Posts Tagged ‘ Lotus

How to get the best out of Nick Heidfeld

Amid much speculation as to who may replace the injured Robert Kubica at Renult/Lotus for at least part of the 2011 season, the driver often inexplicably known as “Quick Nick” threw his hat into the ring with a brisk performance during testing at Jerez over the weekend.

Heidfeld has always been a bit of an enigma to me: a tricky interviewee, on account of being rather shy, and on track a somewhat hot-and-cold performer in the Fisichella mould.

Given a sub-standard car Heidfeld, like Fisichella, could turn on the style. I was watching at the Esses during the truncated Sunday-morning qualifying session at Suzuka in 2004 (Saturday’s activities having been cancelled on account of an impending typhoon) and Heidfeld was remarkable in the Jordan. The car was pretty awful; Heidfeld seemed to be cajoling it into changing direction through sheer force of will alone. He was a second and a half quicker than Timo Glock, who was driving the other car.

I saw very little of this determination once he got his foot in the door at Sauber, where the general feeling was that he had a tremendous ability to work with the engineers to develop the car, but that this capacity was almost completely offset by his lack of a killer instinct while racing. He just seemed to be happy enough to be driving a quick car.

Should this factor in Renault’s decision-making process? Perhaps it should. At Sauber the driving arrangement worked because Mario Theissen hit on the perfect way to get the best out of Heidfeld: structure his salary according to results, so he was on a low flat fee but with a considerable points bonus. Heidfeld, therefore, delivered a succession of solid points-scoring finishes in strict accordance with the timetable Theissen had laid out for the team – that is, get in the points occasionally in the first year, get on the podium in the second, then start winning in the third.

At Sauber, though, the other seat was occupied by someone who genuinely did want to win races: Robert Kubica. Indeed, when Kubica replaced Jacques Villeneuve in 2006 Heidfeld immediately upped his game. This won’t happen at Lotus/Renault with Vitaly Petrov driving the other car…

Branding vs Product: Lotus takes centre stage in Paris

Group Lotus has made a lot of announcements this week. It issued concept sketches for a bunch of new race cars, including an LMP2 coupé designed by Paulo Catone, who engineered the Le Mans-winning Peugeot 908 (hang on a minute, though – isn’t LMP2 becoming a cost-capped formula for privateers, hmmm?).

The forthcoming Lotus Elite

The forthcoming Lotus Elite

Today at the Paris Motor Show it will officially unveil five* new road car models that go some way beyond its traditional two-seater sportscar model, and which establish a new design language courtesy of incoming ex-Ferrari stylist Donato Coco. They will roll out between 2013 and 2015. There’s the Elite, a mid-engined 2+2 with the option of a Toyota-derived hybrid powertrain. There are new versions of the Elan and Elise, plus the rebirth of the Esprit, which will take on the Ferrari 458 Italia. There’s also a four-door called the Eterne, which targets the Porsche Panamera…

So where’s the money coming from for this new model splurge? Before recruiting CEO Dany Bahar from Ferrari, Proton, the owner of Group Lotus, decided on a strategy which others less delicate than I would call “shit or bust”: either sell it off or make it finally live up to its potential.

Fair enough – but, yes, where’s the money coming from? Proton isn’t exactly flush, and Lotus recently applied for a loan from the UK Government which it did not get (what do you expect from a Prime Minister who’s never had a proper job?).

While we’re at it – where and how are these products going to be made? Whence are the raw materials going to be sourced and paid for? Who will build the cars, and where? Some aspects of this great whoosh of announcements will disturb those who remember the dying days of another well-known British car manufacturer.

Lotus LMP2 coupé concept

Lotus LMP2 coupé concept

Ten years ago MG Rover had a similar new model push: there was an LMP2 equivalent (then called LMP675), a new city car and a new high-end sportscar. The difference then was that the expansion came through partnership and/or acquisitions: the MG-badged LMP675 was done with Lola, the Cityrover was acquired from Tata and the MG XPower SV was a (hideously) facelifted Qvale Mangusta. MG Rover needed a quick fix that these products didn’t deliver.

Still, there are reasons for optimism: a venerable motoring scribe recently visited the Group Lotus base and was reportedly blown away by what he saw. Some of these new models will not be built until the middle of the decade, so there is no requirement for an immediate five-fold increase in manufacturing capacity. Today’s announcement is a land grab for headlines and a bold statement of intent.

Tucked away in the small print is another telling detail: Lotus will scale down its dealer network to offer better service and a more exclusive face. As much as anything else, today is about reclaiming the brand and the famous badge with the ACBC initials, but also beginning a process of rehabilitation – consigning the epithet Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious to the dustbin of history.

What’s in a badge?

Yesterday’s revelation that the simmering tension between Lotus Racing and Group Lotus exploded into outright rancour over the seemingly trivial issue of t-shirts cuts right to the heart of this issue. What’s in a name? What, indeed, is in a badge?

You may equally say – why can’t they just get along?

Anyone who works in the marketing industry or its tertiary sectors will tell you that branding is all about control. Every major company has strict guidelines about colour palettes, font families and the size, shape and alignment of the logo. When you produce marketing materials on behalf of these brands you either stick to these guidelines or you have your homework thrown back at you along with a curt instruction to do it again, properly.

By his own admission, Dany Bahar is not a “car guy”. But he knows about brands, and having a bunch of clowns running off t-shirts, baseball caps, posters, etc (let alone a whole Formula 1 team) off the back of “his” brand must have made him apoplectic. For here’s another unspoken truth about the branding industry: it’s the home of not-invented-here syndrome. To any branding wonk from a multinational corporation, anything produced by an outside body (especially when unauthorised) is automatically bad, even if it’s good. Only the best agencies get over this hurdle.

While we’re in the market for truths, here’s another one that governs the car industry: show, don’t tell. You can throw money at branding and seductive advertisements, but the success of a car manufacturer is measured in sales. That means, in no particular order: having a compelling product; having a product that doesn’t start falling apart the moment it leaves the showroom; and having dealers who don’t treat the customer like a dead shrew that the cat dumped at the bottom of the stairs.

Can Lotus deliver all of these? It will have to.

*There was a sixth kicking about, a city car, but it wasn’t part of the main reveal.