“Norfolk isn’t the easiest place to set up a Formula One team,” Mike Gascoyne said, sitting in the Team Lotus motor home while his new grand prix contender was being readied for this week’s first round of pre-season testing in Valencia. “But we’re a proper constructor. We’re going to develop our site, we’re going to build a wind tunnel there, and we’ve put £4m into the local economy. I think all of those things are true to what Lotus means for most people in Formula One.”
There will be two teams with cars called Lotus at the first race of the 2011 Formula One season, but possibly not at the second. A trial in the high court in London starts on 21 March, eight days after the opening round in Bahrain, to determine which of them has the right to continue bearing one of the greatest names in grand prix history, almost two decades after the original incarnation went bust. Gascoyne was giving his side of an argument that has been gathering vehemence for several months.
This time last year the team of which he is the chief technical officer were starting from scratch. They are based in a village a few minutes’ drive from the headquarters established by Colin Chapman, the founder and presiding genius of Lotus, in his team’s heyday, and close to where Gascoyne was born and brought up.
They call themselves Team Lotus, which is how Chapman’s team were known, and their colours are green and yellow, evoking the cars piloted in the mid-60s by Jim Clark, the first of Lotus’s five world champions. Their drivers are Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen, who battled successfully last season to win the unofficial championship contested by the three teams new to F1 and are now hoping to challenge for a place among the established midfield runners.
The other team are a very different proposition. With their roots in the disposal of Chapman’s road car company after his death in 1982, first to General Motors and finally to Proton, the Malaysian car manufacturer, last year Group Lotus announced their intention to enter Formula One by taking over the Renault team and renaming them Lotus-Renault, reviving a partnership that existed from the mid-1980s, when Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna were among the drivers.
Group Lotus’s UK headquarters are also in Norfolk, but their grand prix cars are made in an Oxfordshire factory used by the engineering group in their successive incarnations as Toleman, Benetton and Renault. The black and gold colours revive a famous livery used by Lotus when they were sponsored by John Player Special cigarettes.
Curiously, both teams are backed by Malaysian money. The team principal of the green cars is Tony Fernandes, the 48-year-old founder of Air Asia, a lifelong Formula One fan who was delighted to welcome such Lotus legends as Mansell, Sir Stirling Moss and Hazel Chapman, the founder’s widow, to last year’s launch party. Fernandes says that he has put £80m of his own money into the project in the past 18 months.
The black and gold team are supported by Proton and fronted by 39-year-old Dany Bahar, a Turkish-born expert in brand management who has worked with Red Bull and Ferrari. Whereas Fernandes’s plans seem to involve little more than building a successful racing team, Bahar wants to turn Lotus into a brand to rival Ferrari by expanding the road car range and enhancing the image through the launch of retro-styled Lotus Originals leisurewear. “Formula One is about opportunities,” Bahar has said, “and opportunities don’t come when you want them to.”
News of his organisation’s plans is released almost daily, as though designed to convince an independent arbiter that only one of these litigants is a serious proposition.
In just one of countless overlaps and complications, both teams flaunt the famous badge formed from the initials of Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman. Fernandes licensed the Lotus name from Proton in 2009, and when the deal was revoked a year later, on the grounds of alleged violations, he bought the name Team Lotus from the late James Hunt’s brother David, who had acquired it when the original team went bankrupt in 1994. The Chapman family, having mysteriously switched sides, is now asking Fernandes to stop using it.
Before Bahar’s team announced their takeover of Renault F1, Fernandes had made a deal to use the French company’s engines for 2011. He had also planned to switch to the much-loved black and gold colours, but decided against it on hearing of his rival’s plans. “The day we beat them on the track will be a sweet one,” Gascoyne said.
This battle is raging over a name that Chapman himself was happy to set aside when John Player started subsidising his operations. A crafty businessman, he would applaud Bahar’s commercial enterprise. Most enthusiasts, however, would see the Fernandes-Gascoyne approach as being closer to the spirit of the original team. But both teams want to build the future by plundering the past, and since large sums of money are at stake, a judge will decide.
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