Credit Crunch - 1997 Lola T97/30 Ford

Slipping into the red numbers

2y ago
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Since the early 1960s, Eric Broadley's Lola Cars had been one of the cornerstones of motorsport. The Lola brand appeared on anything from hillclimb racers, sports prototypes and a wide variation of single seater racing cars, including Formula One.

Roy Salvadori in the Lola Mk4, Nurburgring 1962

Roy Salvadori in the Lola Mk4, Nurburgring 1962

Already in 1962, four years after the formation of his business, Broadley ventured out to the pinnacle of motorsport with the Coventry Climax-powered Mk4, built for Reg Parnell's Bowmaker-Yeoman Racing. Helped by the burgeoning talent of a debuting John Surtees, the car was immediately competitive, scoring two second places at the British and German Grands Prix.

John Surtees in the Honda RA300 / Lola T130.

John Surtees in the Honda RA300 / Lola T130.

The dream debut lead to a string of partnerships, including an arrangement to develop chassis for the struggling Honda team. The Indycar-based "Hondola" RA300 promptly won the 1967 Italian Grand Prix, again with John Surtees.

Embassy Hill Racing fielded striking Lola designs in 1974 and 1975.

Embassy Hill Racing fielded striking Lola designs in 1974 and 1975.

As Honda left the sport in 1968 over Jo Schlesser's controversial death, the company was left without a partner until 1974, when it started building cars for Graham Hill's Embassy Hill team. The F5000-based T370 wasn't a success however, and Hill started to move towards in-house designs until his untimely demise in an airplane crash.

The Lola LC87 marked the firm's return in 1987.

The Lola LC87 marked the firm's return in 1987.

Another long hiatus followed, until small French team Larrousse & Calmels requested a chassis for use in the new 3.5L formula introduced for 1987. The pairing lasted until 1991, with their crowning achievement being a lucky 3rd place finish for Aguri Suzuki at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, helped by Lamborghini V12-power.

The T93/30 was a terrible disappointment.

The T93/30 was a terrible disappointment.

With Larrousse also moving towards building their own cars, Lola was left on the sidelines for 1992. Once again though, a small cash-strapped team knocked on Eric Broadley's door. BMS Scuderia Italia had broken up with Italian specialists Dallara, and needed a new supplier.

However, the T93/30 born from the deal turned out to be a complete disaster, failing to qualify seven times, retiring eleven times and never scoring a single point. The Ferrari V12 could not make up for its abysmal aerodynamic performance. The car was so bad in fact, it forced BMS Scuderia Italia to merge with the similarly struggling Minardi team.

The T95/30 was the first step towards Lola's independence.

The T95/30 was the first step towards Lola's independence.

Tired of the stress associated with dealing with costumer teams, Eric Broadley decided to make Lola an independent team for the first time in its history. To this end, design work started on a car for the 1995 season.

Unfortunately, the tragic loss of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, the near fatal crash suffered by Karl Wendlinger and similar incidents involving Andrea Montermini and Rubens Barrichello during 1994 caused shock waves to ring out throughout the world of Formula One.

Andrea Montermini, Catalunya 1994.

Andrea Montermini, Catalunya 1994.

The concerns over safety raised by the incidents during the season created a period of great instability within the sport, as the FIA pondered what to change about the cars to decrease the danger. With no clarity over the legality of airboxes, flat floors and the like, Lola was left without any clear direction.

As a result, the T95/30 was essentially useless, being halfway between various versions of the regulations. Though it managed to secure a costumer version of the Ford-Cosworth EC V8 for the newly mandated 3.0L formula, aerodynamically the car was a complete mess.

Though the design was essentially a complete waste of time, Eric Broadley wheeled it out anyway to garner publicity as the car clocked pointless laps around Silverstone in the hands of Allan McNish.

By bringing the strange-looking car into the spotlight, he hoped to mask the fact the team was already running out of money, and hopefully attract the attention of a big name sponsor. The scheme duly paid off, as American credit card company MasterCard joined the project in late 1996.

The T95/30 was hastily remodeled and repainted to promote the MasterCard Lola team.

The T95/30 was hastily remodeled and repainted to promote the MasterCard Lola team.

