Today Dany Bahar the CEO of Group Lotus entertained a small group of media at a lunch at the RAC Club in London’s Pall Mall. This was the second year of this event.
On the agenda this time were Kimi Raikkonen, the possibility of Group Lotus taking over the F1 team from Genii or vice versa, Lotus Renault GP’s rejection of “pay drivers” and the future of Eric Boullier as team principal of the team.
It was confirmed that Bahar has been awarded a four year contract extension, following a visit by the board of Lotus holding company Proton to the HQ in Hethel, Norfolk. With the uncertainty over the naming of the team and of Tony Fernandes’ team now called Caterham F1, Bahar says that he has extended the agreement with the Enstone based team from seven years to 10 years.
And as the cars are now called Lotus, with all the benefits that accrue from that, there is no need for such strong Lotus branding on the cars, so next year there will be less.
I asked him about the stories doing the rounds in F1 circles that either he was going to buy out Genii’s shares in the team, or that Genii was going to buy Group Lotus from Proton.
Bahar’s response was not to rule out share exchange or a sale one way of the other in future, but he was adamant that, “that’s not happening” at the present time.
“Me personally with Gerard Lopez I have a big respect, he has the same with me. Our companies work together on big decisions, we meet monthly, there is no bad feelings.
From the beginning when we started to design with Genii and Lopez and Eric Lux it was always the plan to one day do more than just a commercial sponsorship, an exchange of shares or something. One day it might happen it might not. It’s not that we try to buy them out or they try to buy us out; that’s not going on at all.”
Bahar made a very interesting comment on the change of strategy with the drivers being indicative of a wider objective change for the team,
“The decision we took was to bring the team to the next level, to restructure the team, bring in new technical talent and an experienced driver, not to go after pay drivers any more or look for the highest bidder any more,” he said “It’s to get more and more competitive as it was in 2005 and 2006.”
Bahar spoke about the hiring of 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen as lead driver for the team starting next year. He worked with the Finn at Ferrari and knows him well, but admits that there is an element of risk in taking the 32 year old on a comeback.
“It is always a big amount of money when you employ a former world champion. It’s always bigger than to get a young driver,” said Bahar.
“You also expect from an experienced world champion, although he has not driven now for two seasons, but he is still a world champion.
“Undoubtedly he has talent, and we just have to see how quickly he now copes with the new environment, new car, new tyres, new everything, and we hope he will do this very quickly.”
Speaking of risk, he brushed off the recent ski mobile crash that Raikkonen suffered,
“It is part of our job to do things that are risky, and we do it commercially and corporately.
“Kimi does it in his own life. I like these characters. It’s unfortunate if he hurts himself, but it’s part of life.”
There have been some suggestions from well placed sources that Raikkonen’s deal with the team is groundbreaking in its structure in that it involves him gaining equity in the team as he goes along, becoming a shareholder, along with some powerful investors he brings along. I put this to Bahar and he said simply,
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. But who knows?”
There has also been speculation in F1 that team principal Eric Boullier’s days with the team might be numbered, but Bahar gave his support to the Frenchman,
“After a not so good year you are often criticised, and as he’s at the helm he will be criticised, and it’s not the last time he will be criticised,” said Bahar.
“The important thing is he learns from it and identifies the areas where he has to strengthen, and he has done that. He has a clear plan going forward.
“We trust him to manage it perfectly, and there is no reason why we should doubt him on that.”