JUNE 7, 1999
Team Lotus still rumbling away
THERE has been a lot of talk in the last few days about a return to Formula 1 of the Lotus name. The famous racing team has been out of the sport since the last Team Lotus collapsed at the end of 1994 - with debts of around $20m. At the time the assets of the company were bought by former racing driver David Hunt - brother of the late World Champion James Hunt - and he declared his intention to return Lotus to Grand Prix racing as soon as he could. To date he has failed to find the money to do so although in recent months he has been telling people that he is close to a big deal. We have heard stories linking Hunt to both Group Lotus and to the Austro-Canadian oil services multimillionaire Walter Wolf.
Wolf is best remembered for having run Walter Wolf Racing with some success in the 1970s. He eventually grew tired of that adventure and in 1979 sold the team to Emerson Fittipaldi and quit the sport. In recent years he has been seen around the F1 paddocks again and has talked vaguely of reviving the team.
Group Lotus is a much more likely backer for the Lotus project and an F1 program would make some commercial sense for the company as it tries to increase its sales of Elise and Esprit models around the world.
Group Lotus is owned by the Malaysian government's Proton car company. This company has close links - including a joint venture called Advanced Engine Research - with the Petronas oil company, the major sponsor of Sauber. Petronas also controls around 25% of proton's shares and is supplying the company with the production car engines which were developed by Sauber Petronas Engineering in Switzerland. The plans for SPE to build an F1 engine was, however, shelved and in recent months there have been signs of strain in the Sauber-Petronas relationship.
That deal is due to run out at the end of next year and it may be that the Malaysians are now looking at a way of entering F1 by themselves, using the Lotus name and the sport to promote the country's high technology industries around the world. The recent financial and political troubles in the country are fading and with the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix due to take place in the autumn it may be worth watching for announcements.
The latest suggestion is that Hunt could be sold the 12th F1 entry and the Honda Racing Development facility in Bracknell. The team has 96 staff members and is ready to build cars. With a Supertec V10 engine it is possible that this operation could be ready to race at the start of next year - but a decision would have to be taken almost immediately if that is to happen.