Will Lotus Answer The Bell?

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Last fall, everyone was giddy with excitement with the news that after six straight years of only one engine manufacturer participating in the IZOD IndyCar Series; Chevrolet would be returning to join Honda in competition in 2012. Along with the expected aero kits for the newly announced Dallara safety-cell, 2012 promised to signal the end of the spec era in IndyCar racing.

An unexpected bonus came shortly thereafter, when Lotus announced their intentions to supply an engine in 2012, giving the series three engine manufacturers for the first time since 2005 when Honda embarrassed Chevy and Toyota into dropping out.

The Honda engine of recent years has been built by Ilmor. For next year, Honda will build its own engine, while Ilmor will build the new turbocharged V-6 engine for Chevrolet. Lotus had been rumored to partner up with Cosworth. It seemed logical, since Cosworth is owned by Kevin Kalkhoven – the “K” of KV Racing Technology, who has enjoyed team sponsorship from Lotus for the past two seasons.

Curiously enough, Lotus signed with longtime engine builder John Judd and his Engine Developments, Ltd. instead. Given the recent histories of Honda and Ilmor, most knew that Honda and Chevy would have a head start over Lotus. Not surprisingly, Honda had the first engine ready for the track. The engine powering the new Dallara driven in test sessions by Dan Wheldon is the new Honda turbo V-6. Reportedly, Chevy isn’t that far away from having their own engine ready for the track. In the meantime, Lotus has gone disturbingly quiet.

Robbie Buhl, of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, has been rather vocal that his team is currently on the outside looking in so far as having an engine manufacturer lined up for 2012. Honda has already teamed up with Chip Ganassi Racing, Sam Schmidt Motorsports and AJ Foyt Enterprises. Chevrolet has already announced their association with Team Penske; and there are strong rumors to indicate that they will also supply engines to Andretti Autosport, KV Racing Technology and Panther Racing. That leaves Dale Coyne Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold and surprisingly Newman/Haas as teams with no power plants for next season.

Robbie Buhl is upset because he believed it was up to the teams to choose a manufacturer. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that it has always been the manufacturers that chose the teams. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, only a select few teams were able to get their hands on the vaunted Chevrolet-Ilmor. Just as the Chevy became more readily available, the Ford-Cosworth XB became the engine of choice. Manufacturers partnered with elite teams such as Penske, Ganassi and Newman/Haas and allowed a few tag-along teams to run their product in order to avoid charges of total exclusivity.

Not much has changed since those times, except for rules prohibiting factory “works” teams to be propped up financially by a manufacturer such as the arrangement that Honda had with Andretti-Green Racing as the team and manufacturer made the transition from CART to the IRL in 2003. If Buhl thought for a moment that the engine manufacturers didn’t have a pecking order of whom to do business with, he just learned a hard lesson in the business of racing that most everyone else was already aware of.

Unfortunately, indications are that the Lotus deal may be in trouble. This is not the same Lotus that was founded by Colin Chapman in 1952 and took the Indianapolis 500 by storm in the sixties. That company was bought out of bankruptcy in 1994 by Malaysian automaker Proton, who us famous for building cars of a lower quality than Kia. Other than the Lotus name, the once-proud British company bears little resemblance to the Lotus of today.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Lotus deal may be on shaky ground. The announcement of their involvement as an engine manufacturer seemingly came out of nowhere. After signing as a last-minute sponsor for KVRT prior to the 2010 season, it was widely believed that they would be one of the manufacturers for the aero kits that have now been shelved until 2013 (or beyond). No one gave serious thought of them supplying engines for 2012. Then shortly after GM announced they would return to open-wheel racing after a six-year absence, Lotus surprised practically everyone that they too would join the party for next season.

Looking back, the decision to go with John Judd should have been our first clue that something was amiss. Judd has a long, but not so stellar history of supplying engines to Formula One and CART. Bobby Rahal gave Judd its only CART victory in the 1988 Pocono 500. Aside from a handful of podium finishes from the late eighties through the nineties, Judd engines had little success in Formula One. Partnerships with a struggling F1 Lotus team in the early nineties may have had something to do with this latest arrangement, but it certainly raised eyebrows when Lotus eschewed Cosworth for Judd.

