Twenty-five men are looking at paying US$1 million to experience a car as close to F1 as an amateur can get. Jonathan Gornall visits Yas Marina Circuit to see the new Lotus Type 125 under testing.
To own a Lotus Type 125, a medical check and a hefty cheque
In the Cosworth howl that echoes around the Yas Marina Circuit can be heard the answer to that classic question: "What do you buy the man who has everything?"
Some of the wealthiest men in the world gathered last week at the Yas Hotel in Abu Dhabi to subject themselves to medical checks and a discreet assessment of their driving skills. It was all to ensure they were up to the job of being parted from US$1 million (Dh3.7 million) in exchange for becoming members of an exclusive new club - owners of the new Lotus Type 125.
Group Lotus, undergoing an ambitious reinvigoration under Dany Bahar, the Turkish-born former Ferrari vice president who took over as CEO of Lotus in 2009, has dramatically upped the stakes in the track-day car market, delivering a boy's toy designed to be as close to the Formula One experience as an amateur driver can hope to get.
The T125 follows Lotus's strict numbering tradition. The only designation not used since Colin Chapman designed his first car in 1948 - the Austin 7-based Lotus Mark 1 trials car - was the unlucky number 13, and only a lucky few will be getting their hands on the T125.
Just 25 of the cars are expected to be made and, conveniently, Lotus gathered 25 prospective buyers from around the world in Abu Dhabi to experience the prototype in its natural environment - a Grand Prix circuit.
And let's face it: to customers such as these, a few days in Abu Dhabi in January sounds better than a wet weekend at Hethel, Lotus's headquarters, which are situated on a Second World War bomber base in the chilly east of England.
"We have here in the hotel 25 important customers, from America, Malaysia, China, Europe, Japan ... and the GCC, of course," says Claudio Berro, the Italian director of motorsport at Lotus, pacing the pit lane as mechanics fuss over the T125.
"The car is not fully developed; we are day number three today, and we have electronics people to set up the gearbox and the starter."
The T125 has just been out for its first few laps of Yas Marina Circuit, with James Rossiter, a Lotus test driver, at the wheel. As the electricians fiddle, two mechanics armed with leaf-blowers direct cooling air into the engine intakes.
Lotus is a company in a hurry - to raise its profile, beef up its road-car range and increase its involvement in motorsport, including a historic return this season to Formula One. "I can think of no better platform for automotive brand communication than motorsport and F1," Bahar said recently.
There is the new GT4 endurance version of the Lotus Evora, which took a podium place in its first outing at the Dunlop 24 Hours of Dubai last week, a GT2 evolution of the Evora that is expected to compete at Le Mans in July and plans for an LMP2-class sports car for 2012.
The flagship project, however, is Group Lotus's imminent return to Formula One, in partnership with Renault. The company intends to trade heavily on its sporting heritage, a point made by the recent launch of the Lotus Renault GP car garbed in black and gold livery strongly reminiscent of Lotus-Renault's John Player Special from the 1980s.
It was with these cars, in the hands of Ayrton Senna, that Lotus last enjoyed F1 victory, but its slogan for the 2011 Grand Prix campaign, "The real Lotus is back", is as pointedly political as it is historical.
The decision to return to F1 has provoked a bitter legal row with Team Lotus, the company that had the right to the name under a licensing agreement that Group Lotus has now revoked. The car manufacturer, acting with the blessing of the family of its founder, Colin Chapman, clearly wants to regain control of its F1 image and is locked in legal combat with Team Lotus. As things stand, both teams, each equipped with Renault engines, could be lining up on the grid for the start of the season in Bahrain on March 13.
With all this going on, Berro might be forgiven for thinking that pandering to the whims of a handful of wealthy wannabes might be considered a distraction; if so, he hides it well. The T125 is, after all, part of a Lotus up-branding strategy that over the next few years will see a fleet of five new cars, including the four-door Eterne, designed to edge the brand further towards the exclusive end of the market.
And today's 25 prospective customers, eagerly awaiting their track debut in the T125, are nothing if not from the exclusive end of the market.
Ability, says Berro, and not just cash, will come into it, but you get the feeling that no one is going to be turned away because they can't pull off a three-point turn. After all, Lotus's star instructors will iron out any kinks in techniques.
No one is revealing the names of the 25 considering playing the game, but among them, says Berro, is an American collector who already owns 12 former F1 cars. "For this guy, it is no big problem to drive this car." But some, he thinks, will buy it "just to watch the car". The T125 will, he is sure, become a collector's item.
Test driver Rossiter, the man who has spent more time in the car than anyone, declares it to be "amazing, especially around this circuit. It's unbelievable in the fast corners,;there's a lot of downforce."
Part of his job is to help assess and coach the prospective owners - and to prevent them and the prototype from becoming over-acquainted with the circuit's architecture. It is, he suspects, going to be "a tricky business. I'm sure they are going to be blown away by the car's performance; we just need to make sure everyone is comfortable and prepared."
Where the T125 differs from a real Formula One car, he says, is that "it has a very large window in terms of driving ability. You don't have to drive it flatout to actually make it work. A Formula One is very much on a knife's edge, whereas this car is very drivable whether or not you drive it flatout."
Whereas to optimise its handling a Formula One car must be driven fast to generate sufficient downforce from its wings and bodywork, "on the 125 the diffuser essentially sucks the car to the road, and that works at a much slower speed".
Weighing only 560kg, powered by a 640hp Cosworth V8 and equipped with six-speed, semi-automatic gearbox, a carbon-fibre body and 2009 F1-style front and rear wings, the T125 both looks and sounds the part, but this is Formula One made easy. The engine is designed to run for 4,500km between rebuilds and, with such luxuries as an alternator and a starter button, taking the new toy out for a spin will not require the support of an army of mechanics. There is, says Lotus, "no need for laptop-wielders to be on hand".
There is also no need for owners to go on diets. The "roomier" cockpit and custom-moulded seats make allowance for the fact that fat cats are, in general, more substantially upholstered than the typical slim-hipped F1 driver.
Owning the car is only part of the fun; the T125 brings membership of "the Exos Experience". As many as five times a year, owners will be able to congregate at race tracks around the world to live out their F1 fantasies to the full - learning how to get the most from their cars and improve their skills "in a safe but challenging atmosphere", with the one-to-one guidance of Lotus engineers, personal trainers and former Formula One drivers, including none other than Nigel Mansell, the 1991 British world champion, who joins Jean Alesi as one of Lotus's new "brand ambassadors".
And, although the typical T125 owner is unlikely to live anywhere with parking problems, they won't be expected to keep the machine outside on the drive. Part of the deal is a full "concierge" service, with Lotus stabling and maintaining the cars at its headquarters in Norfolk and arranging transportation to the various European circuits that will host the track days.
The leaf-blowers? Well, probably not a deal-breaker, but you might find they're extra.
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