A great deal, according to the men behind the resurrection of the team formerly known as Toleman, Benetton and Renault. Lotus isn’t really Lotus. But then it’s not supposed to be. Confused? Read on…
As Formula 1 settled into its voluntary summer shutdown several top teams could draw positives from the result of the Hungarian Grand Prix, and for a variety of reasons.
After a troubled few weeks Lewis Hamilton and McLaren were back on the top step of the podium, while World Championship leader Fernando Alonso was relieved to extend his advantage over closest pursuer Mark Webber by salvaging ifth on a day when Ferrari was off the pace.
Red Bull could take comfort from remaining atop the constructors’ table even after a below-par race, with its two drivers leading the chase of Alonso. Arguably none of those teams was as satisfied as Lotus. A irst win of 2012 may have continued to elude the former Benetton and Renault outfit, but both its drivers had taken turns to push Hamilton to the limit all afternoon. Kimi Räikkönen and Romain Grosjean settled for second and third at a track where passing is dificult, but the point was made. There are other venues where the black and gold cars can still find a way to win.
Even without a victory that day, Räikkönen proved that he now has to be considered a serious title contender. Lying fifth after Hungary, he was just eight points off Webber, and while Alonso still had a handy margin out front, Räikkönen closed a not much smaller gap in just two races when he won the title for Ferrari in 2007. Meanwhile, in the constructors’ standings ahead of Spa, Lotus was third ahead of Ferrari and just a point behind McLaren.
Such a situation would not have been predicted at the start of the season, when the team that only just scraped home ifth in 2011 employed a returning former champ who had already been written off by the sceptics, and a youngster no one else wanted.
The transition from the era of works Renault support and Flavio Briatore management to the private ownership of the Genii Group has not been an easy one, but as Lotus the team is now firmly back on track, and conidence is high.
“There are three things I’m proud about,” says Genii’s amicable owner Gerard Lopez. “One is the results, getting there, or almost getting there. The second thing is getting there while having to battle all sorts of issues, whether it’s losing Robert [Kubica] to injury, or the Lotus v Lotus thing. It’s been a bumpy road, but we kept to the timing that we had set out.
“And then the third element comes from just tweaking the team internally, some key positions, and then managing to extract the talent that was within the group. We made some strategic changes, and the good thing is it just crystallised some potential that was still sitting in that team. Overall those three reasons make it quite pleasing.”
The team was in disarray when Genii took over at the end of 2009 in the slipstream of the Nelson Piquet ‘Crashgate’ saga. That had brought the departure of Briatore and technical boss Pat Symonds, and the loss of title sponsor ING. Meanwhile the Renault board was seeking a way to pull out without actually having to close the doors. It was a mess.
Encouraged by Bernie Ecclestone, Genii took the plunge, and French GP2 man Eric Boullier was installed as team principal of this quintessentially British outfit. He had the job of turning things around while convincing the staff that he was the man for the job, and that this little-known investment group knew what it was doing. Replacing the irrepressible Briatore, who for all his faults had delivered four World Championships, was no easy task.
“There were some ups and downs,” Boullier admits. “I think I’m quite low profile, so they understood that I would irst learn by their side. I never imposed on them any stupid ideas.
“Thanks to GP2 I have some racing experience, and in some discussions I can suggest something different. Obviously they listen more to me now than they were listening at the beginning, but it’s normal. I was maybe also not very accurate sometimes.
“The good surprise for me is after 2011, they never raise this. They understood that maybe I had some balls as well, because I clearly supported them at tough times.”
Genii and Boullier were wise enough to realise just what the potential of the team really was, and the value of its collective experience. This was a team that had won the World Championship as recently as 2006, after all.
“We had to make sure that we didn’t destroy the spirit of Enstone,” says Boullier. “It was something that I knew from the very beginning, and I told Genii to protect Enstone from politics, because protection from that is one of the strengths of the company.
“The core of Enstone is competence, the racing commitment, and dedication. The most important thing was for us to keep these values. Then we had to change some other things. To be backed by a car manufacturer is quite comfortable, because they give you a big cheque and never check the amount. You ask what you want and you spend what you want. So we had to bring back some control on costs and value – let’s say eficiency. We don’t use this word much in F1, but you understand!”
It’s been a successful programme. The team is spending a lot less than it was, and yet the staff numbers are actually higher now than at the end of the Renault era.
“The issue is to downsize the company, not in terms of personnel, but in terms of spending,” says Boullier. “If you look at the budget today we have more people than in 2009, but we are spending something like 30 per cent less.
“The group of people that Genii put in place is working on changing this. It’s simple things. F1 is facing some economic concerns, and if you were spending 10 in 2009 you can do exactly the same today for six or seven. What we wanted to bring into the company, and it’s also part of my culture coming from other categories, is to spend wisely.”
The team has used experience gained in other industries to revamp Enstone, under the direction of CEO Patrick Louis. “Patrick has run factories in the aviation sector and the automotive industry,” says Lopez. “He went in looking at it as just another factory that was spending a lot of money, and maybe didn’t have output that was optimised for the investment.
“We created a clear distinction between ‘racing’ and ‘factory’. We essentially decided to run the factory as a supplier to a customer, which is the racing team.
“There’s a very high demand from a racing team in terms of quality and so forth, and there’s a high pressure on the supplier to try to create eficiencies in terms of costs. We had a massive reshuffling of production facilities in the factory, new machines, different set-ups, and different processes.”
The other side of the equation is to increase turnover. The published accounts for the past two seasons show clear losses, and Genii has had to subsidise them.
“Obviously they are financially supporting the company because they own the company,” says Boullier. “But we have our own sales department now which we built up 14 months ago, and which has started to deliver. It comes under my responsibility. If I cross my fingers, we should be financially independent from our owners at the end of the year.”
