Dreyer & Reinbold Racing co-owner Robbie Buhl was one of three teams to announce Lotus engine partnerships for 2012 at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Although Lotus is playing catch-up from a timing standpoint, Buhl (CENTER) seems optimistic on the team's chances for the new year, with a driver lineup far from determined.
RACER: Congratulations. You can breathe a bit easier now, right?
Robbie Buhl: Getting this agreement signed with Lotus was one of the many dominoes that we needed to fall, so we're excited by that, but it's not like we can put our feet up. We've got a lot of work to do.
Q: When did Lotus become your manufacturer of choice?
RB: We had to speak to all three manufacturers to decide which was the best fit for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and which offered the best scenario for our team making progress. Not doing that type of due diligence would have done the team a disservice. We reached out to Lotus and around mid-August heard what their plans were and their rationale and we became intrigued enough to say, “OK, let's keep talking.”
Then the more we talked and the more people we met at Lotus, the more we realized 1) they've really got a good group of people with regard to their background in motorsports, and 2) motorsports is going to be the marketing platform for their forthcoming products. Lotus is planning to get their message out in the U.S. through the IZOD IndyCar Series, and so they're very determined to make their product work. They hadn't just said, “Oh yeah, let's get involved in IndyCars.” There was a real plan behind it.
Q: And you're convinced they can fight on equal terms with Chevrolet and Honda, despite a smaller budget?
RB: We went to visit John Judd, and to Lotus' Hethel factory, because we wanted to go and scope out the company we're working with. Judd's Engine Developments have been making engines for 40-plus years and has had plenty of success. But where the engines all stand relative to each other is something we won't know until the first test when everyone's together and showing their hand. We're aware that Lotus doesn't have the depth of financial resources that Honda and Chevy have, but hopefully the engine is good and everyone's running the same ECU and turbocharger, and the series is going to do its best to keep relative equality. The last thing the series needs is to have one of the manufacturers not really in the game.
Lotus is an engineering company and so, hopefully, that relationship with their technology can help us keep evolving the car from a chassis standpoint. And they're smart. Just because you have the most amount of money, that doesn't guarantee you results. But it was attractive to be one of the factory partner teams so we can evolve together. That's hugely attractive to us.
Q: What's the timeline for you now?
RB: I think trying to get at least a shakedown before the mid-December moratorium on testing would be a good goal.
Q: Have testing regulations been put in place yet? Do you know how much track time you'll be allowed?
RB: I'm hoping that it won't be regulated.
Q: How much tech work do you have to share with the other Lotus-engined teams?
RB: Now that this announcement has been made with us, HVM Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport being the partner teams, from our standpoint, we're willing to be open-book as far as working together and making us all stronger. That's how Honda teams and Chevy teams are working at this stage. Then we'll go to the track and fight it out on race weekends. That's the intent, and we think there's true value in that. We'll find out the strengths and weaknesses of us as teams, and we'll all work on the integration of Lotus so that, apart from the engine program, we get to benefit on other engineering strengths that can complement the program.
Q. Only drivers with contracts are allowed to drive the manufacturers' cars. Does that mean as partners of Lotus you need to have someone in place already by the time of that first Lotus test? Or will you be able to just work off, say, Simona de Silvestro's feedback as she's already contracted with HVM?
RB: Like I say, I'd hope that whoever is in that car, that data will be available to all of us Lotus runners. I think that situation will resolve itself pretty quickly over the next two weeks.
Q: How does this situation of needing a new car and engine package sorted ASAP affect the choice of drivers at Dreyer & Reinbold? Would you go for experience over youth?
RB: Hmm...well, you want the best drivers you can have, obviously, but we haven't locked in with anybody yet. We've talked to a few people but then it comes down to whether they're financially viable and can get everything done on track. We as a team have a group of sponsor partners, so we must match that up with the right drivers and see what sponsorship the drivers have. That's the challenge. It's an evolving process. Justin Wilson has been with us the last two years, and I rate him as great when it comes to road racing. We'd love to be able to continue with him.
Q: Given Dreyer & Reinbold's history of running extra cars in the Indy 500, are you the team that will be chosen to run Jean Alesi?
RB: Hah! I wonder if that will happen. Yes, we'd like to run a third car at Indy. But a guy who drove with us at the end of this season and is really strong at the Speedway, professional in and out of the car and is a pleasure to work with, is Townsend Bell. Or Tomas Scheckter. They're drivers with experience, who know how to be in the game and be around at the end of that race. But Jean Alesi…? Well, you never say never in this game!
Q: About this re-branding of D&R: Are you going to be running the green and yellow Lotus scheme like KV Racing did last year? There are rumors you might go to the orange STP colors that Lotus ran at Indy from '66 onward, or maybe even to black and gold.
RB: That's still evolving. Obviously, the Lotus logo is the green and yellow that KV ran and that's a big part of the Lotus heritage, but so is black and gold, the JPS colors. That became a branded look for Lotus, and I think globally that's something that they're looking at and will figure out over the next couple months.
Q: Presumably it depends on sponsors, too.
RB: Well, yeah, sponsor colors would have to be integrated into whatever Lotus had put on our car. But if a sponsor approaches and says, “I've got five million bucks for you, but I want these colors,” you're not going to say no. Whatever he wants, you'll find a way to make it work!
Q: Are you expecting one of the cars to run in a constant livery like Ana Beatriz did last year and the other to run revolving sponsorship from race to race like Justin's?
RB: With our group of partners, it made sense for everyone to be part of our associate partner program, so different companies became primary sponsor for different events, depending on where their strongest markets were. I still think that's a good recipe for sponsors and shows them value for their investment. How will that play out next year? We'll have to see.
For us, the primary thing was getting the formalization of us being a partner team to Lotus, and we now have something to show to our partners and potential partners, as we become Team Lotus DRR. “Here's the direction we're going, we're excited about this, we're a partner team with a company that has a lot of heritage and panache as a racing and performance car company. Here's how we're moving to the next level.” We think that's a very attractive package for potential sponsors.