Tony Fernandes has accused Proton and its subsidiary Group Lotus of resorting to 'bully-boy tactics' and risking a 'branding disaster' in its persistent efforts to discredit his F1 operation – and he argues that the only means by which the ongoing naming row can be settled amicably is for his would-be intimidators to 'come off their high horses'.
The embarrassing dispute means there are currently two Lotus outfits on the F1 2011 entry list – and Fernandes has sought a High Court ruling in his bid to be able to run with the iconic Team Lotus moniker next year, as well as seeking compensation from Proton for 'unlawfully' revoking his licence to use the Lotus name four years before the deal was due to expire in order to instead go into partnership with Renault.
Group Lotus CEO Dany Bahar has claimed that Proton endeavoured to come to an agreement with Fernandes first, but that the Malaysian manufacturer was dissuaded by his 'ridiculous and absurd' financial demands [see separate story – click here
], whilst Eric Boullier – managing director of Lotus Renault GP as Renault F1 is now called – has claimed that the AirAsia founder is endeavouring to fool the sport's fans by perpetrating the 'false' notion that 2010 newcomer Lotus Racing is the heir to the legendary Team Lotus [click here
“I've never seen such a barrage of comments from a group of people,” an angry Fernandes told BBC Sport
, adding that Group Lotus' sponsorship of his team in F1 2010 was to the tune of just $1 million, as compared to the $20 million it is reputedly shelling out per year with Renault. “It has annoyed me. It's a little bit of bully-boy tactics.
“The thing that annoyed me most is Dany Bahar implying we wanted too much money and that Renault was a third of the cost of what it would have been to do a deal with Lotus Racing. They have been quoted saying they are spending in the region of £15-20 million a year on Renault, which implies we asked for £45-60 million. That's more than our entire budget. We were never close to an offer, and it's completely untrue to say we requested three times what they're paying Renault.”
Fernandes purchased the rights to the Team Lotus name from David Hunt – brother of 1976 F1 World Champion James – but Group Lotus contends the rights were never Hunt's to sell in the first place. The Malaysian entrepreneur has revealed that he was prompted to do so as he had suspicions Group Lotus were planning on terminating his licencing agreement – which they subsequently did – and as such he wanted to pre-emptively protect his investment.
That means there is a legal battle now brewing, since there will ostensibly be no room at the inn for two teams named Lotus next year. One of the reasons Fernandes is so desperate to win that battle is that if he is forced to change the name of his team to something other than Lotus, he would have to enter as a new team once more, and in so doing sacrifice the financial benefits he stands to gain should the squad finish inside the top ten in the constructors' standings again in 2011, reckoned to be in the region of £22.5 million.
He is not
, he insists, making any pretence that his team has any connection to the ultra-successful, multiple world championship-winning Team Lotus of yore – but he agrees with Bahar that it is time to bring an end to the damaging public standoff and arrive at some kind of acceptable compromise to avoid dragging one of motoring's most revered names through the mud any more than it has been already.
“I have never claimed the Team Lotus legacy,” stressed the 46-year-old, who crucially has the support of the family of the British marque's late founder Colin Chapman in his efforts to revive the valuable but weakened brand, sensitively basing his team in the heart of Lotus country in Norfolk and hiring a great deal of experience and expertise on both the driving and technical front.
“I never wanted to be Team Lotus. I'd rather that rested with (Colin's son) Clive Chapman. I'd rather form a new chapter – bring the Lotus name back to F1, build a team on the traditions of Colin Chapman, but in no way could we say we had anything to do with him.
“We are pragmatic. There should be a solution, but we should also do what is right for the brand. We went in with the right spirit, we honoured the past, we didn't say we were anything to do with the past, we were quite happy being Lotus Racing and we wanted to continue as that. Our licensing agreement was unceremoniously terminated unlawfully, and at any stage we would welcome a way to sort this out – but it's got to be equitable and respect what we have done.
“If they come off their high horses, who knows? I'd say it's highly unlikely, but three months ago if you'd said Group Lotus would be sponsoring Renault, I'd have laughed at you. It's a branding disaster.”
Lotus Renault GP refused to comment.