“We might seem super-aggressive and ambitious… Well, we are”

Lotus has always aimed high – and so do the men behind its latest motor sport and road car plans
By Ed Foster

When it was announced that Lotus had bought into the Renault Grand Prix team in December 2010 I was quite surprised. Not because there were already two Lotus cars on the grid, but because when I went to Hethel last November I asked Lotus CEO, Dany Bahar, whether the company’s entries into GP2 and GP3 were a precursor to a Formula 1 programme. “Absolutely not,” he replied. A month later, and a matter of days after the F1 announcement, I reminded the ex-Ferrari sales and marketing chief of our conversation.

“You see, I didn’t really lie to you when I said that our GP2 and GP3 entries weren’t a precursor to Formula 1, because they weren’t. The F1 entry is entirely separate. Also, at the time we weren’t too sure about getting into F1.” Clever people, these CEOs…

This is all well and good. However, as I write that means there will be four Lotus cars on the 2011 grid. Two of them will be running under the Team Lotus banner driven by Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli, and two under the new Lotus Renault GP flag driven by Robert Kubica and Vitaly Petrov.

Before Bahar joined Lotus in October 2009, Air Asia airline owner Tony Fernandes had made an approach to Malaysian car maker Proton (which bought Lotus in 1996 after it went bankrupt under Bugatti in ’94). Fernandes was interested in using the Lotus name for his new 1Malaysia Racing Team in F1, and Proton agreed, keen to get the company’s name back in the racing limelight.

But once Bahar arrived he didn’t think being associated with a new Grand Prix team was the way forward and tried to end the licence agreement. “We wanted to fight at the top end of the grid,” he says. “Formula 1 has always been part of our plans, but we didn’t think it was the right time this year. We wanted first to lay out our plans, come up with the products and go racing in other series.

“But F1 is all about opportunities, and opportunities that don’t come when you want them to. So when this beautiful one with Renault came about it was an easy decision. We did try and find a solution with 1Malaysian Racing Team [something Fernandes has since denied], but when the counter-proposals are ridiculous it doesn’t make sense to continue the discussions. If buying into a top-five team is a third of the cost of what they were asking then this is what we decided to do.

“We don’t have the financial resources or the time to invest in a newly-formed team and we wouldn’t have the courage. Buying into an existing team, which is well financed, is a more conservative approach.”

A ‘conservative approach’ is not a phrase you would use to describe Lotus’s other motor sport and road car proposals. Since Bahar was announced by Proton as the Lotus CEO he has spent a great deal of time and money bringing in people – and lots of them – from Mercedes, Porsche and Ferrari.

Wiebke Bauer came over from Ferrari as director of licensing and merchandising, Claudio Berro from the Fiat Group as director of motor sport, Donato Coco from Ferrari as director of design, Michael Och from Porsche as director of production, and Wolf Zimmerman from Mercedes AMG as chief technical officer. Globally, Lotus’s list of employees has increased in number by 94 people from 1402 to 1496 since Bahar’s arrival.

“What I tried to do when assembling the new team was identify people who’ve already made big transformations in the sports car industry in order to avoid mistakes,” Bahar tells me at his Hethel office.

“The other thing is I don’t think you can reinvent the sports car industry. Everything is already out there so I believe the best thing to do is compile the best of that – the best is not only Ferrari, so we have people from Porsche, Mercedes AMG and Aston Martin. It’s a combination of what’s good in all those brands and we’ve put them together.”

Once everyone was in place Lotus started work with a renewed vigour after 15 years of accumulated loses. There were rumours of a new Elite, and soon ambitious IndyCar and Le Mans Series plans were announced. Then a bombshell was dropped at the Paris motor show last October – Lotus would be building five new road car models, which would all be on sale before 2016. Not only would they revive famous Lotus names with a new Esprit, Elan, Elite and Elise, but the company would also build a super-saloon – the Eterne. But the biggest shock was still to come – Lotus would be moving into Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin territory with its pricing. The plans would hopefully see sales rise from 2100 cars a year to 6-8000 by 2015, and the five-model expansion would cost in the region of £750 million.

Bahar is quick to go on the defence when the scale of his ambition is questioned. Lotus fans who witnessed the company being passed from owner to owner like a hot potato over the past couple of decades had spent the previous two months attacking the plans and proclaiming them to be nothing short of ridiculous. “We thought a lot about a business plan that would make this company profitable and it wasn’t a one-man decision,” counters Bahar. “There are so many people involved there must be something right with it. We might seem super-aggressive and ambitious – well, we are – but we want to run at a pace that is a bit different to what the automotive industry is used to.

