On Friday I had lunch with Group Lotus CEO Dany Bahar in London, along with journos from Reuters, the Telegraph and Autosport. It was the first opportunity to speak to Bahar since the High Court judgement over the use of the Lotus name in Formula 1.
Although the judge upheld Group Lotus withdrawing the licence it issued to Tony Fernandes’ 1 Malaysia Group to use the Lotus name in F1, the main judgement did not go the way Bahar and Group Lotus had hoped, with the judge upholding Tony Fernandes’ right to use the name Team Lotus in F1. Fernandes bought the rights to Team Lotus after receiving notice of the withdrawal of the licence last summer.
Group Lotus has appealed that part of the ruling and there is a preliminary hearing next Wednesday. The appeal will be heard in the Autumn with three judges. Until then we will continue to have two Lotus entities in F1.
Bahar has an ambitious seven year plan to develop the Lotus range, backed with £500 million of investment, some from the Malaysian government, around £250 million from banks in Asia and the rest set against income from later years of the plan. The F1 programme, which sees Lotus acting as a title sponsor but with an option to acquire equity in the team at the end of 2012, is a marketing programme; a way to get the Lotus brand and message to a global audience at a fraction of the cost of an advertising campaign.
Since the Spanish Grand Prix the Lotus branding has been more prominent on the black and gold Renault cars.
Bahar didn’t have any particular message on Friday, other than to say that he’s very happy with the way awareness has increased since doing the deal with Renault team and is confident that Group Lotus will succeed in the appeal. He’s prepared to play the long game. You get the feeling that he’s not in love with F1, but sees its marketing benefits. If the appeal goes against Lotus, you get the feeling that the programme will need to be reviewed.
It’s a weird situation; one the one hand you can see why Group Lotus would want to own all the marks associated with its name, but on the other hand, if Group Lotus pulled out of F1, they would continue to get extensive brand exposure via Fernandes’ team and at no expense. But there would always be a central confusion, as Fernandes’ entity would be nothing to do with Group Lotus, which would have no control or influence over its activities.
Interestingly, Bahar seems to be taking the view that the current Concorde Agreement negotiations are likely to stall, leading to no new agreement before the deadline of December 2012. Either way he has options whether to carry on in F1 beyond 2012 or to take a different route, depending on the outcomes of the appeal and the Concorde negotiations.
It was very noticeable that he doesn’t want the battle with Tony Fernandes and the 1 Malaysia Group to be characterised as the clash of two egos. He wants to depersonalise it and gets very defensive when asked about Fernandes. In a classic body language tell, he folds his arms the moment Fernandes’ name is mentioned.
Asked about whether the recent court ruling had changed anything for him, Bahar said, “No, not at all. It is about branding, the branding of our Lotus brand, and it is about technology transfer. The naming issue is there unfortunately, but it doesn’t really affect us.”
The original plan was for Group Lotus to buy into the Genii owned Renault team and to change the name of the chassis to Lotus. To do this will require a majority decision in the F1 commission or the forfeit of the previous season’s prize money, which is a big hit financially and one that neither Lotus nor Genii would contemplate.
Bahar said that the therefore team will remain Renault at least until the end of 2012 and beyond that it depends on how things evolve on the appeal and the Concorde Agreement negotiations, “If we decide to go for the long term then renaming would be an issue, but at the moment it is out of the question so it is not something we are pursuing.”