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Lotus goes to the wire: Fate may ride on finish in Portugal

THE BRITISH motor racing legend Lotus will be fighting for its life at the Portuguese Grand Prix today. The team, placed in receivership on 12 September after its last race, desperately needs a strong finish on the track to justify keeping it in the game at all.

Lotus's three main sources of income - sponsorship, television royalties and prize money - are all linked to race performance. Another failure will put pressure on the receiver, Neil Cooper, to sell or liquidate the team - mired in debts of pounds 10m.

Financial details of the Formula One teams are closely guarded secrets. Some, such as Williams-Renault and Benetton, are owned by manufacturers willing to underwrite almost any expense and are rumoured to have budgets as high as pounds 50m. Others continue because their drivers are rich enough to pay the bills.

'But most motor racing teams live in a hand-to-mouth fashion,' Mr Cooper said.

The team gets most of its income from sponsors such as Pepe Jeans, Air UK and Goodyear. Lotus negotiates some of the deals directly, but a significant portion were brought to the team by Alessandro Zanardi, its number two driver. Johnny Herbert, its star driver, probably takes between pounds 500,000 and pounds 750,000 from the team, plus whatever he can get for wearing corporate logos on his helmet and overalls. Some drivers earn as much as pounds 6m.

'Sponsors like to back successful teams,' Mr Cooper said. 'After a couple of years of indifferent performance, you can't get enough to support you.'

The shortfall can only be made up from prize money and a share of the television income. Both are controlled by the Formula One Constructors' Association. FOCA is the only major sports organisation that does not reveal the size of its purses. Nor does it say how much it gets from broadcasters in the 105 countries where the 16 races are aired live to an audience of 20 million.

Observers say the FOCA kitty is distributed on a steep curve. Teams that often see the checkered flag get the lion's share. Those that regularly finish at the back of the pack receive a pittance. FOCA also covers travel expenses but, again, winners get much more than losers. In its glory years, that was not a problem for Lotus. It won almost one in six of the 486 grand prix races it entered after its founder, the late engineering genius Colin Chapman, took it into Formula One in 1958. The team picked up the drivers' championship trophy six times, and the constructors' prize seven times. But in the past seven years, it has failed to win a race.

Although it fielded many brilliant drivers, the team's successes were built on technological innovation. Under Mr Chapman it was the first to introduce stressed skin monocoque, a technique borrowed from aircraft design, to replace the old spaceframe chassis.

In the late 1960s, a Lotus 49 triumphed with a stressed crankcase that doubled as the rear half of the chassis. In the 1970s the team pioneered ground effect designs that use air pressure to suck a car closer to the track. If Lotus returns to the winner's stand today it will be due to a new Mugen-Honda V10 engine that in practice runs on Friday cut three seconds off the car's average lap time.

The engine is lighter and more powerful than its predecessor and has a lower centre of gravity, which gives the car better handling and grip.

The Mugen-Honda engine made its first appearance in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on 11 September. It helped Lotus to capture a second-row starting position during qualifying rounds, an advantage that evaporated when Herbert was clipped on the tricky first turn during the opening lap.

Today's event will be closely watched by Mr Cooper, a racing fan, and his colleagues at Robson Rhodes, and the results will be a factor in whether they recommend the firm be refinanced, sold or broken up. The receivers are due in court in a month and will present a plan two months later to creditors, notably Landhurst Leasing and Challenger Investments.

(Photograph omitted)