Time for some realism on Lotus
Pictures released last week of a Renault bedecked in black and gold and wearing a Lotus badge on the nose amply demonstrate that Dany Bahar and the Group Lotus crew have landed a stinging blow against the ‘other’ Lotus. The pictures, accompanied by an exclusive in AUTOSPORT magazine, set in motion a host of sulky Tweets from bigwigs in the ‘other’ Lotus (hereafter referred to by the business’s formal title, 1Malaysia Racing) and a spasm of irk from members of various fan forums on the internet.
I’ve written before, with tongue firmly in cheek, that watching a pair of opportunist businessmen handbag each other over a moribund (if potentially lucrative) historic enterprise has echoes of the hilarious late-1990s high court spat between Bobby Gee and David Van Day over who had the right to tour under the name of 1982 Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz. The fans, however, seem to take it rather more seriously, and spent the past weekend hauling AUTOSPORT over the coals because of its perceived stance on the issue.
It’s a well-worn maxim that the easiest way to make a small fortune in motor racing is to start off with a large one. To succeed in F1 requires business sense and a certain agility, not to say more than a little ruthlessness. Only in the reductionist world of internet forums, where one is either a hero or a villain and nothing in between, do we find these saintly figures who arrive in the sport for purely altruistic reasons.
I say this because Tony Fernandes, whom I have every respect for, came to Formula 1 to make a profit, not to spend large sums of his own money breathing life into a dead name. The motive for this Lazarus routine with Team Lotus was pure entrepreneurship: he saw an opportunity in the orphan asset, set about obtaining it for a knock-down price, then added value with the ultimate ambition of selling the enterprise on to someone else.
This is not news in the Formula 1 world. The obvious ‘someone else’ was Proton, from whom he obtained the original licence to use the Lotus name when David Hunt, notional owner of the ‘Team Lotus’ rights, did not jump in straight away.
Trouble is, according to one of my snouts, Fernandes assured Proton that his team would be among the frontrunners in its first season. Oops.
Whatever configuration of the Lotus name is above the door, the 1Malaysia Racing Team is a remarkable achievement. Tony Fernandes thoroughly deserves to turn a profit from it: he put the right people together, resourced it adequately, and generated considerable goodwill by marketing the team vigorously. Having a Colin Chapman-style hat under glass on the pitwall was a stroke of PR genius. I hate to puncture any illusions held by fans, but this is a marketing exercise par excellence as well as a team with undisputed soul.
David Hunt may come to regret not getting on board sooner, for now there is another opportunist entrepreneur on the scene: Dany Bahar. He has grandiose plans for Group Lotus and a stipend from the Malaysian government, via Proton, to put them into action. Whether this self-confessed ‘non-car guy’ genuinely understands what he’s doing is neither here nor there for now. It is a fundamental axiom of the luxury and performance car market that execution and perceived quality are at least as important as style, and shortcomings in the former areas are the chief cause of Lotus’s failings over the past three or four decades.
If Bahar fails to deliver then he will not personally suffer, because he is playing with other people’s money: it is the Malaysian taxpayer who will take a bath, in much the same way as Ireland is now in penury because its banks lent injudiciously to ludicrous enterprises such as the Donington renovation.
Where does the team formerly known as Renault F1 fit into this? I don’t suppose they care so long as the cheque from Proton doesn’t bounce. The ‘reveal’ of their car in ersatz John Player Special colours was an inspired piece of mischief: 1Malaysia Racing had signalled their intention to move to that colour scheme some weeks ago, and had even invited fans to submit ideas. Crucially, though, Enstone’s graphic designers beat them to the crucial stage of getting an image into the public domain.
David Hunt, meanwhile, has been reduced to venting his rage at the state of affairs in various Norfolk-based newspapers, rather in the manner of Alan Partridge. He and Fernandes need to tread carefully. 1Malaysia Racing’s plans for 2011 hinge on a Renault powerplant and Red Bull’s tightly packaged (and aero-friendly) drivetrain, and the use of the Team Lotus name. If they lose the rights to the latter in court then a costly change to the team’s entry beckons, for they will lose their 2010 prize money if forced to do so.
Also, the word on the street is that they are perilously close to triggering a severance clause in the engine supply contract if they don’t lay down their weapons. Ghosn in 60 seconds, you might say…