Nigel Mansell leads unique F1 convoy in Norfolk

Lotus celebrated the completion of its new �3m test track yesterday with a unique parade of F1 cars past and present led by British racing legend Nigel Mansell and his two sons.

A track has existed on the site ever since the company moved to the former RAF base in Hethel in 1966, having been used to test F1 and production cars.

The long, fast straight was originally a runway, and the existing clubhouse which overlooks the circuit was the airfield's control tower.

But what was once a pot-holed collection of roads with sprouting weeds is now a smooth, modern 12-metre wide and 3.6km long track where production cars and F1 cars of the future can be tested safely.

Nigel Mansell led the field of a unique parade on the track yesterday afternoon in the T81 car in which he made his first appearance in F1 in 1980.

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Next came his son Leo in a blue T88b F1 car, and older son Greg Mansell in a Lotus T125 consumer track car.

Behind them were current Lotus Renault GP F1 cars driven by Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov and three Lotus Evoras, the newest Lotus model.

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Also present on the day was Bruno Senna, Lotus Renault test driver and nephew of late F1 legend Ayrton Senna, and Lotus founder Colin Chapman's widow Hazel and son, Clive.

With an ear-splitting whine the Forumla One cars shot away in unison, trailed by the Evoras.

After the laps Mansell said the track represented a much-needed investment in the site.

'You know nothing's happened here for 30-odd years to the track,' he said.

'It's an enormous credit to Lotus to have done what they've done.

'It's a very good track for a car company. There's been present and past F1 cars on it and it's handled all those cars very well.

'It's got everything, corners from fast to slow.

'It has such a history here now. It's genuinely exciting.

He added that he was proud of both his sons, and that the chance to drive on the track with them was 'moving and very emotional'.

The new track is part of a massive multi-million investment by Lotus in their factory, which will also include a pits and paddock area for the track, new factory areas, after sales office and a museum.

The construction will all take place in the next 24 months, with the new track being the first visible sign of what is to come at Hethel.

Lotus also claimed that its 'New Era' plan of introducing six new models, which it announced a year ago in the lead-up to the Paris Motor Show, is on schedule.

A new Esprit will launch in March 2013, an Elite in October the same year, and an Eterne and Elise in 2015.

However, the Elan has been delayed until 2017 after customer feedback showed that it was too similar to other models in the range.

The firm has also developed a small city car called the Ethos, which it confirmed will be sold as a Proton in Asia and as a Lotus in Europe from early 2014.

Engineering work is also almost complete on the T125 car, which will sell for around �500,000 and be stored for customers to use solely on the track under supervision.

Lotus also unveiled plans to develop its own V8 engine for use in upcoming models, which will be produced at its headquarters in Hethel.

The first working model is expected to be fired-up on August 18, and tested in cars later this year.

Development of the engine was sparked when customer feedback showed that the public would be unwilling to buy a �120,000 car fitted with a Toyota engine, as originally planned.

It was also revealed this week that the carmaker would be looking to increase sales in China, unveiling plans for nine dealerships in the country.

Lotus China will be based in Beijing and open its first dealership in the capital in October, followed by others in Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou later in the year.

The Lotus badge for cars sold in China includes an additional 'NYO' lettering, pronounced like the word 'new', to avoid confusion with an existing Chinese manufacturer.

Around 1,800 staff are currently employed at the Hethel site, but the firm is currently undergoing a redundancy process to slash as many as 100 jobs.

The company declined to comment on exactly how many roles were likely to go or by when.

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