THE MOLE

How to earn a sticky bun

The Mole strode into the office and noticed that Penelope (Roedean) was looking particularly attractive that day - in a very English sort of way. She was wearing a jumper, or what the Americans would call a sweater. Her hair was pulled back casually and secured with a pencil. It looked the work of a moment but had probably taken at least 10 minutes. It was a fresh kind of day in London and she had that rosy tint to her skin that English girls get and her eyes glistened as eyes do on a cold day.

If she had donned a Barbour jacket she would not have looked out of place at a point-to-point. Or standing beside her MP husband on election night.

She smiled. The kind of smile that The Mole remembered his mother giving him when he returned home from school, as if to say 'I'm so pleased to see you, but what on earth are you wearing?' The Mole loved the fact that while the girls looked to him in an avuncular way, they also saw him as an overgrown boy who needed looking after.

He was unpacking his briefcase, when Penelope wandered into his office a few minutes later. The Mole had come to dread such moments because he was terrified that one day Penelope would tell him that she was going to get married, that she was pregnant, or both. There would be maternity leave and perhaps she would come back, but he knew that the bond that they had would be broken and it would not be the same.

He breathed a sigh of quiet relief when she said something about McLaren.

"It is odd that they made that announcement about Lewis Hamilton," she said, sitting down in one of the chairs. "McLaren never make announcements with such details. McLaren statements say things like 'long-term' or do not mention the length of the contract at all. And here is this one saying that they will now run him for another five years until 2012. It is out of character."

The Mole was listening, but only vaguely. He found himself wondering whether the tea lady would have any of her wonderful sticky buns.

"And?" he said.

"Nothing like this happens by accident in Formula 1," Penelope said. "You know that. This is a message for someone, isn't it?"

The Mole nodded thoughtfully.

"And for whom do you think the message was intended?" he said.

"I don't know," Penelope said. "But it is like saying to everyone: 'We have him and you can all go to Hell'. If you want to be associated with the best thing since sliced bread, you have to stick with us. We are here for the long term'."

The Mole smiled.

"Well, you may be reading rather a lot between the lines," he said.

"I know," she said. "But it is something like that. It is also saying that Lewis Hamilton drives for McLaren and not for Mercedes-Benz. The folk in Stuttgart may think that is synonymous but I am not sure they think that way down in Woking. As far as I understand McLaren is still controlled by Ron Dennis. He may only own 15% of the shares but he controls 60% by way of covenants and such things. Mercedes-Benz has invested in the company because they wanted to be associated with its success but since when has a 40% shareholder in a small private company been able to control someone with 60%? They can make a fuss, of course, and threaten to withdraw their support or stop supplying engines but is it really in their interest to do that? What are they going to do? Go off and do their own thing at vast expense? Or do a deal with Red Bull Racing or Force India? That would be a monumental step backwards, wouldn't it? If you have an alliance with one of the top two teams in F1 you don't walk away unless you have a better option, like BMW did."

"Yes," said The Mole. "What are you trying to say?"

"Well, we all keep hearing all these rumours about how Mercedes-Benz is going to get rid of Ron. But I do not see how can they do that if Ron does not want to go? If they try to push him out, he can tell them to get lost. McLaren would not be around for long without a major car company rushing in and anyway, thanks to Max Mosley, engine development is not that important these days. And you never know it might be in Ron's interest to find a new partner who will supply him with the drivetrain for the next McLaren road car and for his F1 engines. He might even want to take the next step and build his own engines."

The Mole nodded.

"Yes," he said. "That would be the next step for the McLaren empire. Selling out to Mercedes-Benz would simply mean that McLaren became a brand."

"So it is not really about whether Ron can be forced out," Penelope went on. "It's about whether he wants to go."

"And?" said The Mole, hearing the distant rattle of the tea lady's trolley and once again thinking about the glutinous magnificence of the sticky bun.

"From what I know Ron is many things but he is not a quitter," Penelope said. "He's a fighter and he takes the punches and comes back for more."

The Mole nodded.

"And like any fighter he is a proud man," she went on. "Being mauled by the FIA was painful in 2007 and perhaps he got a bloody nose, but is he going to crawl from the ring and hide in the dressing room? The money is irrelevant. He already has more than he will ever need."

"So, to sum it up," The Mole said. "You think that all this talk is just talk and that Ron is not about to leave."

"Absolutely," said Penelope.

"I think I will buy you a sticky bun as reward for your brilliance," said The Mole.

"Show me a girl who does not like sticky buns," said Penelope, "and I will show you someone who needs to do some more horizontal jogging."

"Indeed," said The Mole.

January 28 2008

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