They owned an extravagant hospitality unit and hosted the finest social gatherings in the paddock—but on the track? Almost anonymous.
This was, after all, a team that openly planned to alternate two drivers, Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi, to partner David Coulthard at the beginning of their debut season in 2005, signed one-race partnerships with the latest Hollywood blockbusters and was beaten by their own B team, Toro Rosso, in 2008.
Plenty of style, but little in the way of substance. As Lotus, Red Bull's Renault-powered counterparts, are set to discover in 2014, you can't have the former without the latter.
Who back then would have thought that Christian Horner, the man who jumped into a Monaco swimming pool with only Superman’s cape hiding his modesty in 2006, would grow to be central to diffusing tensions between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber at the very summit of F1?
In the period that has seen Vettel secure four consecutive world titles, Red Bull’s parties have evolved from unnecessary distractions from the job to the natural consequences of victory. They are no longer perceived as signs of unprofessionalism or a lack of commitment to the cause, but well-earned opportunities to let the hair down, unwind and relax.
The team has mastered the art of combining work with play to create a vibrant, youthful image to the point where Red Bull is no longer just another energy drinks manufacturer, but among the most successful constructors in the sport’s history.
While Red Bull have surged from the fun team of the grid to the pace-setters in recent seasons, Lotus are slowly regressing to the point where fun will be the only thing left to cling onto.
To see Lotus in their current guise is to observe the meeting of two of the most recognisable institutions in F1: You have Team Lotus, the legendary constructor, founded by Colin Chapman and synonymous with world champions including Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Ayrton Senna, and you have “Team Enstone”, which provided the cars that took Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso to their opening two world titles.
Both the Lotus name and the team’s base in Enstone are woven into the fabric of Formula One, which requires its major organisations to achieve success if it is to succeed itself.
And succeed Lotus have for much of the last two years: Since the beginning of 2012, they have won two grands prix, scored 24 podiums, amounted 618 points and gained thousands of Twitter followers, thanks in no small part to the attraction of Kimi Raikkonen.
As one of the most popular drivers on the grid, Raikkonen added flair to the strong backbone created by team principal Eric Boullier and technical director James Allison. The Finn’s detached nature and intolerance of nonsense is refreshingly at odds with the hullabaloo that so often surrounds the sport.
How ironic, then, that Raikkonen’s blunt personality, which served Lotus so well when T-shirts were printed in tribute to his infamous “leave me alone” team radio messages, exposed the true state of the team’s financial concerns. Raikkonen told BBC Sport’s Andrew Benson that he had “not been paid a single euro all year” ahead of last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
No 140-character Tweet could have outweighed those words uttered by Raikkonen.
The fleeing of Allison, Raikkonen and head of aerodynamics Dirk de Beer to Ferrari and the departures of Boullier and chief engineer Ciaron Pilbeam to McLaren—not to mention the loss of Dave Wheater to Williams—all since last summer have stripped Lotus to the bone, leaving the team with no leadership, no organisation and nowhere to hide.
The team’s new car, the E22—although typically innovative in design—is likely to suffer from a lack of development as the season progresses. Lotus’ decision to miss the first pre-season test in Jerez, followed by their completion of only 111 laps in the hands of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado over the course of last week’s second test in Bahrain, means the team will still be in the process of learning about its new machine throughout the first half of the season.
To make matters worse, the team’s social media strategists have been hit-or-miss in their efforts to compensate for the loss of Raikkonen.
At their best, their quirky posts, caption competitions and hashtag campaigns are charming, engaging and refreshingly self-deprecating. At their worst, they are spiteful, attention-seeking and embarrassing. For example, the Tweet posted following the confirmation of Raikkonen’s move to Ferrari last September featured an image of two rabbits getting up close and personal.
Another example is Boullier’s "leaving present," a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, posted ahead of the Frenchman’s signing by McLaren to mock McLaren’s supposed dull image.
Exclusive behind the scenes pic of Eric Boullier’s leaving present. Something to read before the season starts... pic.twitter.com/j9dAE6eWG6— Lotus F1 Team (@Lotus_F1Team) January 24, 2014
The team’s biggest blunder by far, however, came ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Lotus posted a good-luck message to the athletes accompanied by an image of two men kissing, a reference to Russia’s ban of “gay propaganda." This crass misjudgment resulted in not only the removal of the Tweet, but an apology by the team. The team owner has strong links to Russia and has attracted sponsorship for the season ahead from Yotaphone, a Russian mobile phone company.
We would like to sincerely apologise for an unauthorized message posted on our Twitter account today & will ensure this cannot happen again.— Lotus F1 Team (@Lotus_F1Team) February 7, 2014
It is an unwritten rule of sport that to have fun, you must first be successful.
If, as expected following such drastic changes in personnel, Lotus cease to be a front-running outfit, lose their status as everyone’s second-favourite team and end up scrapping on the fringes of the points-paying positions in 2014, the joke will firmly be on them.