In the Valencia pit lane earlier today, a Formula 1 car proudly carrying the Lotus name was unveiled to the watching world.  At almost the same moment, 1200 miles away in a factory in Norfolk, exactly the same thing happened.

To grasp exactly how two teams came to be arguing over the use of a name, we need to go back to the creation of the Lotus group of companies.  In 1952 Colin Chapman started up Lotus Engineering Ltd, creating a sister company Team Lotus for racing activity in 1954.  Under the guidance of Chapman, a gifted engineer and designer renowned for innovation, the Team Lotus effort in Formula 1 claimed 6 world drivers championships and 7 constructors titles before its founder passed away in 1982, aged just 54.  The team spent its final years undergoing several changes of ownership, contesting its last race at the end of 1994.

Throughout that period and beyond, Lotus Engineering, later Lotus Cars, continued to trade as normal.  Owned since Chapman’s passing by General Motors, then an Italian businessman and most recently the Malaysian manufacturer Proton, Lotus Cars continued to operate under the Group Lotus banner.

Fast forward to 2009.  David Hunt, brother of 1976 world champion James and the owner of Team Lotus during its death throes, negotiated a deal with Formula 3 outfit Litespeed authorising them to use the Team Lotus name for their unsuccessful bid to enter F1.  Group Lotus were keen to distance themselves from the Litespeed bid, announcing that they’d take action to protect their name if necessary.

Shortly after Litespeed’s Grand Prix aspirations faded, it was announced that the Malaysian government were to back an entry by businessman Tony Fernandes as a means of giving greater exposure to Proton.  Fernandes, the owner of Air Asia, was granted the right to name his outfit Lotus.  You’ll be able to see both names in this picture, which also features Heikki Kovalainen and a raging bonfire:

In the latter part of 2010, the team’s right to use the Lotus name was revoked in a disagreement over merchandising, with Group Lotus citing “flagrant and persistent breaches of the licence”.  Group Lotus had themselves started to take an active interest in top-line motor racing, lending their name to an IndyCar driven by F1 refugee Takuma Sato and the ART team’s cars in the GP2 and GP3 feeder series.

As an aside, Group Lotus CEO Dany Bahar used to be well up the corporate pecking order at Ferrari, whose executive director at the time was current FIA president Jean Todt, whose son Nicolas runs ART.  Funny how these things slot together sometimes.

Shorn of official backing, Fernandes called on David Hunt and acquired the Team Lotus name previously granted to Litespeed, announcing plans to deck the 2011 car out in the black and gold colours made famous by the John Player Special cars of the 1970s and 80s.  Meanwhile, Group Lotus announced a sponsorship deal with the Renault team along with plans to deck their 2011 car out in – no, don’t go running ahead of me now – black and gold.

While the Renault R31 launched today in black and gold, the Fernandes entry, still Team Lotus for now, didn’t.

Confused?  If not, give it time.  Renault have Group Lotus as their title sponsor for 2011, so while the car should be referred to as a Renault, the team trades as Lotus Renault GP.  Team Lotus have a supply of Renault engines, so their car is a Lotus Renault.  To muddy matters still further, the car we need to call a Renault currently displays the Lotus name prominently, while the car we need to call a Lotus does not.

The matter has rumbled on for some months now, with Group Lotus maintaining that Fernandes has no entitlement to use the Lotus name within Formula 1 and aiming to secure sole use of the name for themselves.  A recent High Court hearing decided there was a case to be heard, with a trial date set for 21st March, between the first two Grands Prix of the new season.  It would be far better for the sport, the watching fans and the marketing departments of the two teams involved if a settlement was reached prior to the start of the season, but what are the options?

Fernandes has turned Air Asia from a failing Government-backed firm to Asia’s largest provider of budget, no-frills flights and with the company logo featuring prominently on the T128, he might consider using the racing team to more aggressively promote his airline.  He might, but it’s worth bearing in mind that public perceptions could be affected by the sight of an Air Asia having an accident – it’s one thing to have your logo on the side of a crashing car, quite another to have your name attached to it directly.  Tony’s racing team is run under the operating name 1Malaysia racing, named after the political programme designed to promote unity in his home country, which could instead be applied to the cars, a move which carries less obvious risk and would find favour with the policy makers at home.

There’s no obvious drive to take up either of those options or indeed any other options.  Fernandes claims that as his team is based in Norfolk just as the original Team Lotus was, running their first season in the gold and green colours Chapman’s cars made famous, it’s right that they should be allowed to use the name.  Beyond the words Team Lotus, though, the current team have no physical link to the celebrated original, though the same is effectively true of their legal rivals.  Whatever the rights and wrongs and however the story ends, the Lotus traditions and successes both parties are attempting to claim for themselves belong to a bygone age, an age that passed with the man whose initials remain on the company badge to this day:

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  1. […] in the paddock, Team Lotus (that’s the team whose cars are called Lotus, not the one whose cars have Lotus written on them) have hired proper racing driver Karun Chandhok to be their reserve driver for 2011, presumably […]

  2. […] about, is that I wrote about this last February.  To save you searching through the archives, just click here if you fancy a recap.  Give me a ring and I’ll come round and work the mouse for you as […]

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