Now with big dollars behind the effort, Broadley could finally roll out an all-out assault on Formula One. With the team's debut set for 1998, he had made sure to give himself plenty of time to properly develop the car. Part of the plan was a complete novelty for the company, as the chassis would incorporate a Lola-branded engine.

This 750 horsepower, 18.000 rpm, 3.0L V10 proposal would be developed Melling Consultancy Design over a five year program, to the tune of around $15 million. MCD was run by engine guru Al Melling, the A in the then recently released TVR AJP V8 engine. The Melling unit would become an integral part of the chassis, accounting for aerodynamic elements both above and below.

The car itself was a relatively traditional affair, being made up of a carbon fiber/aluminium honeycomb monocoque chassis. Double wishbone suspension were found on all four corners, with inboard springs and dampers actuated by pushrods taking care of the bumps. An in-house designed 6-speed sequential transmission was also developed, bringing the package together.

As Lola itself had virtually no money to spare, almost the entire F1 effort was being bankrolled by MasterCard. Though the crediting giant had plenty of spare cash, forking over $45 million of its own funds, it couldn't resist trying a new form of backing only they could think of. Using their existing clients, MasterCard formed an "exclusive F1 club" centered around the team.

Members of this club slotted in one of three tiers, which determined both their level of access and the amount they were liable to pay. Tier 1 ranged between $79 and $99 a year, tier 2 between $279 and $299, and a 320-member top level with contributions between $1999 and $2999.

An ad for MasterCard's unusual funding scheme.

An ad for MasterCard's unusual funding scheme.

In return the clients would receive newsletters, photos, branded clothing, various signed items. Additionally, auctions of racing memorabilia would be open only to club members, while the top tier would enjoy VIP treatment in team events.

With 370 million MasterCard costumers around the world, the firm humbly expected at least 100.000 to sign up for the club, which would bring in an estimated $10 million a year in additional sponsorship funds. Since the contributions would be credited on member's cards, there was no great risk for MasterCard itself, as it could only profit from the increased exposure and usage of its cards.

MasterCard's eagerness to get into the lucrative world of Formula One took a turn for the worse when news broke out another new team would enter the sport. Paul and Jackie Stewart were in the process of setting up the Ford-backed Stewart Grand Prix, which was to have its debut in 1997.

Upon witnessing the unveiling of the Stewart SF01, MasterCard officials seemingly flew into a fit of raging jealousy. For some unknown reason, the management swiftly sent out word to Lola. The message was ominous. MasterCard set a draconian ultimatum: if Lola did not enter the 1997 season, it would pull all backing.

Helpless without the American multinational's money, Eric Broadley had no choice but to accept the demands. But he was in a whole world of pain nonetheless. Not only would he be forced to enter F1 a year early, but it was already November, meaning the first Grand Prix was just four months away.

With neither the Melling V10 engine nor the actual car itself being anywhere close to complete, no additional sponsor being found and not even a single driver being signed to the team, Broadley was faced with a nigh-on impossible task.

Lola was forced to use last season's EDD V8.

Lola was forced to use last season's EDD V8.

As there was no time to complete it, the Melling engine was put on hold immediately, with the hope the engine could be introduced later. Instead, Ford-Cosworth EDD "Zetec-R" V8 engines were sourced fromof the inventory of the bankrupted Forti-team. The EDD was a costumer version of the ECA, which in turn was a hastily modified version of the 3.5L EC.

This meant it was an outdated design from the start, and several specs behind the A. Whereas the ECA produced 630 horsepower in 1995, the ED produced just 580 horsepower. Though the engine was later updated to the 600 horsepower ED2/4 for Tyrrell, Forti never received this version. As a result, Lola was down by 170 horsepower over the proposed Melling V10.

Parts from cars like this Lola T97/00 Indycar were used to finish the F1 car.

Parts from cars like this Lola T97/00 Indycar were used to finish the F1 car.

Chassis-wise there was a significant amount of corner-cutting as well, as the team was forced to take the easier and more time-conserving way out during final design work. To help speed the process along even further, Broadley used a plethora of parts taken from his Indycar operation just to get the car to work.

Left to right: Vincenzo Sospiri, Ricardo Rosset and Eric Broadley.