Perhaps Kevin Kalkhoven has something up his sleeve for 2013 with Cosworth. I can’t imagine that fine company sitting on the IndyCar sidelines for long. The Cosworth-Ilmor rivalry between these British manufacturers has endured for too long not to continue. I expect Cosworth to return to American open-wheel competition shortly.

In the meantime, Randy Bernard reportedly flew to England on Monday to meet with Lotus executives to get to the bottom of things. The deadline for teams to sign with manufacturers has already been extended from September 1 to September 15. So far, no team has signed with Lotus. They have no engine ready for testing and according to Marshall Pruett of SPEED, Lotus is not returning phone calls or e-mails. That’s not a good sign.

In case Lotus doesn’t answer the bell for 2012, Honda and Chevrolet have assured INDYCAR officials that they do have contingency plans to supply more engines to the grid. There are still many teams scrounging around for engines in 2012. I have a strange feeling that Honda and Chevy may need to get those plans ready to put into action.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “Will Lotus Answer The Bell?”

  1. I believe CCavin wrote that RBernard is in Europe now meeting with Lotus. That, combined with the deadline, should give us a clue real soon.

    I would have thought each team would choose their engine and that the less desirable engine manufacturers (Lotus) would maybe have to give rebates or something to encourage teams to use their engine.

    What happens if a brand-new team comes along and all engines are committed? Tough luck? Build your own?

  2. Sadly, I have a feeling we will now be down to one aero package, and two engines in 2012.

  3. I don’t know what all the hub bub is about. When I call an attractive sounding young woman with an accent answers the phone. Perhaps they don’t have thr right number?

    • “Lotus is not returning phone calls or e-mails.”
      You may be able to telephone a receptionist. But will anyone telephone you in return to answer questions about Lotus’s ineptitude?

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Not that the Lotus/Judd deal hasn’t seemed at least a little shaky ever since it was announced, but I wonder if the reportedly tepid reception the Lotus announcement recieved from teams has been a factor in their silence.

    I seem to recall hearing or reading the IndyCar media (Cavin in particular) say, on multiple occasions earlier this year, that they didn’t expect any current team to sign up for the Lotus motor. And that wasn’t because they expected it to be vaporware. There was even talk of Lotus having to start or buy a team just to get on the grid. While not communicating is a very poor way to handle the situation, it’s concievable that Lotus has cooled on Indycar after it appeared that no one wanted them.

    If the grid is short on engines next year, I’m not sure if we ought to blame the manufacturers for limiting their supply, the teams for not doing their homework and realizing this, Lotus/Judd joining CART’s MG/Judd in nonexistence, or the series itself for not having a plan to prevent this.

  5. Ben Twickerbill Says:

    Let’s hope desperately for Cosworth to throw their hat in the ring and we may as well forget about Lotus.

  6. If Randy Bernard comes back from England with a plan for Lotus then he will be as amazing as the Lapper.

  7. Part of the problem is that the contracts with all the engine manufacturers were written so that no single mfr would supply more than 40% of the field. From a standpoint of making sure that no single engine had the entire field or that there wasn’t an engine that no one selected this made sense, but this also meant that the third option (for 2012, Lotus) had to answer the bell. The rule was written that way to protect them specifically. They need to do their part now.

    The other nuance with these contract restrictions is that they are based on a number that is currently unknown and will remain unknown until a few weeks before the start of the 2012 season – field size. If the field is 20 cars then the most cars a mfr can supply is 8, if the field size is 30 then that number is 12. Honda and Chevy are both right at about 8 and will commit to no more. They are waiting to see what the field size will actually be before signing additional entries.

    I think this plays out one of two ways.

    If Lotus doesn’t answer the bell then the 40 rule is waived or replaced by a 60% rule and Honda and Chevy carry the day until someone agrees to pay Cosworth’s asking Dev cost and they enter the field with the 40% rule reinstated.
    OR
    Lotus answers the bell. But I don’t think they will answer the bell and supply engines unless they feel their long term place in the sport is secured and that involves executing an ownership stake in a team. They buy into a two car team to insure that when Cosworth does show up they don’t have to worry about being left completely in the cold. Their engines will always be run by their team.

    Teams to keep an eye on…NHL and HVM.

  8. George, why you knocking Kia? They make a fine car.

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