Let's roll the clock back a little. Following the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, brands such as Toyota, BMW, and Honda pulled out of F1. This left the FIA wanting new teams in F1 to fill up the grid. Fast forward to 2010, and Formula 1 was about to see 3 all-new teams enter the sport. These were the Hispania Racing F1 Team [later rebranded to HRT], Virgin Racing [later rebranded to Marussia], and Lotus Racing.
That's right, the iconic Lotus name was finally back in F1. The following year, it was revealed that Renault would be rebranded to Lotus Renault GP, which meant that there would be 2 different Lotus teams on the grid. At first, this may all seem very confusing - and trust me, it is - so let's try and simplify things.
The saga traces back to the late 2000s when the Norfolk-based Litespeed F3 team opened a deal with a Malaysian businessman by the name of Tony Fernandes to set up and fund an all-new Formula 1 team. With Fernandes at the helm and support from both the Malaysian government and Malaysian automaker Proton, which had recently purchased a majority stake in Group Lotus, granting it exclusive control over the road-going sports car range.
This wouldn't be the first time Proton dabbled in motorsports, as the company previously sponsored the Malaysian A1 GP team. If you haven't heard of A1 GP, it was essentially F1 with equal machinery where the teams are countries and the drivers represent their countries. So basically, the Olympics of F1, but that's a whole story for another time.
Proton permitted Fernandes' emerging venture to race in F1 with the Lotus name, and having gained FIA approval to compete in the pinnacle of motorsports from 2010 onwards, Lotus Racing was set to return to the F1 grid. The new team established its base of operations in Norfolk, just 16 km away from the Lotus Cars factory.
Designed by Mike Gascoyne, who has worked for teams such as McLaren, Sauber, Tyrrell, Jordan, Renault, Toyota, and Spyker, the Cosworth-powered Lotus T127 flaunted a British racing green livery accompanied by yellow stripes as a callback to the livery of the original Team Lotus. The car featured sponsors consisting of several private and government-owned companies, primarily from Malaysia, associated with Team Principal Tony Fernandes. The team had a decent driver lineup of Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli. Hopes were high for the team as they wanted to rival the success of Brawn GP, which....went well.
You see, Brawn GP's story is incredible. After Honda pulled out of F1, Ross Brawn bought the team for £1 and transformed it from being a backmarker in 2008 to winning both titles in 2009. At least Brawn had started working on the car from early 2008 onwards. The same can't be said for Lotus, as its factory only opened up in September 2009. That's less than 6 months away from the upcoming 2010 season. On their first day, they had just 4 employees working, and when Kovalainen first visited the factory in December, the walls and floors still weren't fully built. You can already get an indication as to how their season was about to kick off.
If you thought the 2020 Ferrari power units were bad, wait till you hear about the Cosworth power units. Straight off the bat, the pace of the car was simply not there. The lack of power was apparent, as Kovalainen and Trulli had to settle for P21 and P22 for the opening round in Bahrain, only beating the equally bad Hispania Racing team. The race was better, as Kovalainen finished in P15, but this performance was indicative of the entire season to come, which was plagued by reliability issues and retirements.
Overall, it was a dismal first season for the team. They did, however, manage to beat Virgin and Hispania Racing, as they finished 10th in the constructors. This meant that they were the best of the 3 new teams, and were awarded prize money of $25 million for finishing in the top 10, while the other backmarkers got nothing.
From here onwards, it all gets a bit messy. With the F1 season already underway, and with Lotus competing against the Renault F1 Team, you would be understandably confused to find that Group Lotus purchased a stake in the Enstone-based Renault F1 Team. After a less than ideal 2010 season, Proton announced that it would terminate its grant to Fernandes' team to use the Lotus name from 2011 onwards, as the Renault F1 team was to be rebranded to Lotus Renault GP. This would revive a partnership that existed from the mid-1980s, a time when Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna were the faces of F1.
This would trigger a whole host of events as Lotus Racing was undergoing an identity crisis. Fernandes was adamant to preserve the identity of his F1 team and purchased the naming rights to Colin Chapman's original 'Team Lotus' from the brother of James Hunt, David Hunt, who had owned the rights to the team since 1995. This led to the team competing officially under the Team Lotus name, wearing the famous Lotus badge that was formed from the initials of Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman.
