On the eve of his team's home grand prix this weekend at Sepang, Tony Fernandes has conceded that the bitter and embarrassing ongoing naming row with Group Lotus has likely cost Team Lotus potential sponsors in F1 2011 – but indefatigable as ever, he vows that 'we'll fight our corner' and, what's more, that 'we'll do it in a proper way'.
There is still no end in sight to the very public stand-off and legal battle over who should be permitted to carry the legendary Lotus name in F1 – Fernandes' Team Lotus or Lotus Renault GP, which is now being backed by Proton-owned Group Lotus – and the ins-and-outs of the dispute have been well-documented on several occasions.
In the latest salvo, the AirAsia founder took a pop at Group Lotus' association with what was formerly Renault F1 by asserting that 'we are enormously proud of what we have already achieved in just 18 months, and we have done it through hard work and dedication, not by buying seemingly instant success through stickers on a car' [see separate story – click here
] – but he does admit that the shameful and 'petty' slanging-match between the two sides has arguably been to the detriment of both.
“This court case has probably put some sponsors off,” he mused. “The thing is that people just don't know who's right and who's wrong. It's confusing for people, but it's changing. I think many people now realise that it doesn't matter what our name is – you're investing in the people and the attitude. Sponsors who realise that will like us.
“We'll fight our corner – I think we've proven that. We've taken on a Malaysian Government-linked company, we've taken on Group Lotus and we've taken on Force India. We won't give in, but we'll do it in a proper way.”
Earlier this week, Fernandes stepped up his fight by making barbed remarks aimed at both Group Lotus and Petronas-backed Mercedes Grand Prix, underlining that 'there will be three teams here with links to Malaysia, but only one team that has Malaysian blood running deep in its veins, with Malaysian staff contributing to our growth at every level and which has been built from the ground up in the same style as F1's grandee teams' – but Proton managing director Syed Zainal Abidin Syed Mohamed Tahir insists the partnership with Renault is merely one element of its marketing strategy aimed at strengthening Lotus' position in the luxury car market.
“Lotus is an iconic brand as it is,” he explained, “but to support the development of the cars in the future, we have to start the journey of branding. It is a business decision, and we believe that the branding and marketing opportunity in F1 for Lotus in particular is very high, and that is an example set by Ferrari, Mercedes and so on.
“We have never said that we are a Malaysian company going to F1. It is a Lotus association and obviously as the shareholder of Proton, we are a national car company [and] there is some Malaysian involvement. The way we want to do it is very subtle, very systematic and done properly.”
Meanwhile, returning to the on-track action, following a troubled and distinctly underwhelming start to the new season in Melbourne a fortnight ago in which Team Lotus looked to have made little-to-no progress at all over the winter months from where it had ended last year, Fernandes has sought to play down the bold claims made at the T128's launch that the ambition for F1 2011 is to tally between 30 and 40 points and finish eighth in the constructors' world championship, insisting instead that the Anglo/Malaysian outfit 'knows its place' in the sport.
“My target for this year was always tenth,” he stresses, urging a sense of realism. “Of course, I put a target on the boys to go for eighth. Is there a chance of being eighth? Yes, I think so, but the great thing is, this time, you can see what needs to be done. The drivers are much happier. We do have some radiator issues right now, which might last two or three races, but we're not battling any really troubling leaks or hydraulic problems. There is a chance we will be eighth, but I think realistically we can be tenth again and I'm happy with that.
“You can't build an F1 team in 18 months. The team that we are trying to pick off is Force India – they are Jordan; they've been around for 20 years. You've got Williams, who I watched as a kid. Toro Rosso has the advantage of Red Bull around them. Sauber have been around for many years – they've got fantastic facilities built for them by BMW. We have to think of things in that kind of perspective.”