometre. The system of fines will force change and will increase steeply between 2012 and 2015 in order to make the car manufacturers act quickly. Everyone is complaining but they have no choice but to comply. It is clear that the automobile manufacturers must build cleaner cars in Europe. The rules proposed mean that manufacturers will be allowed to average the emissions of their entire fleets and so high performance models can be offset against more fuel efficient mass production cars. Thus, for example, Ferrari can hide under the wing of Fiat. This will probably lead to a consolidation in the industry as luxury car manufacturers look for ways to lower their average emissions. The first sign of that is Porsche buying control of Volkswagen. Companies like Mercedes-Benz and BMW need to do something similar even if this will dilute their brand value.

"The focus in car design is going to shift towards finding ways to reduce a company's exposure to the fines and the car manufacturers now need all the money and manpower that they can muster to develop the technology they need in the time available. In the circumstances spending huge sums in F1 may not seem as sensible a policy as was once the case. Most of the technology being discussed for F1 is already available in the automotive world. Development of these systems in F1 will make them smaller, lighter and more efficient, but there is a serious question as to whether this is enough to justify the current levels of spending. The sport is trapped because the current proposals do not go far enough and bigger changes are too expensive to consider. The FIA has thus opted for the engine freeze which keeps costs down. Unfortunately the current engines will still mean that the sport is exposed to attacks from environmental campaigners. Gas-guzzling 2.4-litre V8s are not the engines of the future. As a result one can imagine some of the manufacturers offloading their F1 programmes on to private teams in order to avoid any direct criticism. They will still use the sport to benefit from any success achieved by the teams but may not wish to own them. F1 is still a powerful marketing tool but it needs a more efficient image. It needs to be a contest of efficiency and ingenuity and less a competition to spend money.

"The only sensible conclusion in these circumstances is to introduce budget-capping so that manufacturers know exactly what their F1 programme will cost them and can use the sport, directly or indirectly, to advertise their products. In the longer term F1 must forget about the frozen engines and urgently look at downsizing its engines and incorporating more environmentally-friendly technologies."

"Ah yes," said The Mole. "The message is as clear as a bell. Good old Penelope!"

January 7 2008

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