Lotus Racing is not in F1 'to be second', the Anglo/Malaysian outfit's founder and team principal Tony Fernandes has boldly announced on the eve of the 2010 campaign in Bahrain this weekend - contending that 'if we continue on the [present] growth path, we will be world champions one day without a doubt'.

In the team's first free practice running at Sakhir today (Friday), both Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli languished in the region of seven-to-ten seconds shy of the leading pace, and whilst acknowledging that the early days will be hard going indeed, Fernandes seeks to point out the distance Lotus has come since officially gaining its entry back in mid-September - as the last of the newcomers to be welcomed into the fray, necessitating a game of catch-up right from the start - and his immense pride in that progress.

"I think we've already accomplished more than anyone could have dreamt," the AirAsia CEO told AFP on the design and construction of the Mike Gascoyne-penned, Cosworth-powered T127 from a completely clean sheet of paper. "To build 8,500 parts and put a team together in six months, and have a car that at the moment is four seconds off the pace...is amazing when you think we're competing against teams that have been around for 70, 80 years. I have to say this is something else -- having qualified to race with McLaren and Ferrari is fantastic.

"We have to do everything from scratch. Brawn, [which] everyone is raving about, is actually Honda. Our task is much, much harder, but I firmly believe that if we continue on that growth path, we will be world champions one day without a doubt. We're not here to be second, we're here to win, but we have to be realistic - we're not going to win next year.

"My goal [for 2010] is to try and finish every race, and try to be the best new team. We just want to finish [in Bahrain] - anything else is a bonus - but it's important to remember that we're on the grid. This is the way to do it - start small and slowly build."

The reference to Brawn - now Mercedes Grand Prix - alludes to the fact that he reigning world champions and the likes of Red Bull Racing, Scuderia Toro Rosso and Force India are all essentially re-badged versions of previously existing teams, whereas Lotus and fellow F1 2010 new boys Virgin and Hispania (HRT) are all start-up operations.

Lotus is also bearing the weight of expectation of its illustrious name and the achievements of the legendary Team Lotus, that originally competed in F1 from 1958 to 1994, over that period sweeping to six drivers' titles, seven constructors' trophies and 73 race victories - and employed the likes of grand prix greats Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Sir Stirling Moss, Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Mika Hakkinen.

With a green-and-yellow livery reminiscent of Lotus' 1960s heyday, the squad is clearly not hiding from its celebrated heritage. Whilst the 'conservative' approach to the T127 - heavier than the majority of its rivals, though a new aerodynamic package in the pipeline should help to remedy the situation somewhat - as a consequence of the lack of preparation time and the team's ?40 million budget mean miracles will not be achieved overnight, Fernandes is confident of disproving the sceptics and naysayers like Ferrari, who have poured scorn upon the efforts of the new arrivals in the field this year.

"It's good when people laugh at you because they don't take you seriously," opined the man who rescued AirAsia from financial ruin in late 2001, and went on to transform it into one of the world's leading low-cost airlines today. "It doesn't bother me at all, because you all have to have beginnings. There were some sceptics, but we now see more belief from the media. I feel the country is behind us.

"Our timing is impeccable. [The fact] that people are moving towards environmental issues makes the car more interesting, makes the sport more interesting and reduces costs. It is a fiercely-competitive sport - to gain half a second you need a lot of work - but I think with the right attitude and the right people and the way Formula 1 is going, it helps teams like us. F1 is not a global sport...it will only become more global when there are more teams like us."

The media hype and increased interest in the sport in Malaysia and Asia in general in the wake of Lotus' arrival in the top flight has helped in the quest for additional sponsorship, with the team presently bankrolled by a public-private partnership involving a number of Malaysian entrepreneurs and businessmen after a hoped-for deal Petronas fell through when the country's national oil company elected to lend its financial support to Mercedes instead, where it is now the title backer.

And finally, of course, there is the celebrated bet with Virgin Racing figurehead Richard Branson, with both the Englishman and fellow aviation tycoon Fernandes having made a pre-season cross-dressing wager, according to which whichever's team comes off worse this year will have to face a humiliating forfeit.

"If I lose I have to be a stewardess on his aircraft, and if he loses he has to be a stewardess on mine," the Malaysian explained. "Routes have been picked - he does London-Kuala Lumpur and I do London-Lagos. My cabin crew have already collected money for stockings for Richard, but not fishnets - we're conservative..."

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