At the start of 2010 Tony Fernandes set out to change minds. He wanted to do the job properly and to have his Lotus F1 respected as a racing organisation, not as a branding exercise. The Lotus brand had no intrinsic value to Fernandes. He recognised that there was potential there to do something and perhaps had ambitions of one day taking over the company, but his main businesses were AirAsia and the Tune Group, both of which were aimed at the lower end of the market, rather than providing flashy sports cars for the Malaysian middle classes. He came to the idea when former Lotus F1 engineer Nino Judge of Litespeed announced plans to enter a new Lotus F1 team in F1, in league with Mike Gascoyne, the former technical director at Toyota F1. Judge approached Fernandes, who was sponsoring Williams F1, with the idea and Fernandes liked it. He put together the funding needed, negotiated a deal to use the Lotus name in F1, used the yellow and green colours of the original team, used the Lotus designation T127 and even tried to buy the old Lotus headquarters at Ketteringham Hall. He also sought the blessing of the Chapman Family.
“I knew that bringing Lotus back to the grid would have an emotional pull for many fans who remember the likes of Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and all those other great champions,” Fernandes said, “but I couldn’t have dreamt that we’d see the younger fans, whose parents may have talked about the old days, embrace us so quickly.“
He made no bones about the fact that his goal was to monetize the Lotus brand.
“It is one of the greatest racing brands and nothing invokes the same emotion except Ferrari,” he said. “A lot of people and corporations have approached us wanting to be part of this team.”
It was an incredible effort to get the team ready in time for the first Grand Prix in Bahrain but there Clive Chapman, Colin Chapman’s son, gave Fernandes his father’s famous black cap, which used to hurled into the air after each Lotus victory.
“What made the day for me was Clive Chapman coming to me and giving me his father’s black cap,” Fernandes said. “He said: ‘You are the man who is going to carry on my father’s tradition’.”
Chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne agreed that the cap would act as an inspiration to everyone within the team.
“We are going to put (the cap) up on the pit wall for every race and when we next need it, it will go up in the air,” he said. “I thought that was a lovely touch. We’ll just have to make sure we need it soon.”
Former Lotus boss Peter Warr, who has since died, was also there and said that “I think when you look in the pits you see a professionalism and a standard of turn-out that makes you think they have been there three or four seasons already. I am absolutely sure Colin would have been proud of them.”
The fans agreed.
However, in Malaysia there were other agendas. Ferrari marketing man Dany Bahar talked Proton into appointing him head of Group Lotus in the summer of 2009. He too recognised the value of the Lotus brand and got the position by putting forward an impressive business plan that made the people at Proton sit up and take notice. But by the time Bahar was appointed chief executive of Lotus, Fernandes’s racing programme had been granted a Formula 1 entry. Bahar was simply too late. This did not deter him and he has since been trying to elbow Fernandes out of the way and claim the motorsport history of Team Lotus, which it seems he has no legal right to do. This has not deterred him. He has refused to do any deals with Fernandes and will not agree to a suitable compensation packages to solve the problem. The law has yet to decide who is right and who is wrong, but the signs do not look good for Group Lotus and if they lose the legal action, they can expect further legal action against them claiming damages. Proton is supporting Bahar because to fail to do so would be accepting that it was a mistake to appoint him. Pride is involved. The automotive industry does not seem to give Bahar much chance of pulling off all the stunts he is hoping to achieve. The proof of the pudding will be when it comes to selling cars – if indeed all his projects get that far. If that fails then Lotus will fall. The Malaysian government will be forced to pay the loans and very possibly Tony Fernandes will be in a position to pick up the ruins of Lotus and/or Proton and build a proper car company, based on sound business principles. He did this most successfully with the AirAsia airline after the Malaysian government messed that up.
The big question is really how much damage is done to Lotus along the way, and whether it remains a sensible brand in which to invest. Publicity like we have been seeing in recent weeks is not doing any good at all…