Left to right: Vincenzo Sospiri, Ricardo Rosset and Eric Broadley.

The driver situation went through a similar amount of turmoil. The motoring press struggled to keep up, as Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, Ricardo Zonta, Jos Verstappen, Norberto Fontana and Andrea Montermini were all rumored to compete for a seat at MasterCard Lola.

In the end, none of these names would appear on the entry list. Instead, Broadley hired Brazilian Ricardo Rosset, who had been sacked from Footwork Arrows, and 1995 F3000 Champion and 1996 Benetton test driver Vincenzo Sospiri of Italy.

Both drivers brought in much-needed additional sponsorship, with Rosset bringing in Banco Safra and the LYCRA fabric brand, while Sospiri added Italian heating company COSMOGAS and New GPR.

A trio of magazines also backed the project, with Men's Health, F1 Racing and Track and Field decals decorating the car. Fuel was supplied by Shell daughter brand Pennzoil, while wheels came from OZ and tires from Bridgestone.

The cars were rushed into race-ready condition with just weeks to spare. In fact, there wasn't even time to wheel the T97/30 into a wind tunnel. With completely untested aerodynamics, the car made its first on-track appearance at Silverstone.

The test lasted just eight laps, as one of the Cosworth engines blew up. A second test at the Santa Pod drag strip had similar results, with another EDD expiring.After a high-profile presentation at the prestigious London Hilton Hotel, the team swiftly loaded everything up for the long haul to Australia.

After ten years of competition at the Adelaide Street Circuit between 1985 and 1995, the venue for the Australian Grand Prix had moved to another street circuit around Albert Park Lake in Melbourne.

The track had been used for non-championship meetings between 1953 and 1958, but had since fallen in disrepair. A campaign by local businessman and politician Ron Walker saw the old track repaired and resurfaced, eventually gaining the tender for the Grand Prix for 1996.

With only the bare minimum of preparation, the freshly completed MasterCard Lola lined up for their first outing in Friday practice. Despite the arduous journey through development hell, initial results weren't too bad.

Even though free practice couldn't really be taken seriously, Ricardo Rosset was only .219 of a second behind one of the other V8-powered cars in the field, Ukyo Katayama's Minardi-Hart. With everyone except Lola, Minardi and Tyrrell using far more powerful V10 engines, this was all Lola could really hope for.

“If we don’t [beat Stewart], we need a good kick up the backside and if we miss the 107% cut, then we don’t deserve to be in it at all.”

Eric Broadley.
Sospiri and Rosset riding in the back of a classic Bentley during the driver's parade.

Sospiri and Rosset riding in the back of a classic Bentley during the driver's parade.

Given the complete lack of testing and development, the T97/30 looked to have some potential. In spite of the reliability issues encountered at Silverstone and Santa Pod, both cars racked up significant mileage. The Lolas collectively clocked 35 laps, 15 more than apparent arch-rival Stewart was able to do. Reliability then, appeared to be sound.

“I think we will have some small problems, but I hope [they’re] as small as possible.”

Vincenzo Sospiri.

Of course, as soon as the other teams started taking things seriously, Lola's chances quickly evaporated. Through with the fully fueled and hard compound tire race simulations, the rest of the field started upping the pace significantly.

Lola had run the cars virtually on empty throughout FP1 to mask their inadequacy, but there was nowhere to hide in FP2. Vincenzo Sospiri was again the slowest of the two, setting a best time some 9.646 seconds slower than Damon Hill's Yamaha V10-powered Arrows A18.

The lack of wind tunnel time had become painfully obvious, as the car generated extreme amounts of drag, and very little downforce. Because of this, and the already woefully underpowered V8, the car crawled along the straights, and struggled to get around corners at any sort of speed.

By the time qualifying rolled around, the team's spirits had already sunk to an all-time low. Adding insult to injury, Williams' Jacques Villeneuve set an unusually quick pole time. With a time of 1:29.369, he was an amazing 1.754 seconds faster than his teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who took second. This made actually qualifying for the race that much harder.

Since the 1996 season, Formula One had applied the now infamous 107% rule. In previous seasons during the 3.5L era, there were usually more entries than places on the grid, which was solved by making the slowest cars go head to head in a special pre-qualifying session.