To make matters worse, Lotus Renault GP also used the same badge, and that's not even the end of it. Fernandes' team ditched the dreadful Cosworth power units in favor of Renault power units, which meant that both Lotus teams now had the same logo, same name and ran the same power units. Lotus Renault GP built their cars in an Oxfordshire factory used by teams such as Toleman and Benetton. The team revived the iconic black and gold livery used by Lotus when they were sponsored by John Player Special cigarettes.
What's even more astonishing is that both F1 teams are backed by Malaysian money, as Lotus Renault GP was backed by Proton, fronted by Dany Bahar - the same man who currently runs ARES Design. Having worked with teams such as Red Bull and Ferrari, Bahar wanted to turn Lotus into a brand to rival Ferrari by expanding the road car range and enhancing the brand image, whereas Fernandes' ambitions seemed to involve nothing more than building a successful racing team. Time passed by and soon came the 2011 F1 season, which had 2 Malaysian-backed Renault-powered Lotus teams.
In the absence of Proton, it was Fernandes' airline Air Asia that stepped in as the main sponsor for the team, featuring on the T128 chassis. The team was also sponsored by Dell, EQ8 energy drinks, and the British carmaker Caterham, which had been recently purchased by Fernandes, and will be important for the team's future.
It was around the start of the season that legal disputes had really escalated and tensions were heating up. Statements being made such as "There will be two teams with cars called Lotus at the first race of the 2011 Formula One season, but possibly not at the second" [Richard Williams, The Guardian]. A trial in the high court in London would begin on the 21st of March, just 8 days after the opening round in Bahrain, to determine which team had the right to continue bearing one of the greatest names in Grand Prix history, almost two decades after the original incarnation went bust.
"The day we beat them on the track will be a sweet one" - Mike Gascoyne, Team Lotus Chief Designer
A crafty businessman, many believe Chapman would have applauded Bahar's entrepreneurial spirit. Despite being present for the original launch of Team Lotus, back when it was called Lotus Racing, the Chapman family seemed to have mysteriously switched sides, asking Fernandes to stop using the Lotus name. Both teams wanted to build the future by appropriating the past, and since millions of dollars were at stake, it was up to a judge to decide.
On the track, things weren't looking too good for Fernandes' team. They retained the same driver lineup as 2010, and had their best result at the season opener in Australia, with Jarno Trulli taking P13. However, at the same race, Vitaly Petrov scored a podium for Lotus Renault GP after finishing P3. This set the tone for the remainder of the season as the Enstone team added insult to injury to Fernandes' team. By the end of the season, Lotus Renault GP finished 5th in the constructors with 73 points to their name, while Team Lotus finished 10th, scoring 0 points.
After Lotus Renault GP wiped the floor with his team, Fernandes gave in and requested that his beloved F1 team be renamed Caterham F1 Team from the 2012 season onwards and Lotus Renault GP rebranded themselves to simply Lotus F1 Team. Jarno Trulli and Heiki Kovalainen re-signed for Caterham, and the team announced they would be moving their operations to the Leafield Technical Centre in Oxfordshire. This was the previous base of operations for Super Aguri and Arrows; a bit of a red flag to say the least.
However, before the season began, Caterham announced that Vitaly Petrov would replace Jarno Trulli. As the 2012 season was underway, Fernandes' team resurfaced with the all-new CT01 chassis. The team retained its classic green and yellow livery, with new sponsors such as Airbus, General Electric, and Intel. Interestingly, the team featured a small Malaysian flag on the sides of the rear wing.
Initially, it was much of the same story. Pace looked almost non-existent for the most part, but Kovalainen still managed a Q2 appearance in Bahrain. The team's best result would be equalled at Monaco and Abu Dhabi with P13 at both venues from Kovalainen. Yet again, Fernandes' team finished 10th in the constructors with no points to its name, but importantly beat out Marussia and HRT as they did in the 2 years before.
2012 was completely different for Lotus, which finished 4th in the constructors, with 303 points to their name. The team had signed Kimi Räikkönen and Romain Grosjean as their 2 drivers, marking the iceman's return to F1. This was also the season that Kimi gave Lotus their first win in F1 at Abu Dhabi, and gifted F1 fans the iconic "Just leave me alone, I know what to do" radio message. Kimi finished 3rd in the driver's standings and Grosjean finished 8th. Overall, a solid year for the team.
Coming into the 2013 season, Caterham decided to shake things up with an all-new driver lineup of ex-Marussia driver Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde. Pic has the record of being the most overtaken driver in a season, being overtaken 70 times in his 2012 Marussia campaign. Van der Garde had made his way from GP2, graduating from the series and being promoted from reserve driver to a full-time Formula 1 driver. With 2 young drivers at wheel and Cyril Abiteboul now leading the team, hopes were high.
