Lotus, the manufacturer, exits Formula 1™ (Updated)

Lotus-Genii

We can argue over the semantics of the latest twist in the fate of Lotus in Formula One, but it can no longer be said that Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean are driving for Lotus.

They’re still driving for Lotus F1 Team, owned by Genii Capital, but this is now an entity which represents Lotus in name only.

In an interview published by Autosport this morning, Gerard Lopez, Chairman of Lotus F1 Team announced that they have terminated their title sponsorship deal with car manufacturer, Group Lotus.

Lopez told Autosport, “The sponsorship agreement and the obligations of Lotus have been terminated. There is no option from Group Lotus to buy into F1 now – that option was taken over by us. There was one, but we have taken it over now.”

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Confused? I’ll try and explain as simply as I can.

Lotus F1 Team, based in Enstone, Oxfordshire is currently registered at Companies House with four directors, 40-year old Gerard Lopez, 44-year old Eric Lux, 40-year old Dany Bahar (Group Lotus CEO) and 49-year old Dato’ Sri Haji Syed Zainal Abidin B. Syed Mohamed Tahir (Managing Director of Proton).

Lotus F1 Team’s chairman, Gerard Lopez, is also co-founder of Luxembourg-based Genii Capital, who together with Eric Lux is also Chairman of Genii Group.

Lotus Genii Lopez Lotus, the manufacturer, exits Formula 1™ (Updated)Gerard Lopez, Chairman of Lotus F1 Team and Genii Capital, speaks with Bernie Ecclestone.
  • In 2009 Genii Capital acquired a majority stake in the Renault F1 Team, with their goal at the time being to return Renault to the forefront of Formula 1.
  • Renault initially retained a 25% share in the team, but then sold this remaining stake to Genii Capital at the end of 2010.
  • Group Lotus then came on board as ‘Title Sponsor’ with the backing of its parent company Proton. The deal assumed Group Lotus plc would become a major equity partner in Lotus Renault GP (renamed for the 2011 season), and remain title sponsors until the end of the 2017 season. The deal also offered Proton access to advanced automotive technologies by virtue of Genii’s association with Mangrove Capital Partners, founded by Lopez in 1998.
  • Following resolution of the acrimonious conflict between Dany Bahar (Lotus CEO) and Tony Fernandes (Air Asia and 1Malaysia Racing CEO) over use of the Lotus name in F1, Lotus Renault GP was renamed to Lotus F1 Team for the 2012 season.
  • In January 2012, Billionaire Syed Mokhtar Al- Bukhary’s DRB-Hicom purchased government-owned Proton (owner of Group Lotus) for $413 million, immediately freezing the assets of the business (including Lotus) whilst it carried out its post-acquisition due diligence. At the same time, DRB-Hicom Group Managing Director Mohd. Khamil Jamil said he was open to selling sportscar maker Lotus.
  • Proton has been suffering in recent years, with huge write-downs (-76% year-on-year) in its profit forecasts mainly due to the financial burden of Group Lotus, which has not turned a profit since 1996.
  • Whilst Lopez confirmed Genii Capital’s commitment to Lotus F1 Team in January following its name change, just 1 month later he said the company could be interested in acquiring Group Lotus plc, “provided they believed there is something good that can be done by acquiring the company”.

For matters to change so significantly between February 2012, when Genii and Group Lotus jointly supported the launch of Lotus F1 Team and then two months later for the partnership to split, reflects a very abnormal situation which can only partly be explained by the DRB-Hicom acquisition but also points towards a falling out between Lopez and Bahar – the most likely reason being a failure to consummate their title sponsorship role with the required funds.

With such a failure, Genii would then have been justified in terminating the agreement due to a breach of contract.

So, from a position in 2010 when we had ‘2’ Lotus teams in Formula 1 (Team Lotus and Lotus Renault F1), we are now in the position where Lotus, the sports-car maker and engineering firm, is no longer in F1. Sad isn’t it?