By 1995 however, the number of entries had fallen to within the 26 grid place limit, meaning every car entered would automatically qualify for the race regardless of lap time. So during 1995, the 107% rule was planned out, stating that any car that could not come within 107% of the pole position time would not be allowed to start the race.

Due to Villeneuve's exceptional time, Lola was even further from a position on the grid. However, it didn't really matter in the end. With a 1:40.972 for Vincenzo Sospiri and a 1:42.086 for Ricardo Rosset, the cars were 5.167 and 6.461 seconds up on the 107% time of 1:35.625.

Compared to the Williams, the margin was 11.603 and 12.717 seconds respectively. Arrows driver Pedro Diniz also failed to make the cut with 1:35.972, but was allowed to start anyway due to a steward's decision, as he had been able to lap faster in practice.

Naturally, such an exception wasn't made for the ailing MasterCard Lola squad. Barred from entering the race, the team was forced to sit out the Grand Prix. In stark contrast, the Stewart cars had qualified 11th (Rubens Barrichello) and 11th (Jan Magnussen), adding further fuel to the fire.

“I was disappointed that we did not race in Australia, but not entirely surprised. I have no doubt that we will qualify in Brazil and then begin to work our way up the grid.”

Eric Broadley.

Even though the showing at Albert Park had been abject horror for all involved, prospects for the rest of the season were faintly positive. With more time the Melling V10 could be completed, and the car could be dialed in and evolved into a competent racer.

However, time was one thing Lola no longer had. Another was money. Shocked by the dismal weekend in Melbourne, MasterCard had lost faith in its "F1 Club" scheme. Without a car on track, how would they ever attract enough people to the program?

Judging the project a failure which could do nothing but further damage their reputation, the credit card giant pulled its support in the immediate aftermath of the Australian Grand Prix. Meanwhile, the team had already arrived at Interlagos, Brazil for the next race, but with funding evaporating overnight, there was no money to actually run the cars.

“It’s been hard, as I knew it would be. We’ve had a lot of problems. We’ve got a lack of downforce and too much drag. The biggest problem is that we don’t have a basic setup for the car, so we guessed at the settings and when they were wrong we panicked a little.”

Ricardo Rosset

Citing "financial and technical problems", the team pulled out of the Brazilian Grand Prix, and returned to their Huntingdon, England base. Not long after, the team announced their complete withdrawal from the championship.

Two months later, Lola Cars as a whole went into receivership, marred by $6.3 million in debt incurred by the F1 arm of the company. The firm was eventually saved by Irish businessman, racing driver and enthusiast Martin Birrane, who managed to make it profitable by focusing mainly on sports prototypes and lower tier formulas.

Eric Broadley with Martin Birrane, 2008.

Eric Broadley with Martin Birrane, 2008.

In the process, the formerly proud Lola name would become forever associated with one of the biggest failures in the sports modern history, becoming an unfortunate punchline within the F1 community. Eric Broadley would never see his dream of an independent Lola Grand Prix realized, as he passed away on May 28, 2017 at the ripe old age of 88.

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Comments (16)

  • It is quite tragic that the downfall of Lola in the 90s started with something as simple as a repositioned moving floor.

      1 year ago
  • Top work as usual Dylan 👍

      2 years ago
  • Good article as always, Dylan!

    Honestly, this is one of the most interesting stories in the history of failed F1 cars. It also proves that a sponsor can cause a team to fail, rather than just the constructor itself.

    Good job! Keep it up. Warm regards from Indonesia.

      2 years ago
    • Thanks as always Omaris! I really took the time with this one. Expect a similar treatment for the Onyx/Monteverdi story.

        2 years ago
    • You're welcome.

      I'm looking forward to the Onyx/Monteverdi story.

        2 years ago
  • Such a sad story. And so unfair - the problems created by the sponsor, who then pulls out at the first sign of trouble!

      2 years ago
    • Broadley really got the short end of the stick there. I'm wondering what the thought process was at MasterCard. Were they really that ignorant?

        2 years ago
    • While I can broadly (excuse the pun) agree with your point there, in the case of Stewart it worked. They were relatively successful and even won a race. And we all know how horrible Jaguar fared after the takeover.

        2 years ago
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