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Lotus gamble becomes scramble for desperate teams

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It seemed too good to be true at the time - three engine manufacturers after years of Honda exclusivity.

As it turns out, it was too good to be true, especially for the poor folks who were (and, in a couple of instances, still are) saddled with the Judd-built Lotus engine.

The thrill of the black-and-gold and green-and-gold on the IZOD IndyCar Series grid has long since vanished in the harsh light of a motor that looks only a step above Fred Flintstone's feet in terms of torque and overall power. We didn't even know how poor the engine was until a couple of races into the season because none of the Lotus teams seemed to be able to get a balky set of ECUs to play nicely with the powerplants.

It got bad enough that two Lotus teams - Dreyer and Reinbold Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport - have jumped ship. The nightmare scenario of being certain also-rans at the Indianapolis 500 led them to leap off a philosophical cliff and hope they learned to fly with another manufacturer before they hit the ground.

Of course, the spin doctors don't tell the story that way. Lotus' PR department - who I like to imagine as sitting like Bob Cratchit at a tall desk attempting to stay warm while figuring out new and exciting ways to downplay their employer's continuing train wreck - calls it a chance for Lotus to consolidate and focus on its remaining teams with more resources. What it really means is that it's easier to stretch a ridiculously small inventory of powerplants among a smaller sample size.

Lotus, sadly, is miles behind Honda and Chevrolet in their engine development program and they have no real hope of making up any ground. Granted, their attention is being monopolized at the moment by the uncertainty surrounding their company's ownership, not to mention their Formula 1 operation (which inexplicably took two of three podium spots at Bahrain, evidence that even a broken clock is right twice a day).

Perhaps it is fortunate that their INDYCAR collapse cannot be termed "high-profile" because of the niche that the sport is still trying to climb out of. But there's no positive way to spin the defection of Dreyer and Reinbold Racing, which was the marque's arguable factory team in an era when there aren't supposed to be "factory teams." DRR had completely rebranded their entire operation around Lotus and featured one of the strongest drivers in the Lotus ranks in Oriol Servia. For them to ask for an out without having a backup plan shows how desperate the situation had become.

The larger question in many fans' minds, though, has less to do with whether Lotus can have a miraculous renaissance this season with its "streamlined focus" and centers more around what will happen in 2013. Confidence in Lotus remaining as a third player in the engine wars could not be lower - at least, not among the hoi polloi. But if Lotus does go, will there be anyone to take their place?

One could argue that if Lotus goes under, the Judd engine could find another backer in a manufacturer who doesn't want to start at square one. But who would it be? Not Ford, who reportedly isn't interested in being an engine supplier in INDYCAR even as they are ramping up their EcoBoost campaign in other series. If there are other automakers out there eager to develop a turbo-powered V6 Indy engine out there, they haven't gone public with that desire.

A complicating factor is the advent of aero kits next season. Honda and Chevrolet will have an entire year of engine development under their belts by then, and should they wish to build their own aero kits they will have more resources to devote to the task. It is hard to imagine that Lotus will be able to follow through on their intent to build their own aero kit with the prohibitive struggles they have faced with their engine. So does INDYCAR go back to being a two-horse race in 2013?

It was a fait accompli that 2012 would be a year of scrambling and gambling, but I'm not sure than anyone expected it to be as frantic as it has become of late. One thing is certain: the denouement for Lotus' INDYCAR program is a sad tale for a once-legendary marque.