Lotus strengthen Norfolk foundations for success

It is almost poetic that a wind tunnel should signal Lotus Racing's recovery from a turbulent few weeks – a period that, behind closed doors, will have almost certainly shaken the very foundations of a project set in motion by Tony Fernandes and Mike Gascoyne last summer.

Early on Sunday morning the Formula One team – busy preparing for the first Korean Grand Prix in Yeongam – announced two big plans for 2011. Team AirAsia, named after Fernandes' Malaysian successful budget carrier, will set up its first home alongside Lotus Racing's F1 factory at Hingham.

There it will become the third GP2 team stationed in Norfolk, joining Carleton Rode's Isport and Griston-based Super Nova in Formula One's primary feeder series.

Secondly, and arguably more pertinently, Lotus Racing will build a wind tunnel facility on the same site – giving Gascoyne's development team a fantastic tool to work with, while also drawing another heavy line under the fact the Anglo-Malaysian constructor is likely to settle in Norfolk, rather than see through its originally proposed transfer to the Far East.

'The announcement about the wind tunnel, which will be combined with additional production, office and administrative elements, gives us both the facility we need to lay the foundations for long-term success and is a clear sign we are very serious about competing at the sharp end of the grid as quickly as we can,' said Gascoyne in the announcement.

Fernandes added: 'Just over a year ago there were four people in the factory in Hingham, a team working in Cologne on the design of this year's car and a third group working in Italy on our aero programme. Now it is about the future.'

Both plans give clear indications of Lotus Racing's motorsport ambitions: clearly in Norfolk, and using their current fledgling infrastructure so impressively built upon since the rush job to get ready for its debut season this year.

Most Read

But the fact the flow of announcements over the future of Lotus Racing has restarted is, in itself, a promising sign given the very fabric of Lotus' return was – and still is – under threat.

The situation was bad when Group Lotus, seemingly fuelled by its own ideas for an eventual F1 return grid, ended the licence it handed to Fernandes for use of the Lotus name last month.

An impending legal battle over whether Fernandes' purchase of the Team Lotus naming rights was something he could actually use made matters worse.

For team principal Fernandes and his Norwich-born chief technical officer Gascoyne, the ambitions for their new team come down to one thing – Lotus. They are in it to return one of the sport's greats to the grid.

They are not in Bernie Ecclestone's money pit to run a 'Team AirAsia F1' or similar – it is all about the iconic Norfolk marque. The battle with Group Lotus threatened to become a public bloodbath, but has since retired behind closed doors as the Malaysian government – stakeholders in both Fernandes' team and Group Lotus owners, Proton – look to conjure a solution to a complex issue that has dogged the Lotus brand for decades.

The speculation has been wild – from suggestions the Chapman family will withdraw its backing of Fernandes' project, to the idea Fernandes could step in to buy Group Lotus.

Of course, it will all be pie-in-the-sky stuff until a clear resolution to the naming issue is found – which may be close given reports the ink is now dry on Lotus Racing's contract to race with Renault engines in 2011.

Given it is the only power unit that would work with the Red Bull Racing gearbox and hydraulics Lotus Racing has already signed up to, all at Hingham will breathe a huge sigh of relief to get that one sorted.

Add to that speculation Renault wanted its potential business partners Proton kept sweet and the naming issue clarified before committing, and the engine deal offers another sign of encouragement.

Putting the bitter rivalry aside, both Lotuses are doing Norfolk proud – with Group Lotus putting fingers in just about every motorsport pie going, as well as proposing to turn its Hethel test track into an FIA approved circuit for prospective F1 drivers.

As for GP2, the formula was first to give signs of discontent between Fernandes and Group Lotus, who announced a partnership with French rivals ART GP, just days before the full fall-out came to light.

The arrival of a new GP2 team in Norfolk, being put together from scratch in much the same way as Lotus Racing was last year, also means more jobs in the region – applications have been arriving in their hundreds at Hingham.

It means the competition will rise a level, and established Norfolk teams Isport and Super Nova have a new kid on the block – not that Isport team principal Paul Jackson is too worried: 'What's good for the general industry and the region is not always what is good for your own business.

'But everyone has to look at the bigger picture and it is really good for the area.

'I know some of the people involved in things there and they have been out here to visit us, and we have had chats where we've been generally helpful to them in terms of logistics and things like that.

'Whenever we are on the track we have got to beat them, and then get on with them cordially as neighbours.'

There is bound to be the odd job swap, with the chance to work that bit closer to the Formula One circus through the two teams at Hingham – but the sheer number of applications proves there will be more than enough jobs, and employees, to go around.

So Team AirAsia will be Norfolk's latest four-wheeled arrival – a move you could argue to also provide a convenient substitute name should Fernandes' Team Lotus plans fall down. But at least an F1 presence in Norfolk seems about as assured as it can ever be.

And with the inevitable confirmation Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli will continue in their seats for 2011, and Renault's engines coming on board, it leaves the team's name as the big unanswered question.

AirAsia F1, Fernandes F1, Tune Group Racing, or maybe Team Lotus?

What's in a name? Everything – but at least there now seems to be a little less riding on it.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter