Caterham – A subtle move that could do Team Lotus a big favour
Team Lotus' purchase of sports car manufacturer Caterham this week will have ramifications on the track, as well as the road – MICHAEL BAILEY looks into what Hingham's latest addition could mean…
Tony Fernandes may not admit it, but the next step of his motor racing dream has one clear intended target market: the Lotus market.
The Malaysian businessman was positively beaming at Duxford on Wednesday, as the Team Lotus principal announced his Hingham Formula One outfit's buy-out of the Caterham car company – a unit borne out of Lotus founder Colin Chapman's magical eye for engineering.
Caterham's managing director Ansar Ali and Fernandes both reeled off the small car producer's successful mantra – less is more; designing lightweight and affordable racers.
And if it rang a bell, that is because Hethel's Group Lotus made such sentiments their own property until Dany Bahar's supercharged dreams came along 18 months ago.
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Neither Fernandes nor Ali would bite on whether they were moving to plug the gap Group Lotus are threatening to leave – but neither of them needed to. The announcement said it all.
Which means Team Lotus' deal with Caterham will have all kinds of ramifications – mostly centred around the result of Group and Team Lotuses' High Court battle.
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The two sides are warring factions over using the Lotus marque in Formula One – both waiting over a High Court judge's verdict following their 10-day trial in March as to who can continue.
And while appeals are almost certain to follow from whichever side loses, what Fernandes has done in Caterham is bought the Hingham team some willing insurance.
Win and you can tie Caterham in as a Team Lotus sponsor, giving your own car manufacturer plenty of coverage. Lose – and ultimately be forced to ditch the Lotus name altogether – and you rebrand as Caterham, a name even the likes of Top Gear raves about. And a name that still holds links Chapman.
It almost certainly takes the pressure off.
Considering Fernandes admitted his grand F1 plan had always been to return Group Lotus to its glittering past – before all the fall-out made such hopes seemingly impossible – he has dusted himself down and taken to his plan B; or rather, Plan C.
'If I could have rewritten the script, I would have started with Caterham – but I didn't know about it,' said Fernandes. 'The other guys (Group Lotus) kind of pushed us into this, and it's fantastic how life has a great way of giving you opportunities when things go bad.
'It's corny to say but this is a match made in heaven.'
Bahar's current vision for Group Lotus is five new supercars to rival the likes of Ferrari and Porsche – leaving its grassroots behind.
'We think it's a market that's available now and we'll try to fill it,' added a rarely coy Fernandes.
'It's a big day for the team, something that has always been on our mind but we weren't able to deliver it. I always felt we needed to be a car manufacturer.
'We didn't talk about it, we just went and did it. I'm an old fashioned guy that really believes in announcing when you've done it – as opposed to making these huge projections and dreams.'
As for Ali, Caterham's boss is a Norfolk resident of 11 years, a former Group Lotus employee and someone who gets sports cars and motorsport – hence Caterham's success as a racing enterprise in its own right.
Its Dartford factory is a roaring success, while the marque's own racing series are as popular as they come.
Meanwhile at Group Lotus, there remains plenty of scepticism over whether Bahar's grand plan will work – something that could yet see owners Proton lose their patience. So do not rule out Fernandes uniting Hethel and Hingham if he gets the chance at some point in the future.
But for now Fernandes has everything he needs: the Formula One team starting to deliver on its promises, and the car manufacturer his F1 constructor can help promote.
In Caterham, Team Lotus has another much loved motorsport brand people will believe in.
And while it is a clich�, that is exactly what makes it a genuinely perfect match.