• Interview - Mike Gascoyne

The Bulldog is back

Claire Furnell February 15, 2010
Mike Gascoyne is back in F1 with Lotus © Sutton Images

To say Lotus' technical director Mike Gascoyne has had a busy few months is something of an understatement. Producing an F1 car from scratch in five months as well as establishing a new team could cause anyone's stress levels to run high, but working in his office at Lotus' HQ is a seemingly very relaxed man.

Gascoyne has worked for six different F1 teams, starting his career as a wind tunnel aerodynamicist at McLaren in 1989. It was during his next role at Tyrrell under the tutorship of renowned designer Harvey Postlethwaite when his star really began to shine. He went on to enjoy jobs at Sauber, Jordan, Benetton/Renault, Toyota and then at Spyker (which became Force India).He built an impressive reputation for his designs as well as his temper when things did not go right, earning him the nickname "The Bulldog". He has been absent from the F1 circus since he parted company with Force India in 2008 spending time on his other passion - sailing.

Now he is back, this time at the helm of a team which carries, arguably, the most famous name in British motorsport - Lotus. Perhaps time at sea has mellowed him; perhaps he has shed his fierce Bulldog temper for good. "Ask me that tomorrow," he jokes. The team was heading to Silverstone the day after our meeting to run the new Lotus for the first time. "I think if you ask some of the guys downstairs they will still say I can still snap, but only if things aren't done right.

"I have enjoyed everything I have done in F1," he explains. "But if you have been doing the same job for 20 years you do get jaded. Right now I am in a great place personally and I am really enjoying the challenge here at Lotus."

What a challenge it is - Lotus' entry to the 2010 F1 championship was only confirmed on September 15, 2009. That was five months ago and downstairs is a near-finished F1 car. Although Gascoyne was approached by many teams to help them gain one of the new grid spots, he almost missed out on the Lotus opportunity completely.

"I don't think I actually took the initialapproach by Litespeed [the F3 team who first suggested the idea of bringing the Lotus name back to F1] seriously. I didn't actually bother to ring them back. I looked at the website and thought they were just an F3 team with no chance of finding the backing. They called back a second time and I spoke to Nino Judge [Litespeed team principal who now also heads the driver development programme for Lotus] who said they had the idea to bring the Lotus name back to F1. I have to say I thought it was pretty far-fetched."

Tony Fernandes involvement finalised Mike Gascoyne's decision to join the team © Sutton Images

Gascoyne eventually agreed to work with the team to gain a place on the grid and was impressed at how they were happy to invest money as well as time to get Lotus Cars on board. It was soon clear to him that the project could go no further with Litespeed, but there was a new backer on the scene - Air Asia tycoon, Tony Fernandes.

"I first met Tony around the time of the British Grand Prix," he recalls. "It was after the announcement had been made of the successful new teams, but war had broken out between the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) and the FIA. There was talk about new grid spots opening up if teams defected, so we began discussions. At that time Tony had two options for F1 - he was involved in negotiations with Brawn to buy into that team, but he continued to speak to us as a new venture. Of course, who would have thought it - peace broke out between FOTA and the FIA."

Gascoyne kept working on the project with the support of Fernandes, but what followed was a turbulent time for the fledgling team. Although it now had the backing of the Malaysian government and Lotus' owners Proton, it still did not have a grid spot.

"There were a lot of discussions about if Toyota, Renault or another team would pull out and a space would become available. But as a new team, with nothing in place, our schedule was just slipping and the chance of being ready if we were offered a grid space was disappearing. We only had four guys and me working on the project, but we needed the go ahead to ramp things up or the whole thing was finished."

"We finally received the letter confirming our entry on the last day we could have realistically achieved the project on time - talk about last chance saloon"
Mike Gascoyne reveals how close the project came to misfiring

Although Fernandes warned him not to spend too much before the entry was confirmed, he listened to Gascoyne's and continued to invest. By the time the FIA informed the team that they had been granted the final grid spot, the spend had already reached £1 million.

"We finally received the letter confirming our entry on September 14, 2009 . It was, in fact, the build schedule said we would fire the engine on February 12, so we are now actually six days ahead.

"It was quite funny for us to hear some of the new teams saying they didn't know when they would fire up. We knew from the day we submitted the entry when we could be ready. If you are a proper outfit, with a proper design and production schedule, you know exactly when you have to do these things."

Gascoyne is lucky to have found backing from a team principal who has given him freedom to run the team as he sees fit. Given a blank sheet of paper he has created a simple, yet beautiful, car which he is justifiably proud of.

The T127 won't be Mike Gascoyne's last car but Lotus will be his last team © Lotus

"It's nice at the end of your career, after 20 years in the business, to do something like this which is different: to design a car from scratch. Don't get me wrong, this is not the last car I will design, but this is the last team I will work for. I think there is a lot of sailing to be done and a lot of other things in life.

"F1 for me had got a bit boring, especially when it was the era of big money-teams. It was just a spending competition between five big guys and the others were bit players. Hopefully, now the FIA has got that sorted, the smaller teams can survive and be sustainable. I think the challenge for me as a Norfolk guy [Gascoyne was born and brought up near Norwich] is to come back here and bring a big name back. I like the fact that we are a small team, everyone working together and no politics, no baggage. I think I am enjoying the sport much more than I have done over the last five or six years."

Gascoyne set out to hire two experienced drivers, and drew up a shortlist for Fernandes. Unusually for a new team he had no trouble attracting big names to drive for them.

"I didn't want a driver with no experience as F1 with a new team is difficult enough, you don't need to be teaching drivers how to do things. Very early on Tony honed in on Heikki [Kovalainen] and Jarno [Trulli], and I kind of said 'Of course boss that would be great. But A) are we going to get two drivers of that calibre who want to come to a new team; and B) are you going to be able to afford it?' I didn't really listen to him that much and perhaps that is a lesson for the future. We were in a position where we were able to choose out of our No.1 pool; we were picking from the best, which was fantastic and a real statement of intent from Tony. If you put two winning drivers in the car and you are running around at the back it's not their fault is it, it's ours; there is nowhere to hide for me.

"Fairuz [Fauzy] was always the lead choice for test driver because of his background; he has matured a lot and of the group that are out there he stood out. Being Malaysian obviously gives him the edge, but I think that his record also matches any of the current crop of hopefuls."

Lotus has a top driver line-up with Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen © Sutton Images

As Lotus launches its new car and heads towards its first test, what can we expect from Gascoyne, Fernandes and their crew?

"I hope all the other new teams make it to the grid - that way there will be at least six cars behind me. I am sure we can be the fastest of the new bunch. We won't be too far off the pace of the others but we will need to catch up quickly. I want to aim for us to make it into Q2, then we can be legitimately considered as a midfield team - then we need to push hard for points.

"If I have to put a finger on my philosophy for this season it is that you will always find us as a team with a winning mentality. We might not have a winning car just yet, but we will have the mentality - it's a lesson I learnt back in 1996 when I was at Tyrrell with Harvey [Postlethwaite]. He used to sit back with a big glass of wine after qualifying and work out how we could exploit any situation that might happen. Even if we had qualified 15th and 16th, he would never believe that was where we would end up."