This will be an important week in the ongoing development of the Lotus F1 team. During the Brazil Grand Prix weekend, there will be an announcement that the team is to use Renault engines for the next two seasons. Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn, no less, is expected to be at Interlagos to convey the message.
Brazil, booming economically, is a very important market for Renault. Ghosn said recently that one of Renault’s key objectives is to increase market share there from 6% to 10%. With the rapidly increasing middle class, millions of Brazilians are able to own a car for the first time and Renault are targeting that market, as are FIAT.
Lotus has been pursuing Brazilian oil company Petrobras for much of this year. Petrobras is the title sponsor of this weekend’s Brazilian GP but hasn’t been seen in F1 as a team sponsor since its 10 year relationship with Williams came to an end in 2008.
At that time it had agreed to move to Honda in 2009 as a significant partner of the team, but those plans fell through when Honda pulled out of the sport in December 2008. Petrobras was keen to align itself with a manufacturer.
Bruno Senna had tested for Honda towards the end of 2008 and was a candidate for a 2009 race seat, but when Honda withdrew Ross Brawn took over, he opted for experience and retained Rubens Barrichello. Senna has said that he is in advanced talks with another team, so we will see how this situation plays out.
Lotus F1 team boss Tony Fernandes is meanwhile trying to sort out a complicated relationship with Group Lotus and I wonder to what extent this is holding many things up. I suspect a lot.
Clearly although the Renault announcement has been delayed by the uncertainty over the team name and the ongoing wrangle between the two sides of Lotus, it has now been decided at the highest level in Renault to get on with agreeing and announcing it.
In today’s Financial Times Bernie Ecclestone attacks the new teams, saying “We need to get rid of a few of those cripples, they do nothing for us. They are an embarrassment.”
However he added the caveat that, “Lotus is the only team that looks good and would be good to keep.”
His main target is Virgin Racing and his unhappiness that Sir Richard Branson is using F1 without putting in a significant investment of his own money. Having decided not to buy the Honda team, Branson had quite a sideshow going last year as one of very few sponsors on the Brawn car.
The structure of the Virgin team is quite complex, with Wirth Research contracted to design, produce, engineer and develop the car, Manor Racing responsible for the mechanics and operations side and Virgin in charge of the commercial side. A significant stake in the team is held by LDC, an investment arm of Lloyds Bank.
The funding comes from sponsors, who are drawn in by the opportunity to use Virgin’s customer database and and its many channels. Virgin entered F1 when Max Mosley’s £40 million budget cap had been agreed by the World Council, before the existing teams rebelled and threatened a breakaway. They have stuck to that budget, despite the collapse of the budget cap idea.
Ecclestone’s comments echo those of Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo at the start of the season when he said that the new teams were “limping” into the competition.
Today Hispania and Williams announced a collaboration for next season on gearboxes. Like all the new team they have struggled with gearboxes and hydraulics from Xtrac this year and so they are taking a step forward with Williams technology, as Lotus are with Red Bull transmissions.
* Meanwhile I’ve been thinking a bit more about the plight of Nico Hulkenberg, who appears to be out of Williams in favour of Pastor Maldonado. I posted on this yesterday. Given his nationality and that Willi Weber is his manager, accepting the reserve driver role at Mercedes next year might be a better bet than racing for one of the smaller teams. That way he would be in position to race alongside Nico Rosberg when Michael Schumacher calls it a day, quite possibly at the end of 2011.