As the man who joked he would have to retire and kill himself – and accepted a bet to dress and serve as a stewardess for a day on Virgin Atlantic should his team trail in behind that of his fellow airline boss Richard Branson's in 2010 – it might be easy to mistake Lotus F1 founder Tony Fernandes for a man not taking his new role as a grand prix team principal seriously, but that would be a grave mistake to make indeed.
Little known in F1 circles until the last few months, Fernandes has nevertheless established a leading name for himself in the Far East, as the brains behind no-frills Malaysian airline AirAsia, which the government had failed to make work out of as a commercial cause, but which over the course of the last eight years, he has transformed into the world's most prominent and lucrative budget carrier.
Whilst Lotus – like Virgin – will undoubtedly inject a welcome element of fun into the top flight, it is clear that such success as Fernandes has achieved in the aviation sector did not come about by a frivolous attitude, and the 45-year-old entrepreneur is now preparing to adopt the same approach to his new project.
“When you spend the kind of money we've spent, we're not here to come last every year!” he joked, speaking exclusively to Crash.net Radio
. “We are serious. We obviously know we're going to struggle in the first year or so, but we are here to build a serious team and a team that hopefully fans of Lotus can be proud of so that we can live up to the great heritage that we are kind of associated with.
“I think I put my intentions very clearly when we signed two paid drivers, and two good drivers – Jarno [Trulli] and Heikki [Kovalainen] can hold their position in any team and do a good job. That is an accomplishment in itself, because no-one is going to walk into a team if they think it's a Mickey Mouse team. They did their own diligence, and the fact is that we actually had two other grand prix drivers who wanted to drive for us.
“That shows two things – one, I think they liked what was behind the commercial side of the business, and two, they saw the seriousness of what Mike [Gascoyne – technical director] and his team were doing. I am proud of that, and hopefully Mike can give them a car that will do them justice as well.”
Indeed, the driving line-up at Lotus in F1 2010 is inarguably the best of the four newcomers – with Trulli and Kovalainen former grand prix-winners both – and arguably better than some of the pre-existing teams to-boot. The duo's combined speed and experience will doubtless aid greatly in helping the Anglo-Malaysian outfit to climb the steep learning slope that lies ahead of it, and drive the team forwards in years to come to appropriately honour such a great history and name.
With F1's reputation as the pinnacle of international motor racing having suffered from far too many new entrants joining and then folding again within only a matter of seasons over the past couple of decades – Lola, Forti Corse, Pacific and BMS Scuderia Italia spring most prominently to mind – Fernandes insists that Lotus' intentions are far more long-term, adding that the sport's new low-cost era will play a vital role in that longevity.
“Obviously, I've kept the goals pretty humble,” he acknowledged. “My first, initial goal is to finish all the races, and another goal would be to be the best of the new teams. The definition of 'new' is interesting as well, and if we can beat Sauber I think that would be fantastic, because they've got a lot of years of experience behind them.