LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One’s Team Lotus announced the purchase of Caterham Cars on Wednesday in a deal linking the niche sportscar maker to the glamour world of grand prix racing.
The takeover by team principal Tony Fernandes and fellow Malaysian associates Kamarudin Meranun and SM Nasarudin turns the wheel full circle for the company’s famed lightweight Seven model.
The affordable British-built sportscar, launched in 1957 and still raced around the world, was designed by Colin Chapman -- founder of the original Team Lotus -- before he ended production and sold the rights to Caterham in 1973.
“It’s a commercial deal more than anything,” Fernandes told Reuters before a presentation at Duxford airfield in eastern England.
”We think now we have a jewel in the crown in Caterham. There’s a little bit of Lotus DNA there but we are able to take the Caterham brand to a much larger audience and also transfer technology from the Formula One team into Caterham Cars.
“We always wanted to be a manufacturer. Now we are a tiny manufacturer but everyone starts small and you’ve got to start somewhere,” he added. “But at least now we’ve got the genesis and a strategy of what we are trying to put together.”
Caterham’s existing management team will remain in place under the leadership of former Lotus Cars executive Ansar Ali.
The announcement comes at a time when Team Lotus are locked in a legal battle with Malaysian-owned Group Lotus and carmaker parent Proton over the use of the evocative Lotus brand name.
The London High Court is due to make a ruling next month, and the Caterham deal would also give Fernandes a fallback option should the decision go against him -- although the Malaysian was adamant that was not the rationale. ”This isn’t being done... just in case we lose the case,“ he said. ”We’ve invested a lot in bringing Lotus back into racing. we’ve acquired Team Lotus, have spent a lot of money building this brand up, and it’s not something we want to give up.
“I and the shareholders want to wait and see what happens with the court case and then we’ll make plans from there,” added Fernandes when asked whether Caterham could ultimately become his team’s title sponsor.
”Obviously, the plan was to try and do it (become a manufacturer) with Group Lotus but that hasn’t worked out,“ he said. ”But we think we’ve got something better now.
Fernandes, who also runs the AirAsia budget airline, renamed his team last year after a debut season as Lotus Racing under a licensing agreement that Proton subsequently terminated.
“We think we have a brand just like AirAsia that we can develop and build into something very special,” he said of Caterham, whose technical association with former F1 constructor Lola could also be of benefit.
Chapman’s original Team Lotus was one of the most successful in the sport with 79 race victories and seven constructors’ titles before folding in 1994, when David Hunt, brother of the late champion James, acquired the rights to the name.
Hunt sold them to Fernandes last year.
Group Lotus, who question the validity of those rights, have ambitious plans of their own after entering Formula One this season as partners and title sponsors to the Renault team.
To add to the confusion, French manufacturer Renault provides engines to both the rival Lotus teams.
Editing by Ken Ferris