OCTOBER 28, 1996

Lotus and Malaysia

IT could be just a coincidence but the rumored takeover of Group Lotus by the Malaysian government-owned Proton car company may prove to be a significant development for the Sauber Formula 1 team.

In recent months Sauber has been quietly putting together a team of engineers to build a new V10 Formula 1 engine. The project will be headed by Japanese engineer Osamu Goto and funded by the Malaysian national oil company Petronas.

Petronas and Proton are both controlled by the Malaysian government and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has made no secret of the fact that he wants to use Grand Prix racing to develop the country's engineering skills.

"We need to upgrade our skills in engineering," Mahathir told us in September. "We have a car industry in Malaysia but we are dependent on others at the moment. We would like to have some capability of our own."

The purchase of Norfolk-based Lotus Engineering would give the Malaysians access to some of the world's leading automotive technology. Lotus makes still makes sports cars but most of the company's profits now comes from its engineering consultancy work with major manufacturers such as General Motors, Toyota and Chrysler.

Lotus is currently owned by the Luxembourg-based Bugatti International company, which is controlled by Romano Artioli. The Italian businessman was previously owner of Bugatti Automobili - building exclusive Bugatti sportscars - until it went under last year. Artioli has, however, turned Lotus into a profit-making organization since he bought it from General Motors in 1986.

If the rumors are true and Proton does take over the company it is quite possible that one of Lotus Engineering's first projects could be the construction of a Formula 1 V10 engine, which could be badged either "Petronas" or "Proton".

Such a move would perhaps help to explain Johnny Herbert's enthusiasm when he signed a new two-year deal with Sauber recently.

"I was given certain information about the team's future," said Johnny in Portugal. "I can't tell you what that is but it made it worth staying with Sauber for two years."

Johnny knows all about Lotus Engineering. He raced for Team Lotus between 1990 and 1994 and although the team was by then independent of Group Lotus, a number of its engineers worked on the racing team as one of the team's partners at that time was Peter Wright, former managing-director of Lotus Engineering.