• Editor's comment

Corporate squabbles tarnish a memory

Martin Williamson December 10, 2010

At the moment there is every possibility that next season there will be two Malaysian-backed Lotus teams on the grid, fielding four similar cars all powered by Renault engines. However, not only will the teams be unconnected, they may well be at war with each other.

The near-farcical situation has come about because Malaysian car manufacturer Proton, which owns Group Lotus, has switched backing from the Tony Fernandes-run team it supported in 2010 to RenaultF1. It also claims it has the right to the Lotus name, but Fernandes, and others, disagree.

The shambles all goes back to the 1970s when Colin Chapman, the founder and inspiration behind Lotus, split his company into the manufacturing and racing divisions. Eventually, Lotus went broke and in 1996 Proton picked up the pieces but, crucially, the rights to the racing name were bought by David Hunt, the younger brother of former world champion James.

In 2009 Fernandes launched his team and brought Proton on board as a major backer, and with it came the rights to the Lotus name. It was not so much about heritage and commercialism. While sponsors might baulk at funding a back-of-the-grid newcomer, the iconic Lotus name and livery struck an emotional cord, a link to the golden years of British motor racing.

Subsequently, Fernandes bought the rights to the racing name from Hunt. At the time it seemed a neat bringing together of the racing and manufacturing names.

Now Proton have jumped ship and ploughed $150 million over the next seven years into Renault, allowing the French company to withdraw from the sport and concentrate on supplying engines.

However, Proton thinks it has the rights to the Lotus name courtesy of its 1996 buyout, while many racing enthusiasts counter it does not and Fernandes' team has the moral and linear right, albeit a dubious one.

The FIA and Ecclestone have accepted Fernandes' application to race under the name Team Lotus in 2011; alongside it, as things stand, will be Lotus Renault in the black-and-gold livery of the Lotus JPS car from the 1970s - the colours Fernandes had been planning to use himself before he was outflanked by his former partners.

The two parties are set to meet in court in London early next year to thrash out the rights to the name. Whoever wins, the only issue at stake is the marketability of the Lotus name, whatever emotional arguments their lawyers trot out.

Lotus Renault
Until recently was owned by Genii Capital (70%) and Renault (30%) but Proton (Group Lotus) has now bought out the Renault share. Renault has no stake in the team bearing its name but is committed to supplying engines.

Team Lotus
From the time it ceased racing in 1994, Team Lotus was in hibernation with the name owned by David Hunt. A team owned and run by Tony Fernandes was launched in 2009 with backing from Proton who gave him the Lotus naming rights. He subsequently bought the Team Lotus brand from Hunt. When Proton switched its backing to Renault, it claimed Fernandes no longer had the rights to the Lotus name; he maintained he did by virtue of his deal with Hunt.