However, after what was arguably their best season in 2012, 2013 saw the team slip to 11th in the constructor's standings. Caterham was being beaten out by Marussia, which marks their worst season to date. HRT had departed after 2012, which means the team was plum last in the constructor's standings. Lotus, on the other hand, had finished in 4th with 315 points to their name. Nevertheless, 2014 was set to bring about an all-new set of technical regulations as F1 moved to the turbo-hybrid era and there was hope that Caterham could move further up the order.
The 2014 season marked the end of Red Bull and Vettel's dominance of the sport, as Mercedes and Hamilton emerged champions. Before the start of the season, Formula 1 fans around the world were excited to see what the new cars would look like. However, as each new car was unveiled, the fan reception was...let's just say mixed. The redesigned noses of the cars were labelled ugly by the majority of fans and as they prepared to see what Caterham could come up with, the only questions raised were whether these cars could get any uglier.
Caterham absolutely shocked everyone with well...I'm not sure how to describe it. Frankly, I think it looks inappropriate. Lotus too had unveiled a bizarre front end with 2 protruding sections on the nose. Caterham did update their design later on in the season but it wasn't much better. Just one look at both cars and you can tell they were both going to simply be hopeless.
Caterham's campaign, which would be their final one in the sport, was not in any way helped by their driver lineup. Now consisting of 4 drivers: Marcus Ericsson, Kamui Kobayashi, Will Stevens, and André Lotterer, Caterham remained in 11th - beaten by Marussia in 9th, who themselves beat 10th placed Sauber (0 pts) after scoring 2 points courtesy of Jules Bianchi at Monaco. Lotus, who lost Kimi to Ferrari, slipped down to 8th with 10 points to their name. If it's any consolation to the Enstone team, Caterham became the team with the most Grand Prix entries without scoring a single world championship point.
The final nail in Caterham's coffin was money - or the lack of it. The team was sold to a consortium of Swiss and Middle Eastern investors and tensions began to brew when Kobayashi had to sit out of the Belgian GP in favour of Lotterrer. However, Lotterrer seemingly unhappy with his experience with the car handed the drive back to Kobayashi - who would only start 4 of the remaining 8 races. The team entered administration in the latter part of the year and missed the US and Brazilian GP.
Before this was revealed, it would be announced that Rubens Barichello had signed a 3-race deal with the team, but this failed to materialise given the team had called into administration. Bizarrely, Caterham resorted to crowdfunding to compete in the final round in Abu Dhabi, much to the displeasure of the FIA. However, the company eventually folded at the end of the season, leaving their factory completely abandoned, having failed to secure a buyer.
Lotus, however, stuck around in 2015. Going into the season, the team parted ways with Renault and made the switch to Mercedes power. The driver lineup consisted of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado. Unreliability and driver error were key factors in their downfall, as Grosjean suffered an engine failure at the season opener, and Maldonado binned it into the barriers at the start. In China, RoGro brought home an exceptional P7 finish, while Maldonado's race characterised the team's season as he missed the pit entry, spun, and then crashed out.
Poor results continued throughout the season and the two Lotus drivers crashed into each other at the Spanish Grand Prix; RoGro finished P8 but Maldonado retired. In Hungary, Pirelli straight up didn't supply the team with tyres due to unpaid bills as the team faced financial troubles. The team was locked out of their hospitality facility in Japan as they hadn't paid race organisers. They also owed tax money to the British government. The team was in talks with Renault to have the team sold over to them.
The reason for so much of this financial trouble was partly because of their contract with Kimi Räikkönen. For each point that Kimi scored, he would receive €50,000 as a bonus. Considering he scored 390 points in just 2 years, this sums up to about €19.5 million – crazy numbers! Even to this day, the team is believed to still owe Kimi money.
Overall, the team finished 2015 in P6 in the constructor’s standings – with the highlight being a 3rd place finish by RoGro at Spa, with 78 points overall. Just days before Christmas, Renault announced that they had finally bought the team for a single British pound. After stepping in and saving Lotus, Renault would return to the sport the following year as a works team, with Cyril Abiteboul appointed as team principal.
Caterham surely were one of the worst F1 teams in modern times, but credit where credit is due, they did manage to compete with HRT and Marussia. Remember, they were the best of the 3 up until 2013. Ultimately, F1 learned the all-important lesson that quality is indeed better than quantity.