Saturday 22 January 2011

Two teams in the Lotus position

As I'm sure you're aware by now, this forthcoming F1 season will most probably have two separate Lotus-branded teams on the grid. One will be Team Lotus, with Renault engines, (Lotus Racing from last season), and the other, somewhat confusingly, will be Lotus Renault (nee Renault).

The Lotus naming row has been one of the the most persistent F1 stories of the off-season, and demonstrates F1's ability to shoot itself in the foot, just when you were thinking that the sport was getting to be refreshingly free of embarrassing internal politics, and gratuitously confusing its customers. Up until now I'd been keen to ignore the case, hoping against hope that it would go away by itself. Neither side seems to want to blink though, and the latest leg of this is a summary judgment into the rights surrounding the use of the Team Lotus name due to be heard in the High Court on Monday. I'm not a lawyer, but the smart money is on the stand-off rumbling on beyond that.

Lotus Racing from 2010, now Team Lotus
The reason this situation has come about is not straightforward, and I'll do my best not to detain (or bore) us with the details. Historically Team Lotus (the F1 team) and Group Lotus (who built the road cars) are separate entities, and have been ever since Colin Chapman (Lotus godfather) decided to split the two in 1958. When Team Lotus (that's the F1 team, do keep up) went belly-up at the end of 1994, it was acquired by a gentleman called David Hunt (James Hunt's brother, if you're interested). After Chapman's death in 1982 Group Lotus had several owners, before Proton bought them in 1996. Last year, the Lotus Racing F1 team used the Lotus name under licence from Group Lotus.

In September last year Tony Fernandes, the Lotus Racing F1 team principal, purchased the rights to the Team Lotus name from David Hunt. Just when you thought that this represented the whole Lotus name being brought together, it transpired that Group Lotus had terminated their naming licence with Tony Fernandes ahead of time (it had originally been a five-year deal). Further, Group Lotus disputed Tony Fernandes's right to use the Lotus name in racing, and it was clear that the point would be pursued via the courts.

Indeed, it transpired that Group Lotus had more of a motive than we first realised, as they had F1 designs of their own. In December Group Lotus announced that they had bought a stake in the Renault team, and they'd hereinafter be branded as 'Lotus Renault'. Which is where we came in. Like the other Lotus they sought to claim the Lotus heritage, in their case with a black and gold livery (see the picture below).

The Lotus Renault, also to be on the grid in 2011
It's a pity that we have come to this, as I personally thought the return of the Lotus name to the grid, along with the team's progress, were definite plus points of the 2010 season. While I don't know what's been going on behind the scenes, on the face of it my sympathy has to lay primarily with Tony Fernandes and Team Lotus. There of course is not a straightforward and direct route of heritage between Chapman's Lotus and Fernandes's (though neither is there between Ron Dennis and McLaren), but he did revive the moribund Lotus name in F1, and take exceptional care to be true to Lotus's F1 tradition, being based in Norfolk a few miles away from Hethel, and having Colin Chapman's cap kept on their pit wall. Building a team from scratch over the winter months was certainly impressive, they were certainly the most competitive of the new teams, and they employed two solid, experienced drivers. And all the while they conducted themselves with an enthusiasm, a smile on their face and an openness to the media and fans that put most of their rivals to shame. While they were several seconds off the pace of the front runners, we shouldn't forget the F1 is difficult (and the gap isn't that massive in historical terms), that development on the 2010 car had stopped early, and that next year looks promising, with Renault engines and Red Bull gearboxes and hydraulics being added to the mix.

With this, it looks rather like Proton/Group Lotus simply have taken their ball away, and in so doing threatening to make F1 look silly. It's not clear why they've decided to split from Fernandes, from whom they no doubt benefited from free promotion of their brand in 2010. I appreciate that there will be a lot of behind the scenes politics we don't know about that will have contributed to the split, but perception is nine-tenths of the law, and Group Lotus from a PR point of view don't come out of this well in my opinion.

Frankly Tony Fernandes 'got there first' in bringing the Lotus name back to F1, and put his money where his mouth is before Proton did. It looks rather like Group Lotus/Proton are trying to stamp on the little guy, at the point that the little guy had shown the potential of the Lotus name in F1, so that they can benefit from the work that Fernandes started. If Group Lotus/Proton want to get to the Lotus brand to the front of the grid more quickly than Lotus are able to then that's just too bad. And while I'm not a judge, I can't see what leg Group Lotus have to stand on. Group Lotus and Team Lotus have been separate entities going back to 1958 - as David Hunt has said, he's never made any claim to have built the Lotus Elise. I don't see what Proton have going for them other than the power to bully.

And if Group Lotus/Proton are insistent (for whatever reason) in going into F1 alone, would it really have been too much to ask that they race under the Proton brand (as they do in rallying)? By doing this they could have avoided this unseemly stand-off, damage to their image, as well as creating a silly situation for the sport, given that in all likelihood we'll have four Lotus Renaults on the grid in 2011 (at least they're not going to have the same liveries, which was a possibility for a time).

Everyone has their own opinion as to what we should call the two teams, but I'll stick with 'Renault' and 'Lotus'.

UPDATE 24/01/11: Turns out today's court case was about Group Lotus's termination of the licence deal with Tony Fernandes, that allowed Lotus Racing to use the Lotus name last year, rather than future use of the Team Lotus name. In any case, Mr Justice Peter Smith, applying a rare dosage of common sense to this dispute, decided it would be best to contest the various actions at the same time, with the day in court set for 21 March. This may mean a much quicker resolution than had been speculated.

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