There are plenty of signs that Team Lotus and Virgin, newcomers in 2010 are making big moves behind the scenes, consolidating their place in F1 and putting new things in place to move forward for next year. And at next week’s Italian Grand Prix in Monza we will start to see signs of that.
Virgin will have an upgrade to its car and is now starting to talk openly about its new structure, with everyone coming under one roof at the old Ascari factory in Banbury, Oxfordshire. Virgin famously tried to re-invent the wheel in F1, with Richard Branson praising the “visionary” Nick Wirth as the pre-eminent engineer of his generation who would make F1 cars digitally. These cars would be worked on in Sheffield by Manor Motorsport mechanics, while the commercial operation would be based in London.
Naturally this dysfunctional plan did not work and with new ownership from Marrussia has come some fresh – and ambitious – thinking. They’ve backed the judgement of Pat Symonds, who is an eminent engineer, albeit one who blotted his copybook by perpetrating the Singapore crash scandal of 2008. He’s pulling in people to Banbury, building the team Virgin should have had in 2010. John Booth and his Manor staff are also moving down south. Outgoing Williams technical director Sam Michael’s name has been linked with the team, but it’s also been linked with Force India.
Symonds is currently banned by the FIA from working full time in F1, but is able to work as a “consultant”. The definition of this seems pretty vague, so he appears to be flat out behind the scenes, but is not visible at races. He will be in 2012. With a McLaren/ Mercedes back end for next season, a wider technical partnership with McLaren, which includes things like access to the wind tunnel and race strategy software, the team is sure to step forward.
Team Lotus is changing too, but not in a fundamental way, more an organic growth step. This team was set up along conventional lines, around an eminent engineer, Mike Gascoyne, taking over an existing factory in Norfolk, using an experienced wind tunnel operation in Italy, building a team along conventional lines. Their struggle was against time in the first instance, getting a year one car built. But since then has been about brand and IP issues.
Although they won their legal battle with Group Lotus, both sides know it makes no sense to have two Lotus entities in F1 and there are suggestions that part of a new deal between team owner Tony Fernandes and the Malaysian government over Malaysian Airlines is that this Lotus vs Lotus mess is sorted out. This can only result in Group Lotus taking over the Team Lotus ownership. Under the new deal, Fernandes’ Tune Group got a 20% stake in the state owned airline, while the Malaysian investment arm took a 10% stake in Air Asia. Malaysian will focus on premium travel and will open the door for Air Asia to take its budget model to a wider range of international destinations. Today he Tweeted, “On my way to Japan and Korea. Building an incredible franchise for airasia. Within the next 5 years the power and profitability of airasia will be second to none.”
So Fernandes got what he really wanted from the Malaysian government in the wider business sense and now he owns the Caterham brand, he can focus his F1 efforts on that brand and on Air Asia’s sponsorship of it; as with the GP2 team, which is called Caterham Air Asia.
Yesterday Fernandes issued a Tweet saying, “Italian grand prix at monza will be a big few days for Team Lotus. New technology, new people , new location with caterham cars.
The thinking is that he will pull the Caterham operation and his F1 team all under one roof, probably somewhere around the science parks of Cambridge, which is closer to the F1 action, accessible for the existing workforce and easier to get to for new recruits.
It will be interesting to see what the “new technology” and “New people” means. Team Lotus has a technical partnership with Red Bull for the back end, including gearbox and with Renault on engines.
F1 never stops and the target is always moving forwards, but with both teams looking well funded and both with a clear plan, the little teams are likely to make some big steps.
Meanwhile Monza could also see some news about Toro Rosso, with the Spanish media reporting that the team has been sold to a UAE enterprise called the International Petroleum Investment Company.