Formula 1 has had a confusing year with Group Lotus and Team Lotus. Group Lotus has been the sponsor (at least on paper) of the Lotus Renault GP (black Lotus, if you prefer), with cars called Renaults. Team Lotus (aka Green Lotus) has been running chassis called Lotuses. The problems are now gradually being sorted out with Group Lotus having failed to bully Team Lotus out of F1 with lawyers. As a result of that Lotus Renault GP owner Gerard Lopez seems to have concluded that the best course of action is to get control of the company that is sponsoring the team and get rid of CEO Dany Bahar, who has done a great job dreaming up completely impractical plans for the future of the car company, but has been a problem in F1 because no-one wants to help him out because of his previous adventures with Sauber, Red Bull and Ferrari. Bahar and his sidekicks have enjoyed their five minutes of fame, and have spent a lot of money making noise about Lotus challenging Porsche for customers. The automotive industry has been watching with amusement. In recent months Lopez has been quietly working to put together a consortium to buy Group Lotus from Proton. As Proton is a government company the deal must be one that suits the current administration and so the people involved appear to be government-friendly entrepreneurs such as Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar, one of the country’s richest men who has interests in transportation, logistics, plantations, property, defense and weaponry, in addition to engineering and power generation. He has regularly done deals with Zainal Hatim, another wheeler-dealer who has had a lot of government contracts over the years. I have also heard that Tan Sri Arumugam is involved in the deal. He is the chairman of Sri Inderajaya Holdings and is involved in agriculture, food, publishing, real estate, telecommunications, travel and tourism. He is also the boss of Makhota Technologies, which deals in electrical and mechanical engineering and has a well-connected customer base. It is not clear who else is involved but there is no doubt that the group is getting together to do the government a favour and take Lotus off its books.
It remains to be seen when an announcement will be made but there is a lot of talk in Malaysia at the moment of an impending election, which could be called at any time by Prime Minister Najib Razak. He recently issued a budget aimed at winning votes with sensible handling of the economy and it is not clear when any Group Lotus deal might be announced. Certainly the Proton accounts in the course of the last year have not been very good, with revenues and profits down. Group Lotus has been the reason for much of the expenditure and so offloading the firm before an election will look good. The sale is not believed to involve any money, but Group Lotus has debts of something like $150 million which must be guaranteed by the consortium.
Tony Fernandes of Team Lotus had been hoping to get such a deal, but since he acquired the Caterham car company his focus seems to have shifted and he is hard at work on setting up his own automobile business around the Caterham name. It remains to be seen whether the two companies will be competing for the same customers. We hear that Team Lotus is now negotiating to buy the old Leafield Technical Centre, formerly the home to the Arrows and Super Aguri F1 teams and the TWR automotive consulting business. This is currently owned by US home improvement magnate John Menard. The facility is big enough to house an entire F1 team and probably a fair amount of Caterham activity as well. There is space to expand and few problems with planning permission as the site has two large radio masts and was formerly a government radio station. It was eventually handed over the British Telecom which sold the site to TWR in 1993. The team is also tipped to be talking to Silverstone but Leafield would be a quicker fix. The team will maintain some of its production departments in Norfolk, although in the end the facility there may end up being used for junior teams and so on.
If all goes to plan the name changes will go through at the start of December. All the teams apart from HRT appear to have agreed to let this happen, in part because some of them want to change their names as well. The only real question is whether the name changing get dragged into the F1 political situation. If not Lotus Renault GP will run cars called Lotuses and Team Lotus will become Team Caterham Air Asia and will field Caterham F1 cars. One can imagine that the Marussia car company might like to have F1 cars called Marussias rather than Virgins, while the HRT team is not much use to the new owners and there are question marks over the future ownership of Force India and Scuderia Toro Rosso. Although everyone is denying that the teams are being sold one can imagine that new owners might want their cars called something different…