The PR shutters are down at Renault and Caterham right now, with neither willing to utter so much as a word on the imminent ending of their joint venture. Believe me, though, the relationship has disintegrated and its dissolution is only a formality.
Given the reluctance to talk, what I should stress up front is that - unlike the news story - this is a blog based on hunch and hearsay as opposed to hard facts, but I feel it is worth writing because the naysayers are already jumping on the bandwagon, predicting the end of Caterham.
I’m not so sure, however. While Tony Fernandes’s plans for the brand undoubtedly remain at the ambitious end of ambitious - a cash-eating Formula 1 team, a new family of sports car, a range of SUVs - I don’t see this latest split as anything remotely as dramatic as the end of the brand.
For starters, Fernandes isn’t the sort of man who would walk out of the Renault deal without a Plan B. Already there’s speculation as to what this may be, but all the indications are that the Caterham sports car project is not only alive and well, but potentially on course for an earlier launch as a result of the split.
As a result, my hunch is that the famously impatient Fernandes actually sees this move as a positive. Rumours have been rife that the relationship with Renault was significantly weakened when boss Carlos Tavares, an eager personal supporter of the Alpine project, left last summer and knowing how Fernandes likes to deal with people, that’s likely significant.
So too is the fact that Caterham was covering half the ownership of Renault’s Dieppe factory, yet seemingly beholden to Renault’s timetable for producing its Alpine project. From day one of the relationship it had been apparent that Caterham was developing its car to a faster timetable than Renault, both operating just as you’d imagine companies of their respective sizes to do. And, to be clear, that’s not a criticism of either, except perhaps for thinking the ensuing problems would be surmountable.
Finally, Caterham’s core business - the Seven - continues to thrive. Obviously that’s not going to pay for an F1 team - probably not even its catering budget - but at the same time this is not a company scrabbling for survival. It has a decent core business and a wealthy owner with ambitions to grow.
I know everyone reading this has a bell chiming ‘what about Dany Bahar and Lotus?’ at the back of their minds, but Fernandes is the difference here. He’s spending his own money and investing his own ambition. It might not work, but that needn’t be catastrophic.
Regardless, the ending of the Renault deal is a large hiccup that dents confidence soon after the failure of the Caterham AeroSeven concept to see production in unchanged form. Clearly these misfires hint at a fundamental problem that needs addressing, and for all the positives he brings I suspect the impatience of Fernandes is a large part of that. But the end of Caterham? No. Just a hint of some creative energy that needs better harnessing.