“If I look at the feedback we’ve got it seems that being ambitious and trying to transform a company into a profitable enterprise is wrong. I do strongly believe that it will bring us back into profitability in the next five years.” There are reasons for Bahar’s enthusiasm. “The biggest risk for us is timing, but it’s a very clever engineering exercise because all five cars are based on one platform and there are high degrees of commonality across them. Big car manufacturers are doing this already, but not on the scale we’re proposing. In essence we are only designing and building two and a half cars.

“Our brand is not as strong as Ferrari or Porsche,” Bahar continues. “They only need two cars to be profitable because they can sell in higher volume. We don’t have that strength so we’ve opted for five cars that will sell in lower volume to reach the same target. If you look at our business plan, our market share and the segments in which we’d like to play, you’d agree that we will be able to sell 1500 cars worldwide for each model. I don’t think we’ll be breaking any world records by achieving these numbers.”

No one can tell whether this is true until the cars hit the showroom, but if the ‘new’ team at Lotus and the proposed car details are anything to go by, the numbers are certainly reachable. The main topic of disagreement has been the new price sector that Lotus wishes to sell cars
in, and whether people will want to buy an aluminium four-door Eterne for over £100,000. Again, it’s hard to draw any conclusions until the car is on the road, but Lotus fans will be praying that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

The road car plans may be revolutionary – no other manufacturer has launched so many cars in such a short space of time – but Bahar’s view on how the industry works is not. “I think motor sport is the only credible marketing exercise for a sports car manufacturer. We won’t be going into advertising because I believe motor sport will deliver this credibility and passion. If someone sees the Le Mans car racing, the IndyCars, whatever cars are out there, that’s the intangible asset you really want in any sports car company and Ferrari is the master of it. That’s what we have done in the past at Maranello, and that’s what we are aiming for in the future at Lotus.”

Lotus’s new director of motor sport Claudio Berro is certainly taking this approach and has announced plans that would make even the likes of Porsche flinch. The Lotus Cup Europe (in its current guise) has been running since 2009, as have various race series for the 2-Eleven and the Elise. But Lotus has now announced that it will be building GT4 and GT2 cars based on the Evora, a Le Mans prototype, and the T125 (a 650bhp, 650kg customer single-seater). What’s more, it entered the IndyCar Series as a partner to KV Racing Technology in 2010, has teamed up with ART Grand Prix for the 2011 GP2 and GP3 seasons, and plans to revamp the Hethel test track and build a new pit complex at a cost of £2.5m.

Even operating with 10 per cent of Lotus’s entire budget, the motor sport plans are ambitious. But, as with the road cars, Lotus has brought in people it believes will transform a minimal motor sport involvement into a full-scale, successful operation. With anyone else at the helm this might seem fanciful, but before he became operations racing director for the ill-fated Speedcar Middle-East International Race Series, Berro held a similar role at Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Abarth. From there he became solely responsible for the Fiat Group’s entire racing empire.

Bahar and Berro assure me that future racing activities will not just be branding exercises. The venture into IndyCar was exactly that, but in 2012 – when new rules come into force – Lotus is taking on Chevrolet and Honda with an engine and aero kit designed in-house.

“There’s always a right way or a Lotus way to do activities, and it’s certainly not branding,” says Bahar. “But if you need to get there through a little branding exercise to understand the activity, then of course we’ll do it.

“The American market is the biggest in the sports car industry. It usually makes up a third of your overall sales and we’ll be concentrating a lot on the open-wheel programmes. Since we won the Indy 500 in 1965 we have a certain obligation to go back one day and win it again. What we did [with KV Racing] last season was a little exercise to test the waters and understand Indycar racing again – what’s wrong, what’s right – and now we’ll be going into it properly.”

The ‘Lotus’ way of doing things may not be through branding exercises, but as Bahar points out with its recent F1 involvement, starting from scratch in any series is an expensive way of doing it. That’s why the company has teamed up with ART in GP2 and GP3, KV Racing in IndyCar and Renault in F1.

So what of the GT programmes? The plan is to sell customer cars to national teams. However, there are rules… For that team to use the Lotus name – which should hopefully encourage sponsors – they must use the classic green and yellow livery and call themselves Lotus Sport Italy, Lotus Sport Dubai etc. As you can imagine, there’s been plenty of interest.

“We don’t just want to supply a car to these teams, we want to be involved and use technical knowledge from all the disciplines to help us with the road cars,” explains Berro. “For example, Ferrari race in America with the Risi team. If tomorrow Risi wanted to race with Lotus then it would have to be called Lotus Risi. There must be a link.

