It has been twenty years since Lola entered its works team into the 1997 Australian Grand Prix, and was a spectacular failure which resulted in collapse just prior to the following race in Brazil. Curiously, this was a once-upon-a-time large, successful race car manufacturer, building challengers for multiple categories including Formula 3, Formula 3000 and IndyCar. How did a company with such a wealth of knowledge fall so short in a category in which it had previously experienced some success?
Lola’s first foray into Formula One came in 1962, in which they built a chassis for Reg Parnell’s Bowmaker Racing team, the Mk4. John Surtees scored a pole on the car’s world championship debut in the Dutch Grand Prix which was to be Lola’s only pole position in a championship race. Unfortunately, Surtees retired, but managed to collect two 2nd places, a 4th and two 5th places in the following races, amounting to 4th in the Driver’s Championship with 19 points. Although the Lola won no races in the championship, Surtees managed to secure a victory in the non-championship International 2000 Guineas event at Mallory Park. Roy Salvadori in the second Lola was less successful, retiring in each race he entered. The Mk4A endured plenty more retirements in the following year, only achieving a best result of 7th.
In 1967, Honda and Lola cooperated to build the RA300, referred to affectionately in some quarters as the “Hondola”. In the hands of John Surtees, the Honda took victory at that year’s Italian Grand Prix. This would be the only championship win for a Lola chassis in F1, although this is classified as a ‘works’ Honda victory.
Lola also provided a pair of T370 chassis to Graham Hill’s eponymous team in 1974, which were modified to become the GH1 for 1975. Results were limited, although points were scored by both Tony Brise and Alan Jones in the GH1 before Hill, Brise and four other team members died in a plane crash in November 1975. Then, just over a decade later, Jones again scored points in a Lola-designed chassis for the Beatrice-Haas outfit, scoring in Austria and Italy in 1986 after an unsuccessful 1985 (four attempts, no finish). From 1987 to 1991, Gérard Larrousse’s eponymous outfit competed with a Lola chassis, managing a best result of 3rd in the Japanese Grand Prix 1990 with Aguri Suzuki and a 4th the same year in Germany with Éric Bernard. There were also ten 6th place finishes over those five years.
Lola lost its contract to supply chassis to Larrousse after the 1991 season, leaving them out of F1 for a year before founder Eric Broadley signed a deal to supply BMS Scuderia Italia with their T93/30 for the 1993 season; Lola came in to replace the Dallara chassis they ran previously. In August 1992, Broadley waxed lyrical about their chances, proclaiming that “the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the legendary Ferrari V12 engine programme is tremendous, and the combination of a Lola chassis and Ferrari power is an exciting one, to put it mildly.”
Broadley continued his high praise of the new partnership: “One of the major reasons for taking this step has been the passionate commitment of Dr Lucchini, owner of Scuderia Italia, and his level of support for our new joint venture. With such a man involved with us, there is no doubt in my mind that it will only be a matter of time before Lola BMS Scuderia Italia becomes one of the top teams in Formula One.”
The publication F1 News were not quite as excited as Broadley in their 1993 season preview, and wrote: “Always there or thereabouts in ’92. The newly-forged link with Lola should make up for any deficiencies in the engine department.” The team had also secured an all-Italian lineup of Michele Alboreto and Luca Badoer, the reigning F3000 champion, and had a striking red, white and yellow livery courtesy of their new sponsorship deal with Chesterfield cigarettes.
Regardless, it became apparent from the beginning of 1993 that Broadley’s optimism was misplaced, and from the second round in Brazil to the ninth round at Silverstone only 25 of the 26 entrants would be permitted to start each race. One of the Scuderia Italias fell foul of this rule on seven occasions, with Jordan’s Ivan Capelli at Brazil being the only exception. Their highlights of the season were thanks to Luca Badoer, who scored a brace of top-ten finishes for Scuderia Italia in San Marino and Italy (a 7th and a 10th).
