Lotus finally confirmed the news that we’ve expected for ages, that they will use Renault engines for the next two seasons. We already knew that they would be using Red Bull gearboxes and hydraulics. It marks a significant step forward for the team.
It was also announced that Red Bull has renewed its deal with Renault for two more years. The team will run KERS next year, Christian Horner has confirmed.
Currently Tony Fernandes’ team, Lotus Racing, is operating under a licence from Group Lotus, but that licence is being withdrawn for next year because Group Lotus want to go F1 racing themselves.
There is a great deal of activity behind the scenes with Group Lotus looking at getting involved with the Renault team, possibly being called Lotus Renault next season.
“Next year that will be a very different looking team,” I was told this morning in the paddock by a rival team principal.
There are many theories about how this has come about but I’m told by French colleagues that the man to be looking at is Tarek Obaid, a long time business partner of Renault F1 owner Gerard Lopez and the CEO of PetroSaudi International, a private Oil and Gas company, based in Saudi Arabia. I met him on the grid at Silverstone, and as with Lopez was struck by his youth.
Obaid became a partner of the Renault F1 team in May this year. He apparently has extensive connections in Malaysia, where Proton is based, the owner of Group Lotus. Last year Petro Saudi set up a US$2.5 billion joint-venture company with the Malaysian government to invest in renewable energy projects in Malaysia, a deal announced by the Malaysian prime minister. Recently Obaid has made further moves into Malaysia and certainly has very active connections with the government.
So it would make sense if that was where things started, however Genii say that as of this week, Obaid is no longer a partner of the team, so the picture isn’t clear.
French colleagues tell me that Proton and Renault have been discussing collaborations at a corporate level as well, so clearly there are a few strands coming together here. Also remember that Lopez is very active in automotive technology, particularly internet in cars. He tried to buy Saab over the winter, together with Bernie Ecclestone.
Lopez also has a strong affinity for the Lotus brand, stretching back to his childhood, apparently where he was a fan of the JPS Lotus cars.
As to where all this leaves Fernandes, he has a sound team with a strong engine and back end for next year which will move the cars forward by at least 0.5 secs to 1 secs a lap. They don’t yet have their own wind tunnel, but there are some good assets. Reliability is the main gain. Although the Cosworth has been strong this season and reliable, the same cannot be said for the Xtrac gearbox and hydraulics.
Fernandes has bought the rights to call the outfit Team Lotus next year, but there isn’t room for two teams called Lotus in F1 and the brand confusion isn’t helpful. There is a much bigger political game at play in Malaysia and it may be that Fernandes has used this situation as a bargaining tool for something else in other areas of his business.
He does have a genuine passion for Lotus and his relations with the Chapman family are sincere, but he may decide not to fight this one. Instead he might decide to call his team Air Asia F1 or something else. Fernandes is a builder of brands and although he’s invested quite a bit in building Lotus Racing over the last 12 months, F1 as a platform for business is a long term programme for him and starting again next year with a new brand isn’t the end of the world.
It’s interesting that in today’s press release neither Fernandes nor technical director Mike Gascoyne use the word “Lotus”, when eulogising about what the Renault engine deal means for the future, they speak only of “the team”.
Renault go further; in their statement they say, “The new arrival to the Renault fold will be 1Malaysia Racing Team (UK) Ltd, operating during the 2010 season as Lotus Racing and the season’s most successful start-up entrant.”
The only issue with Air Asia as the name is what message it would send out if the car were involved in a very serious and high profile accident. F1 images, both positive and negative are around the world in seconds and there may be some sensitivity there.