With the new-look Lotus’ first home grand prix just days away, team boss Tony Fernandes would like nothing more than to upstage the Formula One old guard who have dismissed the newcomers as irrelevant.
However Fernandes knows, despite the ardent support of local fans, that victory is a long way beyond Lotus’ reach at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
The Air Asia impresario is the team principal of Lotus, which has inherited the name, colors and tradition of one of F1’s most
famous old teams but is very much a Malaysian operation, with backing from the national government.
After the first two races of the season — in Bahrain and Australia — Lotus has achieved its goal of being the best of the three new teams for 2010, outperforming Virgin and Hispania.
However its performance is still a long way off the top constructors, and Fernandes feels driven to change the way his team is regarded by the top end of pitlane.
‘No one walked in and became world champions’
“No one takes us too seriously at the moment so we are fairly welcome,” Fernandes told the Associated Press. “There is a bit of snobbery as well, that these guys are four seconds off the pace or whatever.
“Its funny, people have short memories. Everyone had a beginning, no one walked in and became world champions.
“It motivates me. That is one of the weaknesses of the human spirit, to not give people a chance. I have faced it all my life with Air Asia. We’ve always been the underdogs, but we’ve built up and earned respect.”
That motivation may well translate into genuine competitiveness in years to come, or perhaps even by later this season, but Malaysian fans will most likely have to be satisfied with witnessing the next step in team development this weekend.
Fernandes is not concerned that enthusiasm for the team may wane in Malaysia as fans’ patience is tested.
“How many Southeast Asian teams are on the grid? That is a victory,” Fernandes said.
“The Malaysians will be hoping we’ll beat Virgin and Hispania, that’s a realistic target. The realism is there, the pride is there, I feel it very strongly. Don’t expect much, but be proud of the fact we’re there.”
Lotus signaled its intention to develop into a serious force by appointing Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen as drivers — two F1 race winners. While other mid-grid or new teams have variously appointed Indian, Russian and Japanese drivers this season, seemingly with one eye on attracting sponsors, Lotus signed a pair whose impact will be felt at the racetrack rather than on the balance sheet.
“We all need money, let’s be real. I’m no richer than anyone else out there, or stupider, but I have taken a different approach,” Fernandes said. “If you want to be serious about this sport then you’ve got to have the best drivers you can afford and you can get.
“Its a short-term thing to get a check. I look at building the right structure and from then the sponsors will come. They may not come straight away.
“With all due respect, some of the newer drivers are not going to be able to feed much back to the engineers and you end up spending more money anyway.”
While this weekend’s goals are modest, Lotus will be targeting a Malaysian Grand Prix victory in 2012 if all goes to plan.
“If we’re still last in three seasons we’ve wasted our time,” Fernandes said. “I’m quietly optimistic.
“I want to compete with Ferrari and McLaren now. Its in the blood, I wouldn’t be in this sport otherwise. But if we try to push too much we’ll do silly things.
“The targets for the boys are finish all the races, be the best of the new teams. The eventual target is to be up there with Ferrari and McLaren. So we’re keeping one eye open toward reaching the top.” — Sapa-AP