Lotus rocked by F1 team row

Tony Fernandes will be forced to rebrand Lotus Racing under a new identity if he loses a bitter war with Group Lotus over the use of the famous name.

The extraordinary fight between the two parties came into focus when Fernandes announced that he had concluded a deal to use the Team Lotus name in 2011 with rights holder David Hunt.

In fact he had no choice but to pursue an agreement with Hunt – who with partner Kenny Wapshott bought the dying race team at the end of 1994 – as Group Lotus has withdrawn its permission for Fernandes to run under the Lotus Racing identity.

The story began last summer, when Fernandes used his Malaysian connections to obtain a licence from Group Lotus to use the name in F1 while awaiting confirmation of an entry from the FIA.

Just before that announcement former Red Bull and Ferrari marketing man Dany Bahar arrived at Group Lotus as its new CEO, and soon began bringing in other ex-Maranello personnel. With racing ambitions of his own, he immediately tried to stop the Fernandes deal, but it was too late.

Lotus Racing was duly launched with a somewhat frosty relationship between the two parties. The first sign that Bahar had his own motor sport plans was Takuma Sato’s Indycar project, which had no connection with Fernandes.

Bahar and his colleagues have since put together a busy programme for the Lotus brand, with GT and Le Mans prototypes on the way and most significantly, a deal with Nicolas Todt’s ART team to take the Lotus name into GP2 and GP3 (see page 24). Todt Jr knows Bahar and the other ex-Ferrari personnel at Lotus well, and has made no secret of his own F1 ambitions.

With the Fernandes team clearly standing in the way of any future ‘works’ F1 project Bahar cancelled the Fernandes licence, citing breaches of contract – which Lotus Racing claims involved minor details such as T-shirt logos.

Having originally perceived Hunt as a threat, Fernandes concluded a deal to get the Team Lotus name, and announced it at the Singapore GP. Group Lotus immediately made it clear that it believes that the arrangement is worthless and that Hunt has no right to use the Lotus name.

Hunt and Fernandes remain confident that they can prove their case in court, while former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad – an ally of the team but also a key influence at Group Lotus via owners Proton - has become involved in a peacemaker role.

One interesting angle is the position of the Chapman family, who initially were fully behind Fernandes. Clive Chapman, son of Lotus founder Colin, declined to comment to Motor Sport on suggestions that he had withdrawn that support and sided with Bahar.

It’s worth noting that Clive and his mother Hazel attended the Paris Motor Show as guests of Group Lotus, where the Chapman heritage was very evident. In addition Group Lotus apparently has plans to build a museum at Hethel, which would finally give Classic Team Lotus an opportunity to properly showcase its cars.

While the existing team could clearly run under another identity - such as Air Asia, Fernandes or Malaysian1 Racing – the loss of the Lotus name would be a huge blow. Meanwhile, technical boss Mike Gascoyne says that it’s business as usual for the team.

“There’s a lot of work going on in Malaysia to resolve that issue,” he said. “It’s a distraction we don’t need. We want to get all of that behind us, and concentrate on making the car go quicker.”

For more on Lotus’s racing and new road car plans see p24 & 106