In the upcoming Formula 1 season there will be two teams racing under a variation of the name Lotus and, to make matters even more confusing, both will be using Renault engines.
The name 'Lotus' evokes many fond memories of the legendary team run by Colin Chapman, and so this unusual scenario raises controversy over who has the rights to the Lotus name, which outfit is the true descendant of the original team, and even whether the celebrated name should be used in modern day F1 or consigned to history.
The Lotus story began in 1952 when Chapman founded Lotus Engineering. Team Lotus split from this main group in 1954 and entered their first grand prix in 1958 at Monaco. Group Lotus, which includes the road-car division Lotus Cars, was established in 1959.
Team Lotus achieved much in Formula 1 (more on which later) and Group Lotus produced many iconic sports cars but the fate of both companies was altered when Chapman suffered a fatal heart attack in 1982, aged 54.
Group Lotus had several owners, including Bugatti, before current owners Proton – the Malaysia-based car maker – purchased the company in 1996.
The successful racing team was taken over by Peter Warr, but Team Lotus struggled for form throughout the 1980s. Warr, who stood down as Lotus boss in 1989, passed away in October 2010. Tributes were led by Bernie Ecclestone, who claimed that Warr “helped me to build [F1] to what it is today”.
Mounting debt and a lack of competitiveness meant that the team was sold to David Hunt, brother of 1976 World Champion James, in October 1994. This move could not save the situation though, and the Team Lotus name disappeared from Formula One at the end of that season.
For the next fifteen years Lotus had no presence in Formula 1. This changed when Tony Fernandes, owner of Malaysian airline Air Asia, licensed the rights to the Lotus name from Proton. Based in Hingham, Norfolk – just a few miles away from the original Lotus factory – Lotus Racing become one of the three new teams to enter the sport in 2010. With Mike Gascoyne as chief technical officer and an experienced driver pairing of Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli, the team easily beat Virgin Racing and Hispania.
The team won plaudits for the way that they were organised and the professionalism they showed in their opening season. They further demonstrated their intentions to challenge for points – and eventually race wins and championships – by ditching engine supplier Cosworth for 2011 in favour of the power units from Renault. They will use gearboxes and hydraulic systems sourced from title winners Red Bull as well, and are the best placed of the new teams to challenge the rest of the field this coming season.
Now comes the complicated bit.
Proton has terminated the license that allows 1Malaysia Racing Team (UK) Ltd. – the parent company of this Lotus team – to use the Lotus name. However, Fernandes insists that he has brought the rights to the name Team Lotus from David Hunt, and that the Anglo-Malaysian team will race under that name in 2011. Group Lotus rejects these claims, and is contesting them in court.
So why have Proton and Group Lotus revoked the license, which provided them with positive publicity? It is because they also have their sights set on Formula 1.
Renault has now completed its gradual withdrawal from F1 as a constructor, by selling its 25 per cent stake in the Renault F1 team to Proton. As well as taking equity in the team, Proton has also agreed a title sponsorship deal, which it will use to promote Lotus. This team will continue to use engines from the French car company, and will now be known as Lotus-Renault.
At the moment it seems that, on the grid in Bahrain, we will have Lotus-Renault – the Enstone-based team (which, incidentally, is now registered in Britain, and so God Save the Queen will be blasted out at the podium ceremony should one of their cars win a race) backed by the Lotus Cars-owner Proton, and Team Lotus-Renault, Fernandes’ Norfolk-based team, also owned by Malaysian-based companies.
The previous paragraph emphasises the messy situation that has arisen, and it is understandable that some fans are uncomfortable with how the Lotus name is being flung around so freely, and argued over litigiously. For those of you who, like me, weren't around in the heyday of Team Lotus here is a quick summary of the achievements of the original team.
Between 1962 and 1978 the original Team Lotus won seven Formula 1 Constructors' titles and six drivers' titles (two for Jim Clark (1963 and 1966) and one each for Graham Hill (1968), Jochen Rindt (1970 – the only time the award has been made posthumously), Emerson Fittipaldi (1974) and Mario Andretti (1978)), making it one of the most successful teams in F1 history. The six drivers' championships put the team fourth on the all-time list, behind only Ferrari, McLaren and Williams.
Over its 36-year history, Team Lotus can also boast 73 race victories, 102 pole positions and 65 fastest laps. They became the first team to achieve 50 grand prix victories, beating Ferrari to the milestone, despite the Italian team having a seven year head-start. Lotus was also a temporary home to some other notable drivers, including Sir Stirling Moss, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, and Mika Hakkinen.
But this exercise in regurgitating statistics and name-dropping only tells part of the story. The name Lotus has deeper resonance amongst motorsport fans, particularly those in the UK. There is an emotional and sentimental attachment to Colin Chapman's team that cannot be expressed easily in words, but the fact that Lotus is held in such high esteem and with great fondness is what makes the current wrangling so unfortunate.
Putting this aside though, which of the two teams on the 2011 grid has the best claim over the Lotus name and the Lotus heritage?
Lotus Racing clearly had the idea of reviving the Lotus name first and, during 2010, their project had the support of the Chapman family. Clive Chapman, son of Colin, gave Tony Fernandes one of the founders' trademark caps, which now travels with the team to every race. It is displayed on the pit wall in a box with a glass window marked 'In Case of Victory: Break Glass'. However, Clive Chapman has since sided with the former Renault team in the row over the Lotus name.
Despite this, Lotus Racing might still argue to be the true descendants. Their team base is in the tradition Lotus home county of Norfolk and the project has gained a lot of support amongst the locals, and indeed worldwide. Furthermore, as a team built up from nothing to (eventually) challenge the main players in the sport, they perhaps embody the original Team Lotus spirit better than the ex-Renault outfit.
On the other hand, Lotus Renault now have the support of the Chapman family and, with two F1 drivers' championships already under the team's belt, the Enstone-based outfit may claim that they can carry the Lotus name better than the team of Fernandes and Gascoyne. There are arguments for and against both being worthy heirs to the original Lotus team and many motorsport pundits will have their own views to share on the matter.
At least the two teams will not be using the same colour scheme in 2011. Fernandes’ Team Lotus did announce in November that they will adopt the black-and-gold livery of the famed JPS-sponsored cars first used in 1972, but have since said that they will stick to the green-and-yellow colour scheme of the original Lotus cars – the same scheme the team used last season.
Lotus Renault will use the black and gold, as unveiled at the Autosport International show in Birmingham last weekend.
It seems unlikely that there will be much of a Lotus vs. Lotus battle over the coming season in Formula 1 on the track – Tony Fernandes and Mike Gascoyne are promising big improvements but they are unlikely to be challenging the ex-Renault team for track position on a regular basis in 2011. The scenario whereby two teams use the Lotus name may only last a few months if the lawyers from Proton get their way. Alternatively, the two teams may co-exist and compete together happily in the same F1 paddock for many years to come.
Whatever happens, both teams have a mountain to climb before they can hold a candle to the original Team Lotus and the legacy of Colin Chapman.