I recently had an interesting trip up to Milton Keynes for a tour of Red Bull F1’s facility.  As you would expect given F1’s fondness for industrial espionage, security was tight. No cameras were allowed and all phones had their camera function disabled.  Our escorted tour initially took us around the design offices. These were open plan for all to enhance team working, though Messrs  Horner and Newey had their own huge offices. Presumably they don’t need to work in teams.. Interestingly there were three times as many aerodynamasists as there were other engineers.

Moving from area to area via touch sensitive security key pads we were constantly told about what a relaxed and friendly team Red Bull were compared to other teams. The demeanour of the people we met did not suggest that was necessarily the case. Sure, whilst the extreme dress down of the staff and the slight untidiness about the place would bring on palpitations in Ron Dennis, you get the impression that beneath the “hey, aren’t we fun” persona there is a degree of steely and ruthless determination. No bad thing in F1. You don’t win four consecutive F1 titles by being relaxed.

Formerly the home of Jaguar Racing and prior to that Stewart GP, Red Bull’s Milton Keynes HQ still accomodates people who worked for those teams, albeit in a facility now eight times bigger.

Unfortunately when we visited the race bays the current cars were out with only some reliveried older cars on show. I guess they didn’t want us to see the new aero screens shown this week at Sochi.

 

This vertically displayed show car highlights the new Red Bull matt paint finish. I tend to dislike matt paint finishes but it certainly seems to suit the Red Bulls.  Apparently Red Bull repaint the cars for each race to suit the expected climate and light conditions. That way the sponsors’ logos always look the same on TV wherever the cars are in the world and whether the race is a night race or day race. Great attention to detail.

 

 

The vast trophy cabinet on display in the reception of Red Bull F1. The drivers are not allowed to keep their trophies and must hand them over to the team. Red Bull are also so paranoid about their IP they throw nothing away nor do they sell any of their old cars. 

 

The Red Bull trial visor. It looks okay, does not seem to interfere too much with access and if it increases safety surely a good idea?

Red Bull seem to be doing much better this year. Apparently the new Renault engine is putting out substantially more horsepower than last year. You will not, however,  see the name of the engine builder on the side of the Red Bulls, their place having been taken by the wings of Aston Martin.

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A tangible relic of the Dany Bahar years at Lotus is the Lotus shop at the bottom of Regent Street in London. Regent Street is one of the most prestigious retail addresses in Europe and I shudder to think of what the rent must be.  Whenever I have been in the shop its largely been empty. The Ferrari shop further up the road is much busier – underlying Bahar’s folly in trying to turn Lotus into a British Ferrari when the money and, more importantly, the brand reputation, were not there. Lotus are probably tied into the shop for a few more years so it remains open – but with T shirts costing nearly £100 I can’t see it making much of a contribution to filling the financial black hole that is Lotus.

A new Evora at Hethel with the part finished and now abandoned Esprit plant behind

A new Evora at Hethel with the part finished and now abandoned Esprit plant behind

Lotus’ current management take a much more conservative view of what can be achieved with the brand. Out has gone the proposed new models, most notably and regrettably the new Esprit which was almost ready for production when it was canned.  For the immediate future Lotus just seems to be keen to sell more of its existing range. That strategy seems to be paying off with an increase in sales this year but whether it will be enough to provide a long term future for the company is uncertain.  There certainly seems to be a ready market for Lotus’ excellent sports cars – especially amongst club racers. On a recent trip to Hethel the racing division seemed very busy churning out Exige Cup cars.

Lotus Exige Cup

Lotus Exige Cup

It is by selling its more expensive cars, however, that Lotus hope to escape the financial mire. In particular Lotus are looking to the new Evora 400 to boost sales.  The Evora is not, of course, a new car. I remember when it was launched. I so wanted it to be good but just one look at its ugly snout and high waistline made me realise that it was never going to sell in the numbers Lotus hoped. I have driven a couple of Evoras and they do handle well and they are fast. Indeed they were not far off Porsche in that regard. But the build quality, reliability and depreciation of the cars I drove were much worse. I remember going for a test drive of a new Evora and they could not get it started due to some unknown electrical malady. It had to go back to the factory in the end. Not a way to instil confidence in a prospective customer.  The new Evora 400 is supposed to improve the car in all ways and make it a desirable alternative to a Porsche. It is apparently more powerful, more luxurious and more comfortable than the old Evora S. I managed to get a good look at one at Motorexpo at Canary Wharf in June.

