The uncertainty regarding just what the team presently known as Lotus Racing will be called next year has taken yet another twist, with speculation that Proton is seriously interested in buying into Renault's F1 outfit – and renaming it Lotus-Renault.
On the eve of this weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, it was finally officially announced that Lotus Racing will be powered by Renault engines in 2011 and 2012 [see separate story – click here
] – combined with the Red Bull Technology gearboxes and hydraulic systems that had already been confirmed some time before, likely to vault the best of the F1 2010 newcomers some way up the starting grid next season.
However, in both the Lotus Racing and Renault releases on the matter, the name Lotus is conspicuously absent for the first time, with the former alluding only to 'the team' and the latter referring to '1Malaysia Racing Team (UK) Ltd', the original name of the Anglo/Malaysian outfit prior to its rebaptism.
The reason for that is team principal Tony Fernandes' ongoing row with Proton, with the Malaysian car maker disputing the AirAsia founder's claim to have purchased the rights to the iconic 'Team Lotus' moniker for 2011 from David Hunt, brother of the late 1976 F1 World Champion James Hunt.
As the owners of Group Lotus, Proton maintain that the 'Team Lotus' rights are theirs and theirs alone to sell, and in response to Fernandes' perceived brazen audacity, the company has revoked the entrepreneur's licence to operate under the Lotus name as of the end of this season – ostensibly, because Group Lotus wishes to enter into F1 itself.
The word within the paddock is that Group Lotus is evaluating the prospect of going into partnership with Renault, with the French manufacturer thereby reducing its involvement in the top flight and returning to being simply an engine-supplier to its works operation, Lotus Racing and Red Bull Racing in what would represent a wholesale revision of its motorsport strategy.
The collaboration makes sense from the point-of-view that Renault and Proton have already been having discussions about working together on an automotive level, with an agreement reputedly in-place for the Proton Savvy to share the 1.2-litre engine used in Renault's Clio and Twingo.
According to former ITV-F1
commentator James Allen writing on his internet blog, the key figure in negotiations is young businessman Tarek Obaid, a long-time associate of Renault F1 majority owner Gérard Lopez and CEO of Saudi-based private oil and gas firm PetroSaudi International.
Obaid came on-board at Enstone back in May, and crucially is understood to have strong and influential connections in Malaysia – with PetroSaudi having orchestrated a joint $2.5 billion project with the country's government last year to invest in renewable energy initiatives there. The picture is blurred by Lopez's Luxembourg-based company Genii Capital stating that Obaid is no longer a Renault F1 partner – but a rival team principal told Allen that 'next year that will be a very different-looking team'.
If the Group Lotus/Renault relationship does indeed materialise in 2011, it would make it very difficult for Fernandes to press ahead with his own plans to resurrect the legendary Team Lotus name – and Allen suggests that should the canny businessman have successfully used the whole political situation to engineer some kind of benefit for another area of his enterprise, he may now be willing to back down and agree to relinquish the Lotus brand – possibly in favour of AirAsia...
Fernandes has already had to enter his new GP2 Series operation under the name of his airline business after Group Lotus decided to get involved in the feeder category with ART Grand Prix. Team AirAsia, a possible precursor to any required name change in the top flight, joined Carlin in replacing Durango and DPR in GP2 for 2011.