Lotus ready to make a grand comeback

Lotus team officials Tony Fernandes and Mike Gascoyne say they are looking forward to restore the past glory of one of the iconic names in F1.

Last year's British Grand Prix marked the end of Jenson Button's dominance of the 2009 Formula One season. The Briton, who went on to be crowned world champion at the penultimate race of the season in Brazil despite not winning another race that year, had dreamed of victory in front of his home crowd but stuttered to sixth behind race winner Sebastian Vettel. As Brawn GP showed their first fallibility in the Saturday qualifying session as the British team struggled to warm their tyres in the cool conditions, a plan was being hatched at Silverstone to bring back one of the most iconic names to Formula One, Lotus.

In all, Lotus managed seven constructors' titles, six drivers' crowns and 73 race wins in their first spell in Formula One before bowing out of the sport at the 1994 Australian Grand Prix after running out of money. But the famous name will be back on the grid at race one of the 2010 season in Bahrain in March thanks to Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes and former Jordan, Benetton and Toyota technical director Mike Gascoyne.

However, Gascoyne revealed the deal very nearly fell at the first hurdle as Fernandes battled with Silverstone's notoriously bad traffic. "I was due to meet Tony for the first time at Silverstone but they'd closed all the entrances there and there was absolutely no way Tony was getting in," revealed Gascoyne. "But I managed to get the traffic systems manager at Silverstone on the case and he opened all the gates for Tony for us to eventually meet up, and we hit it off straight away."

Even after the pair's meeting, Lotus's chances of a return to Formula One looked unlikely with the grid already full with the FIA having announced three new teams just a week earlier and Lotus's name not being on the list. However, uncertainty over the future of both BMW and Toyota - plus the encouragement of then FIA president Max Mosley and Formula One promoter Bernie Ecclestone - persuaded Fernandes and Gascoyne to push ahead with the plan.

And that perseverance was rewarded with a grid slot on September 12 thanks to the backing of the owners of the Lotus name, Proton. "With the exception of Ferrari perhaps, there is no more iconic name in Lotus in Formula One," said Fernandes. "I remember camping out at Brands Hatch to watch the John Player Special Lotuses in action, so to be heading up the team now is like a dream come true. "There's a certain 'wow' factor thinking that we'll be taking on the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren in Bahrain."

Lotus have their work cut out to make their mark in Bahrain. Gascoyne admits "it will be tough in Bahrain, in fact the first half of the season will be pretty damn tough" owing to their late grid entry slot. But Fernandes is brimming with confidence that team can "dream the impossible" of a first win under the Lotus name since Ayrton Senna drove for them in 1987. "I've been blessed with a lot of positive energies," said Fernandes, "so there's been no sleepless nights for me.

" I've also been blessed having worked in the airline industry [he set up airline AirAsia]. "In that, we've faced everything imaginable from 9/11 to tsunamis so I'm hoping F1 will be fairly straightforward even if it is a similar dog-eat-dog world. "Also, I think we've surprised already and we'll continue to surprise. "I know it's not realistic to dream of race wins this season but it is feasible as we're on the grid so that makes anything possible."

Like Fernandes, Gascoyne has ambitions for race victories at least in the long-term but, ever the realist after two decades in the sport, he has set his team less ambitious initial targets. "We want to be the best of the new teams and I think that's realistic even with the time we've lost by being such a late entry," he said. "There's an amazing buzz in the factory that we can achieve that and more, and that not obstacle is too big that we face."

Gascoyne, who grew up just a few miles away from Lotus' Norfolk base, has assembled something of a dream team of former employees, most notably from Toyota after the Japanese firm pulled the plug on their Formula One operation following the last race of the 2009 season in Abu Dhabi. But his desire to emulate his past Formula One successes have caused the occasional sleepless night. "I wouldn't say I've had sleepless nights, just the odd sleepless hour here and there," he said. "If I sat down and thought about what we have to do, then I'd panic and think we have no chance but I've learnt not to panic in Formula One.

"We'll be ready for Bahrain, if anything we're probably a week ahead of schedule which isn't bad." The goodwill towards the return of Lotus to Formula One has been universal to the extent that Fernandes joked, "if it was done on goodwill alone, I think we'd be at the front of the grid!" But the iconic name has certainly helped to get the technical expertise and sponsors on board, not to mention arguably the best driver line-up of any of the new teams in the shape of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen.

Trulli comes from the now defunct Toyota team and has one race victory to his name, coming in Monaco in 2004. Kovalainen joins the team from McLaren, and has three years experience in the sport, with the highlight being winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2008. Rather than have to chase drivers, Gascoyne claims the Lotus name meant they approached the team rather than the other way around. "I think a lot of drivers looked at us and decided that, if we're going to sign for a new team, Lotus are the best bet," said Gascoyne, "and in two or three years time, we'll be the place to be at, so we didn't really have to sell ourselves to the drivers. And full credit to Tony Fernandes on this one as he's gone for the long-term view for the team with drivers rather than the short-term of getting someone from GP2 with money."

Kovalainen and Trulli are unlikely to battling it out at the front of the grid any time soon but, whatever the situation from Bahrain onwards, Fernandes has promised not to meddle too much in team affairs. Seeing himself as a chairman and overseer, he is confident that in Gascoyne he has the right man on board to make a success of his Formula One operation. "Mike didn't have to sell himself to me," he said. "Everyone in Formula One has a negative view of someone but my view of life is that the key is to look people in the eyes and I know in Mike I've made a good choice. I can leave him to set targets and get the right people on board, and maybe I'll have my say every now and again when I see fit."

All eyes will be on Bahrain on March 14 to see how far Fernandes, Gascoyne and Lotus have come. @Email:sports@thenational.ae