The lack of good results was enough for Lola and Scuderia Italia to call time on their relationship, and a split was announced between the constructor and the race team in September 1993. “Our engineers have conducted extensive investigations into the disappointing results and it is simply that the Ferrari engine/Lola chassis combination did not produce enough acceleration.” said Broadley, in a parting shot at Dr Lucchini’s squad. “Thus, the car would not accept enough downforce, with its consequent drag factor, in order to be competitive.” The team withdrew from F1 after the Portuguese Grand Prix at the end of September, missing the Japanese and Australian Grands Prix a month later, never to be seen again in their current form. With no means or finance to build their own chassis, Scuderia Italia merged with fellow Italian backmarker team Minardi ahead of the 1994 season.
In their several stints as chassis suppliers to various teams, Lola had encountered limited success. After competing for points in the midfield with Larrousse, the Lola name had meandered towards the back of the field with Scuderia Italia. After the demise of Lucchini’s squad, Lola required a new strategy to remain part of F1’s travelling contingent. Instead of supplying a third party, Broadley planned to bring Lola back into Formula One as a works team for the first time.
Initially planning its entry for 1994, Lola soon deferred it to 1995. Over the course of 1994, Broadley’s technical team put together a test car, known as the T95/30. The car was tested once by Allan McNish at a cold and wet Silverstone in December 1994. Insufficient sponsorship caused the team to postpone their Formula 1 entry twice more until the MasterCard sponsorship arrived in late 1996, finally enabling the team to prepare an entry. MasterCard sought to support the team with an innovative strategy, in which they would invite cardholders to buy into an exclusive “F1 Club”. Lola’s entry was earmarked for 1998, but pressure from MasterCard’s board forced Lola into getting everything together for the following 1997 season; development of the car only commenced after the new sponsor arrived, putting the team on a very tight schedule to be ready for the first race of the season in March.
Lola had also intended to run with their own engine, with renowned consultant Al Melling in charge of the design team. This would not be completed before mid-season, and so the new car was designed to accommodate both a Ford Zetec V8 customer engine as well as their own V10. Lola, being used to building chassis for IndyCar and Formula 3000 that were intended to run different engines, was unconcerned about this, but this decision not to commit to one unit ultimately compromised the design. Securing a tyre contract was left late, waiting until the new year before confirming a deal with Bridgestone. 1995 F3000 champion Vincenzo Sospiri and runner-up Ricardo Rosset were signed to perform driving duties for the team.
Lola arrived at Albert Park and, after minimal testing, the team was hoping to simply get onto the grid. It immediately became clear that Sospiri and Rosset were in for a weekend of pain, and their glacial pace in practice highlighted a myriad of problems in the underdeveloped T97/30 chassis. In qualifying, Sospiri was exactly five seconds behind Arrows’ Pedro Diniz, who had failed to meet the 107% rule with a 1m35.972. Rosset was a further second behind his team-mate. Diniz was able to fall back practice, in which he had demonstrated sufficient pace and thus became the first driver to gain a 107% rule exemption. Lola had done no such thing, and both cars were not permitted to compete in the race.
The team turned up to the next race in Brazil, Rosset’s home grand prix. Assuming Rosset had somehow garnered plenty of support from his compatriot fans, Sospiri asked his team-mate how the team was able to get so much free publicity in the local papers. Rosset had to explain that the stories were actually news of the team’s demise, having earlier discovered the news in exactly the same manner! The team’s race boss, Ray Boulter, had been told the news from Broadley to withdraw the team from the race on the Thursday by phone from England. MasterCard’s “F1 Club” had been poorly marketed to its customers, and Lola was not receiving the money it had expected; by Brazil, the team was £6 million in the hole.
Lola soon went into administration, and was taken over by Martin Birrane. For the next 15 years, Lola continued building cars for sportscars, A1GP and a few other single-seater categories. They also submitted an application to rejoin F1 for the 2010 season but, much like their MasterCard transactions 13 years prior, this was declined. Lola’s overtures towards an F1 reappearance was another strain on the company’s finances, eventually leaving Lola to close its doors in 2012 with barely a whimper. The Lola name continued to live on a little longer through its cars, which finally faded from non-historic competition after the 2016 Petit Le Mans.
Sources: F1 News, Motorsport Magazine, Autosport, Allan McNish, Enoch Law, Unraced (Sam Collins)