“The GT4 Evora was our first project when we started here in November 2009. At the time we only had two engineers and 10 mechanics, so we went to Dallara to do an aerodynamic study. The first version was launched at Autosport International [in January 2010] and the final version at the Geneva motor show [in March]. Since then we’ve been testing with Johnny [Mowlem, see right] and it’s going really well.

“The Evora is a great platform to work from so we’ve already created an Endurance version, which has more power, is lighter and has more advanced aerodynamics. There are so many endurance races, like the 24 Hours of Dubai and the Nürburgring 24 Hours, that these are proving really popular. From that we’re working on the GT2 version, and I don’t see any problems with making a good GT1 car from the Evora.

“There’s also the LMP2 project, but we’ll do a ‘recce’ in LMP2 like we did with the Indycar programme.” Berro is obviously delighted with Lotus’s level of involvement in motor sport, but Bahar seems even more excited and cuts in, “Of course, if we’re successful in P2 then why not LMP1?” I ask how long it will be before there is a full-scale assault on victory at Le Mans. There’s a long pause while they look at each other, and then Bahar says, “I want to do it now!”

“For me, LMP2 and P1 is the same sort of challenge as between GT4 and GT2,” says Berro, after a nervous laugh. “GT2 is a real challenge because you’ve got Porsche, Ferrari and Aston Martin, and in LMP1 you’ve got big names like Audi and Peugeot. It’s a very expensive business, but hopefully in the near future there’ll be more logical rules in the LMP classes so it will be easier to go from LMP2 to P1 without there being a huge additional cost.

“How and when we do these other series is very much down to the rules. If we can work on two projects with one budget then that would be ideal. A GT2 and LMP2 engine are internally 99 per cent the same, so we’d only have to develop one engine. I think in the future an LMP1 car will use a similar platform to an LMP2. Doing it like this means you can do a lot more but with the same amount of money.”

Even with the team partnerships and the sharing of data and parts, Lotus has a huge task on its hands. “Our ambitions are high,” Bahar states. “We aren’t going into GT2 just to say we’re in GT2. Absolutely not – Claudio and I come from the Fiat Group, we come from Ferrari and Maserati, so when we go to GT2 all our old friends will be there. We can’t afford to just turn up! It will be a fight, and that’s something I love.”

F1, GTs, LMPs, IndyCar, a customer single-seater, five new luxury road cars… Can one company really do all this in just a few years? The last time I heard such ambitious plans I was at Donington listening to Simon Gillett talking about hosting the British GP… However, there are some significant differences here. With Lotus the right people are in the right positions, and, most importantly, the finance is in place. Can a manufacturer famed for building light, relatively cheap two-seaters really build something that people will pay over £100,000 for? A great many people are hoping so.

The Lotus test pilot
Racer Johnny Mowlem will have a hand in Lotus’s new fleet of cars

Since winning 17 out of 17 events in the 1997 British Porsche Cup, Johnny Mowlem has competed in both GT and prototype racing all over the world. It’s because of this wide range of experience that he was approached by Claudio Berro at Le Mans in 2010 and asked whether he would become Group Lotus’s first factory driver.

Mowlem (above) met Berro at the 2003 Daytona 24 Hours when he drove the Risi Competizione Ferrari 360 Modena to second overall alongside Ralf Kelleners and Anthony Lazzaro. Their paths have crossed many times since, but there’s no masking Johnny’s enthusiasm for being at Lotus as Claudio’s driver once again. “It’s fantastic being part of it all,” he says after greeting every mechanic in the motor sport building at Hethel. “I had a poster of a British racing green Lotus Esprit on my wall as a kid. At that time you could look through Exchange and Mart and the Esprit would be up there with Ferraris and Porsches. It’s where Lotus want to get back to and it’s where I want to see them.”

Mowlem’s is no easy task. The Evora may be a great base from which to build a GT4, GT2 and even a GT1 racer, but the sheer volume and diversity of cars the manufacturer plans to produce means he’ll have to switch from doing system checks on the Lotus T125 (see left), to testing the latest GT cars, to helping develop LMP machines.

Johnny admits that development of the T125 will be handed over to either an ex-Formula 1 or current single-seater driver after he’s completed the initial checks. “I’d love to be involved, but if I’m being honest there are areas where I’ll be outside my experience.”

But he is tailor-made for all the other Lotus work. “I’ve helped develop GT3 and GT2 cars, and I’ve got a lot of experience over the past few years in LMP1 and P2. I feel as though I can help. In fact, I know I can.”

Mowlem’s Lotus contract comes at a perfect time in his career and no doubt he’ll play a vital role in bringing the company back to where it – and he – wants to be.