SEPTEMBER 15, 2009

Malaysians get the 12th slot

It will be announced later today that the Malaysian government will be funding a Formula 1 team in 2010 and that the entry has been granted. It is believed to be a joint venture between the government and Tony Fernandes, the owner of the no-frills Malaysian airline AirAsia, which has been a Williams sponsor in recent years. It is believed that the team will be funded by the automobile company Proton and will probably be called Team Lotus and be backed by Petronas money. The 45-year-old entrepreneur was educated in England and worked as an auditor with Richard Branson's Virgin Records in the late 1980s. He returned to Malaysia in the 1990s and became the managing director of Warner Music (Malaysia) but left after the Time-Warner merger with AOL and bought the troubled AirAsia from the government and set about rebuilding it. The airline is competition with Vijay Mallya's Kingfisher Airlines. The company is now on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange. He has since gone on to establish his own Tune Hotels chain, which follows the same no-frills policy.

The team will almost certainly be buying the Sauber operation in Hinwil and it is anticipated that the engines will be Ferraris. It remains to be seen whether or not Peter Sauber is involved. There were many rumours about the team at Monza with two other names being mentioned: Nicolas Todt, the son of FIA Presidential candidate Jean Todt, who is a partner in ART Grand Prix, the GP2 team that won the title last weekend with Nico Hulkenberg. Todt has the ambition to run an F1 but only in the right circumstances. His father in well connected in Malaysia thanks to his partner Michelle Yeoh. His is also close to the new boss of Group Lotus Dany Bahar, a former Red Bull executive who was hired by Ferrari to help develop the brand. There has also been talk that a Luxembourg-born venture capitalist called Gerard Lopez, a partner in the venture capital company Mangrove Capital Partners, may be involved. Lopez was an early investor in the Internet in the 1990s and set up the investment business in 1999. Lopez made his fortune by being an early investor in Skype, the voice-over-Internet protocol telephony service. The company is doing well with 400m users and revenues expected to rise to $1bn by 2011. The original investors are believed to still hold 35% of the business, while also continuing to provide seed capital for new European technology businesses, trying to emulate the success of the Silicon Valley cluster of venture capitalists in the United States. Lopez is a big Lotus fan.