The golden heads of rapeseed flowers wallowed loftily next to a lush green Duxford meadow last Wednesday. A more fitting backdrop to the stunning livery of the new Team Lotus Caterham could surely never be found.
But behind the facade of the polished presentation, announcing the acquisition of the Caterham business by Tony Fernandes and his partners, lie significant questions as to how this meeting of minds will help to evolve the company’s DNA into a formidable sports car business.
The one thing that immediately struck me was just how at ease Fernandes and Ali were with each other, far more so than I ever saw between the Caterham man and (previous owner) Corven’s Mark Edwards. Why do I mention this? Because some decisions, especially in the early years of Ali’s tenure, were widely questioned; in particular those involving Caterham’s relationships with its key suppliers.[onethird_columns ]
If Caterham are to build upon the success of the Seven, they need capable people around them, people who understand the need to deliver the right results, within limited budgets, at low volumes and with high priority.
Tony Fernandes understands this and my hope is that the trust they share will now allow Ansar to do the same.[/onethird_columns] [twothirds_columns_last ][/twothirds_columns_last]
The first test of the new relationship will be the introduction of the SP/300.R, Caterham’s Lola-inspired, open-sports racer, launched at Autosport International back in January. With a one-make Series announced for 2012, Caterham and Team Lotus will be aware that this is a car that has to deliver; and has to be delivered on time, and be ready to race. Assuming of course that Fernandes does not veto its production.
This is clearly going to take some considerable effort and possibly even key elements of re-design. I think that it’s fair to say that there were mixed reactions to this car at launch, partly because it was perceived as a re-badged Lola product, partly because many people were hoping for something different and partly because Radical had just announced their own new SR3 SL.
I can see why Caterham have gone for the SP/300.R, they’re obviously aware of Radical’s success in this market, the product was already essentially developed and it gives a significant / modern view to Caterham as a marque (away from the Seven). Having said that, the choice of a supercharged Duratec over the newer, turbocharged, EU5 compliant EcoBoost seems very odd, especially as Caterham have already announced they will use the EcoBoost in their new R400 (also for next year).
Perhaps the bigger question here is whether Caterham will continue their exclusive relationship with Ford or will now, with Team Lotus backing, explore other power-train options, particularly from Renault? Renault already has the excellent F4R 832, 1998cc 16v engine, and a tie-in with the French manufacturer could bring further added kudos.
It may also create significant retail opportunities, something which both Fernandes and Ali alluded to seeking to develop. Caterham Lotus Renault has a certain ring to it, as does Caterham Lotus Cosworth – however one of these is of course very unlikely.
So we know that the chemistry is good, that “both” want to develop export potential, and that there may be a few surprises along the way but what about new models? For Caterham to grow, they need more than just the Seven and SP/300.R. They need something VERY significant. Ali appears to agree with me that there is a current upper ceiling for sales of Sevens at about 1,000 per annum globally, but with competition from Westfield and local producers such as Birkin and Fraser, even the Team Lotus connection may find Caterham struggling to achieve regular volumes in excess of 750 cars (up from 500 cars currently).
Motorsport will undoubtedly be one area that the new operation will want to address. The success of the Academy in the UK currently generates 10% of all new sales and for the past few years, much of Caterham’s export effort has been focussed on trying to replicate this in overseas markets. To date, this has proved largely unsuccessful but this is due more to a lack of understanding of the Seven-product in these markets rather than the effort put in by local agents. Perhaps now, dressed in bright green & yellow, they will have more luck.
Ultimately though, the market for the Seven will continue to fall and so for Caterham to grow, the range will have to evolve.
As it was, Fernandes was keen to stress that “yes”, there will be new models, but that this is a topic for another time. Can you blame him for leaving it like this? Of course not! Caterham were already going to hold the headlines, so for the time being, there was absolutely no need to say any more.
When quizzed about the possibility of a volume-produced sportscar, Ali knows that the type of costs involved in homologation / approval are at a level beyond which he would have previously been able to consider. But even with the backing of Team Lotus, he knows that funding alone will not solve the complexity of the legislative process.
In their favour, it seems highly likely that Dany Bahar’s vision for Group Lotus will provide a timely opening for Caterham into this market. Group Lotus wish to take-on Porsche and Ferrari and this will be at the expense of entry level vehicles such as the Elise and Exige. All sorts of options are emerging, including one where Caterham / Team Lotus will style and develop a car for a major manufacturer. This could introduce the brand to a key international retail network with little of the expense. From here, who knows?
Another option could be to refine an existing product and put their own badge on it. Whichever direction Caterham eventually take, it will be so significant that it cannot happen overnight; neither can it happen at Kennet Rd, so either the Dartford operation has to move to Hingham, or…?
For the moment, Hingham is the obvious favourite. They have the space, the people and the autoclaves, but Fernandes did give a little glimpse as to his ambition..[blockquote type=”blockquote_quotes” align=”center”] it would be great to have a car factory and a race team and a test track all together in the same place…[/blockquote]
This to me sounds a little like that other place, just 10 miles east and across the A11. Should Bahar’s attempts to re-invent Group Lotus as a Supercar manufacturer fail, the possibility of Team Lotus / Caterham “reversing” into Group Lotus could become a very real scenario.
Credit: Images supplied by Caterham Cars and Team Lotus Studios