"We are Lotus, we cannot drive round at the back"

The Lotus name is back in F1, and designer Mike Gascoyne and the team are not taking the new challenge lightly
By Rob Widdows

Lotus is back. A name to conjure with, if ever there was one, Lotus will return to the Grand Prix grid this year. But this is not the Lotus we all knew and loved. In fact, it’s not really Lotus at all.

The money comes from Malaysia, as do the senior executives, although the team is based in Norfolk and has the very British Mike Gascoyne as its technical director.

Colin Chapman was, by common consent, one of the great constructors and his legacy is Lotus, to be remembered in all its glory. Not everyone is happy, the purists muttering that some things are best left as memories, that the name should be sacrosanct. But what matters in the end are the results.

The Malaysians have set up camp, not in Hethel, but in nearby Hingham, where the cars are taking shape at the Racing Technologies Norfolk facility. Lotus F1 is a partnership between the Malaysian government and a group of entrepreneurs which includes Proton, the owner of Lotus Cars. Proton will be promoted alongside the Formula 1 campaign.

The team principal is Tony Fernandes (left, with Gascoyne), owner of Air Asia among other things. His chief executive is Riad Asmat, and the messages emanating from both Hingham and Kuala Lumpur are upbeat. Clearly there is funding in place to ensure this new team at least upholds the name of Lotus, which suffered an ignominious final chapter in 1994 when it collapsed in a heap of debt and doubt.

“We do not pretend to be the Lotus of the past,” says Fernandes, “but we are honoured to bring the name back into Grand Prix racing at the start of a new decade. We will draw on its heritage and use it to inspire and motivate us. We have achieved an enormous amount since our entry was accepted by the FIA last September, but we have a great deal more work to do before the first race in Bahrain. We expect a lot of each other and we have a long-term vision. We are ambitious, and we’d like to be the best of the new teams. We are very serious about what we’re doing, and some of them may even envy us right now.”

The presence of Gascoyne is seen as a coup. The designer has worked for big teams, small teams and very small teams, establishing a reputation for building highly effective racing cars. He is not afraid to speak his mind, to stand up for what he believes is right in the face of opposition from those around him. At Lotus F1 he has a chance to start from scratch, to build not only the car but also a team around his way of thinking.

“For me, as a Norfolk boy, I grew up with Lotus winning races and championships. To be involved in bringing the name back into F1 is a dream come true,” says Gascoyne. “I was always into engineering, aerodynamics and aircraft as a student, but although I had an interest in motor racing it was not my greatest desire to get into it. I didn’t realise then, of course, that aerodynamics would play such an important part in my career. And Lotus was always an innovator in that area.”

Last season Gascoyne parted with Force India in less than happy circumstances. At the time he spoke of his dream to sail around the world. A return to the turmoil of the F1 paddock was far from his mind, let alone an opportunity to help create a new team.

“That’s true, and we still plan to take some time out in the future,” he says. “I had become rather jaded with sorting out things in the team other than the engineering. One of the joys of setting up this new project is that you don’t inherit any baggage and you can do everything the way you want it done. You can do it with people you know and respect, people who will do things the right way. So yes, Lotus has reawakened the challenge and drive of F1. This is a small team with a big name and F1 is changing. It needed to – over the last 10 years it had become a spending competition between the five big teams. Nobody else had a chance.

“Looking back I was probably happiest at Tyrrell, and I always used to say that Harvey (Postlethwaite) would go to his grave trying to prove that F1 was all about engineering, not spending. I hope F1 comes back to those days, when it was about the best engineering, innovation and efficiency. It’s a great time to bring the Lotus name back because that’s what Colin Chapman was about too.”

The new car will not be radical. Gascoyne is determined, in the first year, to produce a sound car that has both speed and reliability.

“We are Lotus, we cannot drive round at the back. That will not be acceptable,” he says. “We need simple, good engineering. Having the name is great but it brings certain pressure and that’s how it should be. We’ll be compared with the other new teams so we have to be the best of the bunch. In some ways we were dealt a rough hand because we started three months late. But we just have to get on with it.

“Tyrrell punched above its weight because it focused on the basics, with good, simple engineering. I have learnt, with the bigger teams, that they can’t see the wood for the trees a lot of the time. They commit huge resources but miss out on the basics, whereas what they should do is switch those resources back to the basics and then they’d get results.

“Aerodynamics is the key and, going back to Tyrrell, we used to say that we had the same development list as Ferrari but we could only do the top three. We have to get our priorities right and focus on the key areas, or we’re dead. Contrary to what many believe, we do not have a blank cheque from the Malaysian government. We are funded, for now, by Tony Fernandes and his partners, and like all successful businessmen he is astute with his finances. You don’t get rich by giving designers blank cheques.”

Many Lotus enthusiasts, especially younger ones who buy the road cars, are pleased to see the name resurrected. The Malaysians, meanwhile, are not pretending this is anything other than a 21st-century incarnation of a historic team. Certainly fans will recognise the classic green and yellow colours in the new team logo, which neatly reflects the heritage as well as giving the outfit a more contemporary feel. New team, new identity, and all eyes on the future. That is the message from Malaysia.

Lotus F1 has taken no risks with drivers for its maiden season. Both are refugees – Jarno Trulli from the disbanded Toyota team, and Heikki Kovalainen who failed to impress those who wield power at McLaren. Reserve driver will be Malaysian Fairuz Fauzy, an appointment that pleased the country’s Sports Minister Ahmad Shabery, who is keen to promote motor racing as an affordable sporting activity in Malaysia. This will, remarkably, be the fourth time that Trulli and Gascoyne have worked together, following stints at Jordan, Renault and Toyota. There is mutual admiration and the chief designer wanted, first and foremost, men who would be able to develop the car.

“Experience is the key,” says Gascoyne. “We don’t want to be teaching drivers how to race in F1. We need drivers who can give accurate feedback and improve the car over a race weekend. With Jarno and Heikki we know where we are and their experience will be vital. Jarno is an incredibly sensitive driver and he’s the quickest guy I’ve seen over a single lap. Where he is on the grid is how quick the car can go. You don’t want to be teaching drivers on the job, no matter how fast they may be.

“I work in a straightforward way – I try to be democratic, and when we make decisions we get on with the job. The mechanics will tell you that I’m direct, but they get to run their own departments and I will have a loyal team around me, people who’ve worked with me before and who know the way I like to do things.”

Like all the new teams, Lotus F1 will use a Cosworth engine that has yet to prove its worth against the might of the manufacturers.

“Cosworth is going in at the deep end,” says Gascoyne. “We won’t know until after the fourth race whether the engine is reliable. It is small and neat, it’s quite strong, but we don’t know about its reliability in race conditions. It’s never raced at 18,000rpm and there is much to learn. Brakes and fuel will be the most important areas, especially brakes. And Bahrain, the first race, is the hardest of all on fuel and brakes. It’s a baptism of fire but if we survive, we know we’ll be all right for the rest of the year. Testing is limited which is why we have built a good, simple and light F1 car. I expect a lot of progress in the wind tunnel and it’s where we are at the end of the year that matters. The first four flyaway races will be a matter of getting the car to the finish.”

The Lotus name is back and this is a serious effort. Formula 1 is at last becoming more sustainable, less excessive. A good small team should, in theory, have a better chance of mixing it with the big boys. Not for the first time, the debut of a Lotus-Cosworth will be watched with interest and expectation.