Who ran over the nun?

At a crucial stage of its precarious season Team Lotus staggered the F1 world with third place in the Italian GP, until Fate intervened . . .

It's been a depressing year for Team Lotus, with continual financial problems and poor track performance. The sort of trough when the lack of immediate hope on the horizon can turn people in upon each other. The outside world had grown tired of hearing how the 109 wasn't working to its full potential with the old ZA5C Mugen-Honda installed, and that nothing could be judged accurately until the all-new ZA5D arrived.

The plan had always been to debut the unit at Monza, but by the time it tested at Silverstone just before the Belgian GP observers were losing patience. Lotus, most had decided, was going nowhere, slowly, and taking an embarrassingly long time to die.

Chasing the news of testing for our sister weekly Motoring News was an interesting exercise that week. Normally such calls take the form of an exchange of banter, some bitching about somebody else, followed by the team's update. This time all anyone wanted to talk about was the speed of the Lotus with its new engine. Quite the saddest thing about the team's year has been the absolute deterioration of the relationship between Johnny Herbert and Peter Collins, the man who rescued the Briton's career after his F3000 shunt at Brands Hatch in 1988. It's nobody's fault specifically, but the lack of competitive equipment has taken a heavy toll, Herbert, as down as I've ever known him in Hungary, was quietly enthused after that testing but seemed determined not to raise his hopes too high. Quietly he would talk of maybe a couple of seconds' improvement. Perhaps a top 10 qualifying position at Monza.

Well, let's be truthful: the Lotus could actually have won the Italian GP. It probably wouldn't have even if it had been totally reliable, because of the team's plan to make two pit stops, but if it hadn't won it could well have finished second. At worst, third.

For a team whose cars have just scraped into the top 20 in qualifying most times this year, and have yet to look remotely like scoring points, that was the sort of transformation from evil back to good that would have relieved Dr Jekyll. People have short memories in F1. Look back to 1992 and Lotus had a very neat little package in the 107 and lacked luck and dollars more than anything. But it was back on track in a remarkably short time, after its rebirth in 1991. Then came 1993 and the 107B, whose troublesome active suspension had possibly not been the best route for a team with limited funds.

Regrouping around the Mugen-Honda V10, Collins and Wright knew 1994 would be difficult, but neither can have envisaged quite the nightmare it turned out to be. As financial problems came home to roost too, the predators in the water could peep over the gunwales of the sinking hull, and sense tasty morsels aboard. It only seemed a matter of time before it sank beneath the waves. . .

It may still be.

Monza was a crucially important race for Lotus, for so much depended on a strong performance. For ironically, given Herbert's astonishing run in qualifying, it applied for an Administration Order the day after Eddie Irvine had shattered its hopes by pushing Herbert off in the first chicane.

For months the rumours have done the rounds about the debts the team has accrued, and there have been no shortage of contenders to buy either the operation itself, or its debts. Early in the season Ron Dennis looked closely at the Cosworth debt as a means of prising Johnny Herbert away. Later he came back, as a High Court judgement in August gave the team until December to pay £400,000 of a £2.1M debt to Cosworth Engineering.

Then Tom Walkinshaw came in with an offer of partnership or takeover, allied with existing Team Lotus directors Guy Edwards and Peter Hall.

All offers were repulsed by Collins and Wright, but the predators started eyeing the long outstanding £5M debt to Arthur Anderson, the receiver appointed to realise debts from the collapse of Landhurst Leasing, which put money into Lotus via Landhurst boss Ted Ball. Verily, this is not a good time to be in trouble in F1.

The Administration Order was granted the day after Monza, and gives Lotus a limited stay of execution, and a chance to show what it can do in the next few races. The administration procedure was introduced by the Insolvency Act 1986 to achieve the survival of an insolvent company by reorganisation or to effect a better realisation of assets than would be possible through other proceedings. It differs from options such as receivership, voluntary liquidation or bankruptcy in that it allows for the company and its business to emerge in its reconstructed form following the administration.

It is, in effect, Britain's version to America's Chapter 11. The American aircraft company Piper, for example, is in Chapter 11 but is currently doing better than ever. Such action is normal business practice in the States in times of difficulty, and is designed to help a company get back on its feet.

Few enthusiasts would ever question whether this team, with its glorious heritage, should be allowed to fade away.

During the period for which an Administration Order is in force, no other proceedings may be commenced without leave of the court and no other steps may be taken to repossess third party goods. Whether this is enough, whether the hull stays dead in the water or starts to plane again, remains to be seen.

At Monza Edwards arrived and was curtly asked to leave, and the team quickly outlined important changes in preparation for its 1995 campaign. After bringing in Castrol, Loctite and Miller, Edwards' role will partly devolve to Kenny Wapshott, Team Lotus' man in Japan, who sourced the agreements with Shionogi, Hitachi, Komatsu, Tamiya, Nichibutsu, Yellow Hat and Phenix. A degree of optimism is creeping back into Ketteringham Hall. There is now a chance, and it is allied at just the right moment to the upturn in performance. I for one would hate to see Lotus go down.

Back in 1969, when he was busy leading Grands Prix only to have his Lotus 49B fail beneath him, Jochen Rindt once declared despairingly: "I don't know why everything keeps going wrong. Somebody at Team Lotus must have run over a nun." At Monza, for this year's Italian Grand Prix, Peter Collins and Johnny Herbert must have been thinking that somebody from the team had just blown up the convent. D.J.T.