The news that Kimi Raikkonen is leaving Lotus F1 Team to drive for Ferrari next year opens the way for a new driver at Enstone. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of interest from drivers because the car has been pretty competitive in the hands of Kimi. The smart money up to now has been on Nico Hulkenberg getting the job, but it seems that things have become rather more complicated of late.
Felipe Massa is on the market and desperate to prove that Ferrari has made a mistake by dropping him. The only place that he can really show that is by joining Lotus and doing the sort of job that we have seen Kimi do this year. Lotus, not surprisingly, looks on Massa with a degree of caution. He has had a long career and has won 11 races, but he is now 32 and he has not won a race for five years. Is he a better bet than The Hulk?
Of course, the drivers who want to join Lotus have to worry a little about why Kimi Raikkonen left Enstone.
“The reason why I left the team is purely on the money side,” he said. “They haven’t got my salary so it’s an unfortunate thing.”
In the finest traditions, Kimi has said it as it is and the team has been pretty quiet because there is not much that can be said. Raikkonen should know whether he has been paid or not. His remark underlines the rumours that have been been circulating for months about Lotus struggling to pay its suppliers. It is also fairly clear that the core of the engineering staff at Lotus has been shaken in the course of the last 12 months. Some seriously good engineers have been taking offers that have come from other teams. Despite this brain drain, Lotus remains pretty strong (at least for now) and Eric Boullier’s passion as a racer has helped to drive the team forwards. Some of Genii’s other appointments have not been as popular and this has clearly not helped the situation.
Lotus announced in June that it has sold 35 percent of the shares to an organisation called Infinity Racing Partners Ltd, but it is clear from Raikkonen’s decision that the money has still not arrived. When that cash does appear it will be used to clear some of the debt and to provide the team with running budget. Lotus does have substantial debt, but it is worth pointing out that around $30 million of that is guaranteed by the Proton car company in Malaysia (a deal leftover from the days when the team was still wanting to have a direct association with the Lotus car company) and so in real terms it does not really exist for the team. It is not their problem. It is reckoned that another $60 million is owed to Genii Capital, which has been loaning the team cash in the last year, waiting for sponsors or new investors to appear. As often happens with entrepreneurs, they may be asset-rich but cash-flow is always a problem, particularly when you have a business that eats money like F1 does. This can involve a lot of juggling and while Mangrove Capital, another of Lopez’s companies, is preparing the website-building firm Wix for an IPO in New York and there is talk of a huge real estate development deal in New York City, the need for hard cash remains the same, week in, week out.
The key question in F1 terms is whether or not the team has the budget it needs to clear up the shortfalls this year and provide a proper budget for 2014. In addition to the Infinity money, there has long been talk that Renault might agree to sponsor the team, in order to raise its visibility in F1. This makes a lot of sense, but that seems to be dependent on Renault dividing its F1 pie differently, rather than adding to the spend. The team could also find some traditional sponsorship, as there is plenty of room on the car. It might even consider taking a driver if there is sponsorship following him. So rumours that Santander might be willing to throw some money at Lotus to run Felipe Massa, because of its Brazilian markets, should perhaps be taken seriously. Added to that, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is pretty keen to keep Brazil happy and without Massa the sport would be without a Brazilian driver for the first time since 1970, when Emerson Fittipaldi first appeared in F1. That would be a shock to the system.
So while Lotus might want Hulkenberg, Massa also makes some sense. Having said that, it is not necessarily a case of one or the other. It could be both. Romain Grosjean has still to provide conclusive proof that he is the right man for the job at Lotus. Obviously it does no harm that he is French (Renault and Total like that), but if they are not willing to kick in cash, their man could find himself looking for a seat when the music stops. There is also another scenario that we have heard mentioned which is that if Grosjean does not do the job in the last races of this year, the French could switch to another candidate. The obvious choice would be Jean-Eric Vergne, who has little to gain from sticking around with Scuderia Toro Rosso now that Dan Ricciardo has got the second seat at Infiniti Red Bull Racing. There are some who think that Vergne is better than Grosjean.
So these are the variables involved. There may be others. There have been some stories suggesting that Pastor Maldonado might try to switch from Williams to Lotus, but it is doubtful that this would work. Williams is confident that even if Pastor does not want to drive for Williams, he cannot move the PDVSA cash elsewhere. It could be done if PDVSA negotiated a settlement on the contract and then found extra cash to pay Lotus but that would involve even more money being spent and the government in Venezuelan would be unwise to waste too much in public at a time when the country’s economy is not doing well and opposition to the government is rising. We will have to see how things work out.
“Nothing is finalised,” Hulkenberg said in Singapore. “Nothing has been decided at this point. We are trying to sort out all the options and then to come up with a good decision for the future.”
If he does move to Lotus then the next domino to be discussed will be Sauber…