Lotus aims for Nürburgring lap record

Lotus has a new boss. Well, nine months is not so new, but his first concrete results are only now emerging. We’ve driven the Elise S Cup and seen the Evora 400. They are pretty credible. So we went to Norfolk to spend the morning with him and hear his plan.

He’s Jean-Marc Gales, a trained engineer who came to Lotus from big-shot marketing and management jobs at VW, Mercedes and PSA. He’s also a bit of a mad lifelong Lotus fan, having collected the brochures as a young boy. The right combination of sentiment and expertise, then.

Almost the first thing he says indicates his philosophy for the cars. “Any car we launch in the next two years will be lighter and faster than its predecessor.” He’s talking about new versions of the Elise, Exige and Evora.

Are they just hard semi-track cars? Suspension suppleness on real-life roads is one of Lotus’s crowning virtues. “The cars will be very advanced, but having nothing superfluous,” he says. “They might lose some of the ride comfort they have now, though an Evora will still be comparable to a Porsche 911 in ride comfort. But the Evora 400 will gain massively on handling compared with now. I sleep very well at night knowing the engineers who sign-off the handling.”

Evora 400 is the fastest Lotus ever

There will be obvious sales-boosting variants, including an Evora Roadster in about two years, and additional track-biased derivatives. The Exige will naturally be facelifted, and get the new 400 engine too.

Gales also says there has been demand for a successor to the 2-Eleven, and so one is under way for a launch less than two years from now. It has much more power than before and a new design. It will be by far the most expensive Lotus, but, with 400bhp to propel 900kg, “it will be the fastest road car around the Nürburgring,” he bravely promises.

Should Lotus build its own engine? “There is absolutely no need. Why spend hundreds of millions on that? I can buy one and tune and calibrate it. We can tune this V6 [from Toyota] with our supercharger and management, for fantastic noise and response.”

Wasn’t there anything useable from the in-house V8 engine or new Esprit we were told about in 2010 and 2011? “Nothing,” he shrugs. He says one example of the V8 was built but no running prototypes of the Esprit. “Don’t invest £200 million in a new car when you haven’t exploited the current one.”

What about the aluminium structure under all Lotus cars? “The Evora tub meets regulations until 2020 and we will likely stay with aluminium beyond that. It’s similar weight and strength to carbon fibre but one-third of the cost.” He claims that the Lotus tub is just five kilos heavier than the Alfa 4C’s carbonfibre structure. Besides, Lotus now owns the factory that builds its aluminium chassis and structures.

So that’s his strategy. Dig in and keep it simple. Do what Lotus has been doing, but do it better.

Lotus has had a crazy history. Over the past two decades it never made money. It’s been owned by GM, and the pre-VW Bugatti group, and Proton. Every time the boss changes, the strategy seems to change too.

Some of them propose moving the company upmarket to do luxury sports cars. That’s what founder Colin Chapman did with the Excel and Turbo Esprit (which belies his reputation as the deity of simplification). Twice-boss Mike Kimberley pursued the same path. That’s what Dany Bahar recently did with his five-car vapourware display at the Paris Show in 2010. Those guys said Lotus could never survive if it didn’t sell more expensive cars.

Yet other Lotus chiefs have advocated simple, light, pared-back machinery. They say it’s perfectly possible to make money with that sort of range, provided the company doesn’t make basic mistakes.

Top Gear drives the Lotus Elise S Cup

Gales is in that latter camp. He sighs and lists some of the glaring omissions that led Lotus into a near-death experience by March 2013, just before he arrived. He says the loss was because the company kept on making basic errors.

There were no dealers in critical cities including Paris, Berlin, Monaco and Abu Dhabi. That’s been remedied. “We didn’t even have a customer database.” Now they do. Sure enough, even before the new Evora has arrived, sales have shot up by more than 50 percent.

He expects to sell 3000 cars a year when the Evora 400 is fully on stream. And because they’re faster and more powerful, they sell for more money. So Lotus revenue will be better.

He can also see ways to cut costs, again by avoiding basic errors. “We will launch on time, too. The Elise S Cup is the first Lotus ever that isn’t late. Our new car for the Geneva show [the Evora 400] is finished early. This never happens here.” And late launches knock a huge hole in cash flow. “Lotus didn’t even have a program management team before. Can you believe it?” He’s also got all Lotus employees to go through the cars and suggest ways of lightening and simplifying their components. The Evora 400 will take 60 hours fewer to build - that’s 20 percent. It will also cost 10 percent less for Lotus to purchase its parts. And it will be lighter and higher in quality.

Of course the proof will be the execution, and it’s hard not to keep thinking how often Lotus has wobbled in the past. I ask Gales what surprised him most in his early days in Norfolk. “I was surprised by the lack of process when I came here. I spent a lot of my time in German companies. It helps your discipline.” A petrolhead with discipline. Just what Lotus needs.