Lotus Evora 400

Lotus Evora 400

Certainly the Evora 400 looks more striking than the old Evora S but its still not pretty. Its also costs significantly more than the old Evora S.  The biggest changes are inside. There has been a big step up in quality and its now easier to get in and out of for middle aged blokes like me. But the seat adjustment lever still came off in my hand..

Classy new interior - Lotus Evora 400

Classy new interior – Lotus Evora 400


Lotus Evora 400

Lotus Evora 400

I have always admired Lotus. My earliest memories of F1 are the black and gold Lotus JPS’ and for me the most desirable Bond car was always the white Lotus Esprit S1 from the Spy Who Loved Me.  As I have got older its the engineering genius of Colin Chapman that has impressed me. But at the back of my mind there has always been uneasiness at Lotus’ reputation for building fast but fragile cars. The list of injured or killed Lotus racing drivers is horrifying. For the road car driver there was perhaps less risk of physical injury but greater risk of embarrassment and financial harm. I had thought Lotus’ reputation for building fragile cars was a thing of the past and that now, whilst they might not be as reliable as a Porsche, they were at least as safe. Then last week the wheel fell off a friend’s Elise whilst he was doing 90mph on a motorway. The lightweight suspension on his car had corroded away and collapsed.  OK it was a 15 year old Elise but there are plenty of 15 year old cars on the road which manage to keep their wheels on. He was OK but his, and my, faith in Lotus took rather a knock.

Of course Lotus don’t help themselves when it comes to selling cars. Apparently the car pictured above was the only finished 400 they had for a long time. Unbelievably they failed to take it to the Goodwood Festival of Speed when they could no doubt have taken many orders. And whilst the 400 has been shown to the press and marketed for nearly a year now, deliveries to dealers and the first customers will not start until late Autumn. That doesn’t sound like a great time to launch a new sports car.

Still, whilst I will probably not be a customer, I hope that many others will be. It would be such a shame to see Lotus disappear from the industry.

I head off to Silverstone at dawn tomorrow for the British Grand Prix. There is always a great atmosphere at Silverstone where despite eye watering prices over 130,000 spectators regularly watch the race. It should be exciting tomorrow. Qualifying was thrilling, with Mercedes getting the better of Red Bull again. Hamilton seems to have finally got the measure of his car and stormed to pole with the only sub 1 minute 30 second time, nearly half a second quicker than team mate Roseberg. Vettel was the quickest of the Red Bulls but Paul D Resta gave British fans something else to cheer about with a fantastic P5. Will he finally get the podium place he so deserves? Ricciardo also did very well at P6 – perhaps motivated by the soon to be vacant Webber seat at Red Bull? Conversely the Lotus struggled to P8 and 9 and the Ferraris did even worse, Alonso managing only P 10 and Masa P12. But the news was far worse still for McLaren and Williams with both teams failing to make it out of Q2. Hamilton’s much derided decision to leave McLaren for Mercedes now looks increasingly sensible. Williams’ sad slide to oblivion is beginning to look irreversible.

Whilst I’ll be in my Lotus shirt tomorrow I’ll be cheering on Hamilton and Di Resta and wishing the best to the other Brits. A victory for Hamilton in a Mercedes would be a fairy tail mirroring Moss’s first British GP win for Mercedes in 1954. But whilst Mercedes seem to have the pace for qualifying Red Bull seem stronger in the races. Can Mercedes hold Red Bull off this time?

Last week I attended a smart dinner at McLaren’s technology centre at Woking for current and potential customers for the MP4. We were welcomed by Ron Dennis and Lewis and Jenson made a dramatic entrance (in the new MP4 Spider) at the end of Ron’s speech. The intention of the evening was clearly to link in customer’s minds the racing heritage of McLaren with their new road cars and to generate some of the racing glamour that Ferrari generates for its road cars for the MP4.

Racing heritage on show – I had the Corgi version as a child..

The smart but slightly sinister MTC

Ron in his speech pointedly referred to the cost of putting an F1 car on the grid – some £3m per race. That without even including the “huge amounts” he has to pay the drivers whom he concluded “were lucky he allowed them to drive his cars”. In the following Q and A session Lewis (to uncomfortable laughter) acknowledged that being a success in F1 was a team effort but that the drivers made a significant contribution to the development of a successful car – and if Ron wanted to get himself a “cheaper driver” he was welcome to do so.

When asked about his contractual intentions Lewis tellingly replied he had  “never been in this position before”. The position of having another good offer on the table? He refused to be drawn. I suspect he will soon be off – to add to the racing heritage of Ferrari?

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Lewis’ empty preparation bay at the McLaren Technology Centre – a sign of things to come?