The Lotus F1 team has today announced that technical director James Allison is to leave the team and that Nick Chester has succeeded him as technical director.
While Chester’s credentials for the role are unquestionably strong, the loss of an innovator like James Allison is a blow to the team, which has made great progress in the last two years on a significantly lower budget than the other front running teams. Allison is much in demand among the top F1 teams in an engineering arms race as F1 heads to a new formula from 2014 onwards.
Under Allison Lotus has grown steadily; they won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year and started this year with a win in Australia. The Lotus has been a front running car this season, with a double podium in Bahrain last time out.
Lotus currently lies second in the Constructors’ Championship on 93 points, 70 ahead of McLaren and 16 ahead of nearest rivals Ferarri.
At this stage last year the team after four races they had just 57 points on the board, indicating their upward progress.
Although some of the innovations he has overseen have not been a success – the front blowing exhausts of 2011 for example – Allison is highly regarded in F1 engineering circles for his stints at the Lotus team, formerly Benetton and Renault.
He is not a lifer with the team, he has moved around teams, including a stint at Ferrari with Michael Schumacher in the glory years between 1999 and 2005, when he returned to Enstone. He had previously been at Enstone from 1991-1992 and 1994-1999.
There is inevitably significant speculation about where Allison is headed and why he has left. The timing is strange as he will not be able to join a new team until the end of the year and will have limited input into the crucial 2014 designs.
Money could well be a motivator in this – not necessarily personal wealth (although that is always welcome!) but the funding seems to be gathered around a handful of teams now in F1.
Lotus operates on a tighter budget than its rivals and Allison told the JA on F1 podcast in April that there are always challenges to developing a car in competition with better funded teams.
McLaren and Ferrari already have technical directors in post, while Mercedes has Paddy Lowe joining the team shortly so is well stocked for senior technical figures.
A Ferrari return is a real possibility, to work alongside figures like Nick Tombaszis with whom he worked closely in the early 2000s, but this would require upheaval for Allison’s large family; his teenage children are at schools in Oxfordshire and they already have Pat Fry, who does not seems to have weathered the recent pressure.
However Pino Allievi of Gazzetta dello Sport suggested today that Ferrari are actively pursuing Allison as they seek to build a super team of engineers.
McLaren have pursued Allison’s signature since they lost Lowe recently, while Red Bull cannot be ruled out.
More is bound to come out on this over the weekend in Barcelona.
There has also been speculation that Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen may leave the team at the end of the 2013 season to join Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull. Given Raikkonen’s competitiveness since comeback, his relationship with Red Bull via rallying and his friendship with Vettel it makes a great deal of sense. It will be interesting to see what effect this latest development in the technical department has on his future.