“We clearly stated that we were on a three- to four-year plan to bring the company to a neutral cash low,” says Lopez. “And that’s exactly where we are. When we took over the team it wasn’t really sponsored. We had to resign Total, and there was one sponsor left, which was TW Steel. It was a very yellow car when we irst produced it!
“If you look at the car today it’s not only busy, but this year we signed the two biggest [new] sponsorship deals in F1, with Unilever and Microsoft, and they’re multi-year deals. As far as we are concerned to actually bring the company to cash low positive, we’re only one medium-size sponsor away, which is a huge step forward from three years ago, and a big step forward from last year.”
The Lotus name has been a big part of the commercial equation, although perhaps not in the way it was intended. Last year Group Lotus came on board as title sponsor, with a long-term arrangement, although the car was still officially a Renault. Lotus CEO Dany Bahar became a director of what was renamed Lotus Renault GP, and it became apparent that the former Sauber, Ferrari and Red Bull man had big ambitions, possibly stretching one day to taking over the whole thing.
Then Group Lotus hit the buffers, the expensive F1 deal was cancelled, new owners came on board, and ultimately Bahar was relieved of his position. Genii emerged without the contracted sponsorship deal, but – after the legal situation with Tony Fernandes had been resolved – with the rights to use the Lotus name in F1 until at least 2017.
“We carry their brand,” says Lopez. “There are no commercial or financial terms any more, they don’t have to pay any more. Proton and Lotus were bought up by a group in Malaysia, and I think the new owners are trying to define what the strategy is going to be. So there are separate lives, except obviously we help their brand by carrying it. We know them but we can’t push for anything, and they can’t push for anything, because they’re really in discovery mode right now, trying to igure out what to do and how to do it.”
Since the team is not paid by Group Lotus any ongoing problems in Norfolk have no direct impact. The point is that the name, and the associated black and gold imagery, gives the team something to sell.
“It’s easier to be the Lotus F1 team than to be the Genii F1 team or something else,” says Boullier. “Lotus is a famous brand representing cars, and famous in the past, even if we have nothing related to the past and the Chapman family. But you still have this heritage because the name is famous in F1. It gives us some credibility to speak to any sponsors.”
“Obviously we went into this for financial reasons at the beginning, which is no longer the case,” Lopez explains. “But we also went into it because of the legacy and the brand. To me and any fan it’s one of the top five brands in F1. To be able to carry that name is important.
“Nobody ever claimed that this was Colin Chapman’s team, but we have claimed a lot in terms of trying to be innovative. I think in that sense there’s a connection with the legacy.”
If and when Räikkönen or Grosjean inally win a race, expect to be reminded that it will be the first GP victory for Lotus since Ayrton Senna triumphed in Detroit in June 1987. That will no doubt cause many readers of this magazine to shift uncomfortably in their seats, but to be fair to Lopez and his colleagues, they have been wary of trading on the actual racing history of Team Lotus.
In fact they’ve actively celebrated the genuine Toleman/Benetton/Renault history, naming this car the E20 as the 20th product of the Enstone facility, and celebrating 500 starts at Monaco in May. You don’t see the likes of Red Bull Racing or Mercedes GP acknowledging the past of their facilities.
“As far as the history of the factory is concerned, we’re very proud of that,” says Lopez. “It’s almost like we benefit from both histories. We try not to pretend, and that’s why we’re very honest about what we are, and what we are is Lotus in F1 today, born out of a completely different base of racers, but trying to connect back with the heritage of the brand.
“What we’re trading off is the global strength of the brand, and as I said, what I would call the innovation heritage. And innovation is always looking forward, not looking back. Colin Chapman and his people invented and brought a lot of things to F1.
“It’s more dificult today but I think we’re still one of the teams that’s creative. We saw it last year, we’re seeing it this year. In that sense we like to connect it up.”
And innovate the team has under James Allison, who has filled the role of technical director in impressive style. Last year’s side exhaust might not have worked, but it was a brave effort, and the novel ‘double DRS’ system the team tested at Hockenheim and Budapest could be key to the fortunes of Räikkönen and Grosjean from Spa onwards.
“A lot of people were also here in the Benetton time, so they went through this cycle,” says Boullier. “That’s maybe one of the key secrets of Enstone. We have people who know what racing is about, and who want to win. They have also to learn where we are going, why we’ve changed the name. You have to pass all this, and once the trust is there, then you can build up.”
Lopez and Boullier got to show the scope of their ambition last November when they announced their new signing, Kimi Räikkönen.
“Yes, it was a risk to bring Kimi, because we didn’t know if he would underperform or deliver,” says Boullier. “It was a risk to bring Grosjean, but we were so convinced with what we wanted to do, we just went for it. I don’t know if it was brave or if it was stupid!
“Obviously we had the trauma last year, with the loss of Kubica. People were saying, ‘We’ve lost Kubica, the season is going down.’ And Force India was catching us at the end. And when we said, ‘We have Kimi Räikkönen,’ the guys said, ‘Wow!’”
Crucially the owners have also won over the Enstone veterans, who were understandably a little sceptical at first.
“They are really thinking long-term,” says Alan Permane, the director of trackside operations, whose tenure with the team goes back to the Schumacher era. “And we really feel the commitment from them, and we have their support and backing for what we do. They don’t try and muscle in on the racing side like they could, they leave it to people who’ve got the experience. They back us up and support us, and they’re good bosses to have.
“We’re doing very well this year, we’ve clearly made a big step on from where we’ve been the past few years. They are there writing the cheques, supporting us, and letting us go racing. And we’re very grateful for that.”