Lotus : The inside track on the wrangle over the Team Lotus IPRs
Chris Sawyer, Executive Editor of US-based website Cars In Context, gives us his analysis of the latest developments in the dispute over the IPRs to the Team Lotus Trade Marks.
Does the establishment of Lotus-Renault GP end the bickering between Tony Fernandes and Group Lotus over the Team Lotus name, or make it more likely the two will end up in court? Some see the announcement of a Group Lotus-supported F1 team as yet another salvo in a continuing war, one that won’t end until the High Court has had a chance to rule on who owns the iconic Team Lotus name. The expectation is that we are in for a long, cold winter of claim and counterclaim but I am not one of those people.
Lotus watching in the Proton era is like trying to discern the true motives and intentions of an enigmatic soul. ‘Yes’ can often mean ‘No’ or something in-between. It is hardly ever definite. Subtlety is the keyword. Yet the indication that there will be no litigation over rights to the Team Lotus name came with the official announcement of the tie-up between Group Lotus and Genii Capital.
The third party quoted in the press release was Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, Proton adviser and former Prime Minister of Malaysia. He is better known as the person who helped broker Proton’s purchase of Lotus in 1997 and the main supporter of Tony Fernandes in his bid to use the Team Lotus name in Formula 1. Why would the 85 year-old former Malaysian PM be quoted in an official Group Lotus press release if the two factions were still on course to stand before a High Court Judge? The short answer is that he wouldn’t. Mohamad may be old, but he’s neither senile nor stupid.
Malaysian society places great emphasis on elders, especially those who once held high office. If Mohamad tells business leaders to jump, the only question is ‘How high?’ Hence his statement in the official Group Lotus press release: ‘This is an exciting development which delivers strategic benefits to both Group Lotus and Proton. I fully support the partnership,’ carries with it a strong indication that the fight is over. There will be two Lotus-Renault teams in F1 next year.
What there won’t be is peace. Lawsuits over use of the Team Lotus name and the termination of the licensing agreement between Group Lotus and Fernandes continue to move forward for now. However, expect these two cases to morph into one, with the only item to be decided being the amount Group Lotus will have to pay Fernandes to extricate itself from the wreckage of what appears to be Bahar’s unilateral revocation of permission to use the Lotus brand. Fernandes is already making the case in the press that relations with Group Lotus pre-Bahar were fine and only deteriorated once the ex-Red Bull and Ferrari man came on-board, as his recent interview with Adam Cooper on the Speed website makes clear.
After 13 years of ownership, numerous false starts and broken promises, Proton’s Malaysian owners believe they have lost enough face, endured enough embarrassment and spent enough money to continue. It might even sell the company at a loss. Tony Fernandes could still find himself in pole position when the dust settles…
Indeed, read through that interview and you will find this gem: Fernandes claims he didn’t use the word ‘Team’ in the Lotus Racing licensing agreement because Group Lotus told him that David Hunt, owner of the Team Lotus name, would apply for an injunction – so much, then, for Proton’s claims that Group Lotus held rights to the Team Lotus name and Bahar’s claim that the Lotus brand covers cars, a Formula 1 racer is a car and, therefore, the Lotus brand – held by Group Lotus – covers both road and racing cars. The only thing Lotus road and race cars had in common was Colin Chapman and he’s dead. He also planned on eventually leaving Group Lotus to run Team Lotus exclusively. The road car operation could sink or swim on its own.
During his speech at the Paris Motor Show Dany Bahar claimed to ‘have read thousands of papers and documents from Colin Chapman…’ Yet it is only too apparent that he failed to read Chapman’s authorised autobiography (Colin Chapman: The Man and His Cars by Jabby Crombac, page 54) or any of the other books on Lotus and Chapman. Each clearly states Team Lotus was a separate entity and wholly owned by the Chapman family. Hazel Chapman and her son Clive then sold Team Lotus to a group headed by Peter Collins in 1991.
When that enterprise failed, the remaining assets were sold by the Administrators to James Hunt’s brother David and Ken Wapshott in a sale that was completely under the jurisdiction of the High Court during 1994. (Read the interview given by David Hunt to Peter Windsor of TheRaceDriver.com on the matter here.) It’s apparent that nowhere in those ‘thousands of documents’ did Bahar find a deed to Team Lotus. Perhaps it was hidden amidst all of those payment invoices filed by GPD on John DeLorean’s behalf…
Yet Dany Bahar is nothing if not flexible, supple… slippery even. His most recent pronouncements on the topic (in an article on Autosport’s website), straddle both sides of the dispute as he concurrently suggests that: 1) Fernandes, Proton and Group Lotus will come to an amicable settlement that turns over the rights to the Team Lotus name, 2) A court will have to decide who is right, and 3) Bahar has no interest in the Team Lotus name as it is part of the past and should rest in peace. Lotus-Renault GP, on the other hand, is the future and should be permitted to prosper unmolested – and uncontested. We should all thank God this guy isn’t in politics. You do, though, have to admire his guts and seemingly limitless cheek.
What may yet cause Bahar’s downfall is his unquenchable ambition – if this isn’t just a smokescreen to make Lotus look healthy in order to get a suitor to pay top dollar for the company – an inability to deliver on promises made could come back to bite him. The effect of that on Lotus would be the same as if a sale was imminent. After 13 years of ownership, numerous false starts and broken promises, Proton’s Malaysian owners believe they have lost enough face, endured enough embarrassment and spent enough money to continue. It might even sell the company at a loss. Tony Fernandes could still find himself in pole position when the dust settles…