In the intricate chess match which is the battle to be “Lotus” in Formula 1, this weekend it was the turn of Tony Fernandes to make some moves.
The Malaysian businessman, who owns the team which competed this year as Lotus Racing and which is entered for next year as Team Lotus, phoned around a few journalists for a chat, including myself.
Fernandes has a different view on that.
I took the call from Fernandes on Saturday afternoon and we talked about his decision to stick with the green and yellow colour scheme and his refusal to back down in the dispute over the Lotus name. He had originally tweeted the news that he was giving in over the dispute on the black and gold livery. “We’re not childish and emotional and saying, ‘Oh no, we’ve got to be black and gold.’ We’re pragmatic,” he said. He also found that many fans felt that the green and yellow was more suitable, not least because the John Player Special cigarette brand still exists.
What Fernades is categorically not going to back down on is the use of the Team Lotus and suggestions from the Malaysian government that the two sides work together have fallen on deaf ears. So it boils down to is this; Fernandes has a court case – which he called for – coming up in April or May 2011 in London at which a judge will decide whether he has the right to race in F1 as Team Lotus, having bought that name from David Hunt.
If he wins and the judge decides that Team Lotus and Group Lotus are two separate entities then he will not have to back down and rebrand his team. So we would have four cars on the grid with Lotus in the name.
Where Fernandes believes he holds a strong hand is that his chassis is called Lotus, whereas with the Lotus Renault GP team the “Lotus” part of the name is a title sponsor component, like Vodafone is with McLaren Mercedes. Renault cannot change the name of its chassis without potentially forfeiting its prize money, which this year is in the $40 million range.
So they key question is; what will the TV commentators and media describe those cars as? Fernandes believes that if we call them Lotus Renaults then its like calling Lewis Hamilton’s and Jenson Button’s cars Vodafone McLarens, which of course people do not do.
“Are there two Lotus teams? That’s a big question mark,” he said. “Lotus in its present form (on the Renault team cars) is a sponsor. It’s a Renault chassis and engine and the commentators will refer to them as Renaults. But if they do or not it doesn’t really matter, there is Manchester City and Manchester United (in football). It’s how we present our brand and what we are going to do with it.”
If the sponsorship of the team is allowed to carry with it chassis name association, argues Fernandes, then it opens up a raft of IP issues. Taken to its logical conclusion, it means that theoretically a team with no heritage could take a title sponsorship from a company called Williams and create an impression that it had Williams heritage.
Fernandes was also keen to underline the credentials his operation has in Asia. His strength – and one of his main attractions to Bernie Ecclestone and to F1 as a whole – is is ability to take brands into the Asian market, thanks to the strong network he and his shareholders in Team Lotus have throughout Asia. Fernandes owns Air Asia. So whatever they are promoting on the side of a Lotus car is reaching a large and engaged audience in a vast emerging market that banks and consumer brands are desperate to engage.
Behind all of this is a strategy, that will become clear in the next year, “We have a very powerful billboard on the car,” he says. “Some of the brands don’t have to be Lotus related, they could be things that we own or wish to develop, ” he said, indicating perhaps products that his group may be developing away from racing. “We’ve been formulating what we can do in terms of using the Team Lotus brand and you’ll see many things coming up which haven’t been done before.”
So it looks for the moment as though there will be four cars with Lotus associations on the grid in Bahrain next March and then the court case will either force them to change – if they lose – or keep things the same, if they win.
I’m meeting Bahar on Wednesday in London so I shall look forward very much to hearing his side of the story on this.