Malaysia’s involvement in Formula 1 is now greater than ever. It first started off with Petronas’ engagement with the Sauber Formula 1 back in 1995 and then the hosting of the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang in 1999. That has been going on for the past 12 years.

Now Petronas is the title sponsor of Mercedes GP, a team which 7-times World Champion Michael Schumacher calls home and a team that has won the Driver’s and Constructor’s Championships in 2009, when it was known as Brawn GP. Our involvement has increased with the birth of Team Lotus (previously known as Lotus Racing) which is run Air Asia’s boss Tony Fernandes under the 1Malaysia Racing Team. This team is officially classified by the FIA as a Malaysian team.

You would also know that the Renault Formula 1 team is now known as Lotus Renault, backed by Group Lotus. This came after a fallout between Team Lotus, Group Lotus and it’s parent company Proton. This team has no relations to Fernandes’ Team Lotus, only having the brand name in common.

The use of the name Team Lotus is still in jeopardy for Fernandes, pending a decision from the British High Court on the matter and no one has any idea when the decision will be announced. For now the team is allowed to use Team Lotus as its official name in Formula 1 after the FIA gave the green light.

The team recently invited us to visit its factory in Norfolk, UK and we managed to get behind doors that are usually closed to the public or journalist. Putting the issue between Team Lotus, Group Lotus and Proton aside, you can check out our full factory tour report after the jump.

With temperatures breaching the -4 degrees celsius mark, we were brought to the team’s factory cum headquarters in Norfolk just hours after enduring a 13-hour flight. It was interesting to see how a Formula 1 factory looks like from the inside and how a team that started off with just four members turned out after one season in Formula 1.

The factory isn’t huge, but definitely enough to run a Formula 1 outfit. The factory looked fully operational, occupied by staff that are busy preparing for the team’s second campaign in 2011. To be honest, before I got into the factory I had a pre-conception that the folks over in a Formula 1 team would be less humorous and more strict. The word fancy popped up at times too.

However, this wasn’t the case for Team Lotus. There was a sense of humbleness in the factory. After getting to grips with the fact that we were at a Formula 1 factory and a quick brief, we were brought behind the doors that were marked with the words “restricted access”. It first started off with having a closer look at the T127 race car which at the time were being prepped up for upcoming road shows since the 2010 season is already over. The car was parked in one of three bays, with one housing a mock chassis of the 2011 car, no access here of course! It was there to enable Heikki to carry out his seat fitting.

I even got the chance to fit into the cockpit! Getting in was a chore but I managed to do it. It’s like sliding into a perfect fit shoe. Once I was in, it felt pretty good. The seating angle was comfortable. Unfortunately my brief “seating” ended with an explanation of how the steering wheel works and not a with chance of firing the engine and driving off with it.

The steering wheel is a very expensive piece of machinery, costing thousands of Pounds. It has the right to be expensive as it is the connection between the driver and the car. The driver can control various functions and settings including the differential, brake bias, rev limit, clutch and more. If the driver is thirsty during the race and needs to replenish fluids, all he needs to do is hit a button on the steering wheel! The driver can also communicate with the team’s pit wall via the steering wheel.

Moving on with the tour, there are three rooms which are specifically for the gearbox, sub-assembly and the hydraulics. The gearbox room was already occupied with the latest gearboxes from Red Bull Technologies, something new for the 2011 car, along with the Renault engine instead of Cosworth’s.

No Formula 1 factory is complete without being able to test components that have been raced. Team Lotus has this facility and this allows to team to figure out the lifespan of a particular component and decide if it should be retired. The most important thing I have learned about the team’s factory is that, it is now fully capable of designing and manufacturing a Formula 1 monocoque chassis and other vital components. However certain things have to be outsourced, such as the engine, the transmission, brakes, fuel tank and so on.

The team has a comprehensive design team complemented by a carbon fiber unit which specializes in manufacturing the chassis and other parts like the front and rear wings. There is also something called an autoclave which is pretty much a giant baking machine for composite materials. The factory also has machines that can produce lightweight metal parts such as bespoke pedals, brackets and so on.

A paint booth as well as a 1.2 million Pound super computer round up the major facilities in the Norfolk factory. The compound is also home to the Air Asia GP2 which will start its campaign next year and it will act as a staff and driver feeder for the larger Formula 1 team.

Being based in the UK allows the team to have easier access into other parts of the sport, since most of the races are held in Europe, same case for the man power too. Speaking of man power, the team which started off with just four is now 220 strong.

It would be very difficult to mentally consider Team Lotus as a Malaysian team if it doesn’t have Malaysians it its payroll. I am happy to report that there are 30 Malaysians in the team, some based in Kuala Lumpur and some, mostly engineers based in Norfolk.

There are 17 Malaysians that are based in Norfolk, with 12 of them from the engineering department. Eight engineers work in the Design Office and the rest are positioned in other departments including legal, human resources, driver development, merchandising and more. The team is also proud to mention that it is the only team in the Formula 1 paddock that serves halal Malaysian cuisine during races.

The team is now busy preparing next year’s green and yellow contender, which is slated for an official launch in January 2011. The new car is expected to feature a lighter chassis, complemented by the Renault engine and RBT gearbox. The car which will be piloted by the team’s 2010 drivers Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen is expected to compete with the mid fielders as the team aims to score some precious points next year.

Whether it can achieve it is a different matter all together but at least we can conclude that the people behind the team has direction and passion and it looks like Team Lotus, or what ever it might be called in the future is here to stay in Formula 1 at least for a while. Come back tomorrow as we bring you video interviews with key personnel including the Jarno Trulli, Heikki Kovalainen as well as the team’s Chief Technical Officer Mike Gascoyne.

Team Lotus Factory
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Air Asia GP2 Work In Progress
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