What's in a name?
DECEMBER 15, 2010
Colin Chapman died of a heart attack 28 years ago this Thursday. The founder and genius behind Lotus loved a good fight but you have to wonder just what he would have made of the current tug-of-war over the Lotus name in Formula 1, a messy dispute that will turn nasty before it's finished. And the problem is, it may drag down some big names with it and do little for the image of F1 in the process.
I have to confess to being sceptical on 12 February when attending the unveiling of the first F1 car to be called Lotus since the team, a shadow of its former self, made a sorry exit in 1994. The question was: would this revival further besmirch such a great name?
The answer appeared to be in the negative when the Chapman family were present to give the project its blessing and the car looked the business in green and yellow, the traditional colours of Team Lotus.
This latest incarnation could not be called Team Lotus simply because that title was owned by David Hunt, a partner in the doomed effort in 1994. That changed in September when Tony Fernandes, owner of AirAsia and the financial force behind Lotus Racing, came to an agreement with Hunt. So far, so good.
Enter Dany Bahar, the CEO of Group Lotus, manufacturer of road cars and the nucleus of Chapman's original company. Group Lotus had kept their distance from Fernandes's efforts - and now we know why.
Bahar was convincing Proton (Group Lotus majority shareholder) that it would be good for the brand to be associated with motor racing. Having already gained a presence in Indycar, plans were launched for GP2 and GP3.
Then came the bombshell - at least, as far as Fernandes was concerned. Group Lotus, rather than support the small team down the road, would be joining Renault F1 as title sponsor and shareholder. Group Lotus will hold a significant stake with Genii Capital, the investment company that bought a majority shareholding in Renault F1 this time last year.
This means that Renault will continue to supply engines but the French firm is effectively leaving F1 as a manufacturer. No surprise there. They came close to quitting in 2009, the Genii deal being a stop-gap measure. The Group Lotus move now allows Renault to finally regroup. Full praise to them for having honoured their commitments as they hand over one of the most compact and efficient operations in F1.
But what will become of this new set up? And, more important, where is the funding coming from? Genii have invested very little (in F1 terms) in the team. Group Lotus say they have the backing of shareholders, banks and investors. They'll need to because their ambitious racing programmes will run alongside plans to introduce no less than five Lotus road cars.
My enquiries in the motor trade reveal that Proton is not exactly in the rudest of financial health. Bahar is a marketing man, having been the driving force behind Red Bull before spending a few years with Ferrari. And now he is with Lotus. Otherwise, little is known about him in the motor trade.
I hope the black and gold scheme recently revealed on the 2010 Renault is not considered by Bahar to be one of his finest marketing moments. Apart from sticking an oar in Fernandes' plans to reinvent the iconic John Player Special colours for his 2011 Lotus, the respray job, with its thick gold lines, is not the Lotus of old with its immaculate pin-striping.
But, looks aside, it is difficult to see how a prospective sponsor's colours can be successfully patched into the black and gold scheme. And commercial partners will be needed because Group Lotus is not intending to be a big spender (they should be so lucky) and has no wish to embrace the Lotus racing legacy.
Or so they say. A statement from Bahar then claimed: 'We are Lotus and we are back'. Really? Back from where, exactly? Group Lotus had never raced a car. This had always been the domain of Team Lotus, an entirely separate entity.
No matter. This is all about brand-building for Group Lotus; about becoming the British Porsche. That's a laudable aim. I hope it comes off.
Meanwhile, where does this leave Team Lotus? Some cynics say Fernandes is a businessman first and foremost and the F1 venture, while clearly being something he is passionate about, is ultimately no more than a money-making exercise, something that can be sold on. Or, could be sold if this was the sole Lotus name. Bahar's plans have scuppered that.
On the other hand, Bahar and the whimsical support from former Malaysian government ministers (one of whom suggested Team Lotus were not good enough) may have galvanised Fernandes's team like never before.
So, what is a F1 fan to do? You pays your money and you makes your choice. Lotus-Renault talks about brand image and investment. Team Lotus talks about a proud racing heritage. Which would Colin Chapman support? He would surely see the former as being important - but purely to fund the latter.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.