While the directors of Lotus F1 Team will now presumably comprise just Lopez and Lux, Lopez explained to Autosport that he remains committed to the Lotus name: “We are happy to carry the Lotus name as we believe it is a good name for F1,” he explained. “We funded the team last year and the year before for whatever delta was missing. We would prefer to have sponsors up to the full amount – but if we have to fund it then we will fund it.”

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So what fate will befall Lotus?

Without insight into the terms of existing agreements between Genii Capital, Group Lotus and Proton Holdings (now presumably being novated to DRB-Hicom), there are several outcomes that are likely:

  • Lotus F1 Team will continue as-is during the 2012 Formula 1 season. The team are well funded, thanks to the recent sponsorship deals with Unilever and Microsoft Dynamics. Genii Capital will continue to make up any deficit in the team’s budget – although reading between the lines, it looks like Group Lotus had yet to put any money on the table, even though that was part of the original title sponsorship deal.
  • Some people have speculated that the Lotus name will remain in F1 until 2017, but Genii and Lopez have not confirmed this. A breach of contract can trigger all sorts of exceptional clauses and Lotus’ new owners may decide that licensing Genii to use its brand is no longer in its best interest (or indeed are no longer prepared to offer such a deal quid pro quo)
  • Genii must retain use of the Lotus name in Formula 1, partly because the patience of other teams to approve yet another name change will be zilch, but also because it’s a great brand that suits the ambition of Genii’s Automotive business and needs to stay in Formula 1.
  • It seems clear that Group Lotus Plc are up for sale (despite what Bahar may say) and that Genii Capital are in a strong position to acquire the business. But Lopez is a businessman and venture capitalist and the numbers will need to add up, including how the company’s long-term debt is restructured when separated from the remainder of Proton Group. There are also several cash rich car companies who are already clients of Lotus Engineering and could make good use of Lotus experience in light-weight construction, so I would be surprised if either Volkswagen, Toyota or BMW didn’t show some interest.
  • Tony Fernandes has left the scene and is now busy developing Caterham (cars and F1 team), so we’ll assume he no longer has any use for Lotus and will not be in the running, so Lotus’ future looks like being in the hands of Genii or a major car manufacturer, unless Bahar can gather sufficient partners to lead a management buyout.

Lotus 5-year ‘New Era’ Business Plan was never viable (as I said at the time) – not in the real world. For a business that hasn’t turned a profit in 15 years, whose plan depended on £360 million in funding from Asian investors (£120 million from Proton) and needs to generate £110 million (extra) from sales of its own cars, success was always based upon the most optimistic of scenarios.

Update (06/04 – 22:30 GMT)

Alastair Florance, Group PR Manager for Lotus, responded this evening saying:

“I would like to point out the following:

Group Lotus and Lotus F1 Team are brand partners, the F1 team uses the strength of the Lotus name to promote themselves, and in return Group Lotus benefits from F1 exposure and the ambassadorship of its drivers, and the deal is a non-cost one.

I am sure that this makes sense to you.”

Even then, Lotus would still need to service its existing liabilities (including a rumoured £4 million/week salary bill) and compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace with its ageing product line.

The ‘New Era’ plan requires a generous patron prepared to forego a return on their investment for most of the next 10 years and absorb a £0.5 billion liability on their balance sheet without such burden derailing the rest of their business. Proton couldn’t do so and I doubt Genii can either, so unless somebody new enters the bidding for Group Lotus we’ll be lucky to see even the new Esprit appear during the next 3 years.

Of course, I could be wrong. Our doubts may indeed be “uninformed”, as Bahar accused the UK press of last year, but if I were a betting man I wouldn’t expect favourable odds on Behar still being CEO of Group Lotus when the dust settles.

Bahar’s plan, it would seem, is in tatters.

[+] We’ve reached out to Lotus for their side of the story, and will update this article when we learn more.

Photo credit: Lotus F1 Team and Genii Capital