|A tangled tale: So just who has the rightful claim to use the Lotus name out of Tony Fernandes (left) or Lotus Group CEO Dany Behar (right)? We try and get to the bottom of it here…|
Tony Fernandes’ F1 operation, Lotus Racing, was established with the aim of proving that a Malaysian-owned and operated F1 team could compete respectably on the world stage, and not simply as a clever marketing ploy.
Fernandes had no connection with, or affiliation to, the Lotus brand. Fernandes had made his fortune via his companies Tune Group and AirAsia – formerly owned (and badly managed) by the Malaysian government – both of which operate successfully by targeting their products and services to the majority (and the lower end) of the general population, rather than appealing to a niche market that is the Malaysian middle class.
His involvement in the F1 project came when former Lotus F1 engineer Nino Judge and his Litespeed operation announced that they would enter F1, possibly with a view to relaunching the Lotus brand, which had collapsed at the end of the 1994 season, a shadow of its former great self when run by the late Colin Chapman.
The idea appealed to Fernandes – whose AirAsia group was a major sponsor of the Williams F1 team – when Judge pitched it to him, and he helped get the required funding together and negotiated a deal with Proton to get the use of the Lotus name. Everything thereafter, while acknowledging that the new entity bore little resemblance to the iconic Lotus of old, was simply a means of honouring the legacy of the old Lotus F1 brand: the use of the traditional green and yellow livery, the use of the T-designation in the chassis name, and even attempting to buy the old Lotus HQ at Ketteringham Hall. Crucially, he also secured the blessing of the Chapman family.
With their entry confirmed much later in 2009 than had been granted to Virgin Racing and Hispania Racing – the two other rookie outfits that Lotus Racing would summarily outperform all season – just getting the team to the Bahrain season-opener was a huge effort, and the team quickly garnered considerable support from the F1 fans, who embraced the team’s less corporate-spec approach to the sport.
On the weekend of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Clive Chapman – son of the late Colin – gave Fernandes his father’s iconic black cap, which the late design genius used to hurl into the air whenever one of his cars won a race.
Despite some understandable concerns – and we include ourselves in this corner – that this reborn team bore none of the legacy of its predecessor (it being ‘Lotus Racing’ in little more than name alone), there was considerable support from many fans and key players in the sport, such as that from 1978 World Champion Mario Andretti in our exclusive interview with the last man to win a championship title for Lotus.
But it would seem that there was something rotten in the state of Malaysia, to borrow a well-worn Shakespeare line.
The former head of marketing from Ferrari, Dany Behar, had been appointed as the head of Group Lotus during the 2009-10 F1 off-season. His appointment was earned by dint of a seemingly-impressive business proposal to launch the Lotus brand back into the public conscious, and kick-started this with initiatives such as a Lotus-sponsored IndyCar drive for F1 outcast Takuma Sato at KV Racing.
But Behar’s problem was that Fernandes had simply beaten him to the punch, leaving Behar with little option but to try and bully Fernandes into submission and claim Team Lotus’ motorsport history for Proton, which many would argue that he has no entitlement to.
At no stage has he attempted to engage Fernandes in any negotiation or in any compensatory offers to quickly resolve the issue.
Fernandes responded to Group Lotus’ withdrawal of the ‘Lotus Racing’ license from him by buying the ‘Team Lotus’ moniker from David Hunt (brother to 1976 championship winner James), and he has now had to take his case to continue the use of the Lotus name to London’s High Court.
The courts will now have to decide who, if any, of the parties has the right to the use of the Lotus name, but all this is succeeding in doing is sullying the Lotus brand rather than actually empowering it.
Should Behar and Group Lotus lose the case – which many in the motorsport industry believe is the likelihood – then they’ll be hit with a hefty compensation claim from Fernandes, and Group Lotus may have to face the realisation that appointing Behar might not have been the wise thing to do in the first place.
Lotus simply doesn’t have the clout of an iconic brand like Ferrari, and that it harbours hopes – while no doubt noble – of competing with rather more established brands, would at best be described as ambitious.
Will an F1 operation help Lotus peddle more of its sports cars to the masses? It is heavily in debt to the Malaysian government, and should it collapse, then the taxpayer will foot the bill and in will step Fernandes, who will be one of the few in the position to rebuild the ruins and run the company the way it probably should be.
This is exactly the situation by which he picked up and turned AirAsia around after the Malaysian government did its level best to put that into the ground, and look where it is now.
The question occupying everyone’s thoughts right now is just how much good any of this wrangling is actually doing for the Lotus brand itself. One can’t imagine it’s doing much good at all…