Perry McCarthy

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Last updated: 3-January-2001


• 'Be prepared' has maximum value in F1
Modern Formula One is more about professionalism and preparation than ever before, with as little as humanly possible left to chance. The amount of testing that many teams do per year is testament to that. So too, for example, Toyota's entry into the top league in 2002. By the start of the preceding 2001 season, the Toyota engine had already been conceived, and test chassis had been built in readiness for a full year of testing by Mika Salo and Allan McNish. They were then amongst the first teams to unveil their 2002 car, and the level of preparation showed when Salo scored points on the team's debut.

When the Stewart team decided to enter Grand Prix racing in the 1997 season, they declared its intention to do so as early as January 1996, and by December that year, a full three months before its first race, the Stewart SF1 had been launched. That gave them a full three months to sort out the teething problems of the car, and to turn it into a reasonably competitive proposition. And, despite the unreliability of the Ford engine in 1997, the Stewarts of Rubens Barrichello and Jan Magnussen ran respectably in the midfield throughout the season.

There may be exceptions to the rule, but generally it holds true that preparation is everything in F1. Now, Stewart was not the only team to enter F1 in 1997. But while the tartan tearaways were a demonstration of the right way to go about things, the other attempt became a cautionary tale of woe, showing exactly how not to mount a Grand Prix challenge. The team in question was none other than the works effort of Eric Broadley's famous Lola marque. On paper, with no little shortage of experience behind the name, it should never have been this way.

Lola had been founded by Broadley in 1958, and had been in F1 since the 1960s, building cars for other teams. In 1962, the Lola 4 had been designed for the Bowmaker Racing Team, and John Surtees took the car to pole position in its debut outing, as well as two 2nds, a 4th and two 5ths throughout the season. The cars were then run especially by Reg Parnell's team in 1963 with little success. In addition to F1 cars, Lola also began building machines for F2 racing, with the BMW works team amongst its customers in the late 1960s.

Allan McNish tests a Lola F1 prototype in 1995. Allan McNish tests a Lola F1 prototype in 1995.
• A lengthy association with F1
In 1974 and 1975, Graham Hill's Embassy Racing team ran a Lola chassis, whilst Lolas dominated F5000 in the 1970s. In 1983, Lola had entered CART for the first time with the Newman/Haas team, and by 1988 had become the chassis of choice. In 1985 and 1986, F1 saw Alan Jones and Patrick Tambay in Team Haas cars, which were confusingly called Lolas even though they were not created by Broadley's company. Lola proper did build F1 cars, however, for the Larrousse team from 1987 to 1991, recording a 3rd place in the 1990 Japanese GP with Aguri Suzuki. The make's last F1 chassis for another team had been the disastrous T93/30 for BMS Scuderia Italia in 1993.

It had always been Broadley's dream, however, to enter a Lola Grand Prix team in its own right. After a radical chassis for 1994 had never been built, a works Lola effort had been touted since 1995, when an F1 prototype had been built and given some test runs by Allan McNish. And, since Reynard had overthrown the monopoly that Lola once had in F3000 and CART, an F1 team would serve to re-establish the marque in the international motorsport scene. This was the case even though in 1996, when F3000 switched to its present single-make formula, Lola won the contract to build the chassis.

It seemed as though the dream would become reality, when in 1996 Broadley put together a sponsorship deal with credit card giant MasterCard, with the aim of entering the World Championship in 1998. And it seemed like a step in the right direction to get the financial package together first, MasterCard putting in $35 million, not a massive sum by F1 standards but healthy enough to get the team started. An engine deal to run Ford Zetec-R V8s was also put in place. Although this would be several years old, being the engines Sauber ran in 1995, at least it was a reliable enough unit.

The MasterCard deal was said to be 'innovative', in that it depended upon using Lola's racing activities to draw in customers to the credit card program. This was never a guaranteed success in the first place, and it meant that cash was only trickling rather than flowing into the team. The situation was made much worse when MasterCard decided in November 1996 that it wanted Lola to race in 1997. This edict meant that the Lola effort was soon fast-tracked on a highway to F1 hell. By the time Stewart was launching their F1 car, Lola was just beginning to design theirs.

Melbourne, 1997: Ricardo Rosset gives his all in a futile effort to qualify. Melbourne, 1997: Ricardo Rosset gives his all in a futile effort to qualify.
• Rosset and Sospiri signed to do battle
The T97/30 was quickly penned at Lola's base at Huntington. Despite the rush, Broadley was confident, saying: "We have the experience, the commitment and the desire to succeed in F1. We have knowledge from our composites shop, our engineers cross over from both programs and the wind tunnel work we have done at Cranfield with the Indycar is directly applicable to F1. We have basically worked at lightening components down to F1 needs. We have taken the best ideas from specialists in the wind tunnel, aerodynamics, vehicle dynamics and the like to produce the final machine."

But despite all this reference to wind tunnel work, the amazing thing was that the T97/30 never actually saw a wind tunnel - there was just not the time. Yet Broadley still believed that the Lola could defeat the new Stewarts: "If we don't beat them, then we deserve to be given a good kick up the backside. With our experience and back-up, it should be no problem." Furthermore, in response to suggestions that his cars would struggle to meet the 107% qualifying mark, he said: "The 107% rule is actually quite a large margin. If we can't do that, then we really shouldn't be in it."

His words would soon haunt him. A deal was struck to run Bridgestone tyres, and Vincenzo Sospiri and Ricardo Rosset signed on to drive. They had been team-mates in the 1995 F3000 championship, in which they came 1st and 2nd respectively, so they were a capable pairing. But the signs were ominous. With the T97/30 launched on February 20, there was only time for a shakedown and no serious testing before the cars were shipped to Australia for the first round of the 1997 championship. Yet those brief runs were enough to show that the cars were going to be horrendously slow.

In addition, there were gremlins with the gearbox, but the biggest problem lay with the aerodynamics. The car just could not generate enough mechanical or aerodynamic grip, and could therefore not get the tyres up to temperature. Amazingly, the drivers reported that the car had too much drag in a straight line, compromising their top speed, but the same package then in turn could not generate enough downforce going through the turns, thereby compromising cornering speed as well. The T97/30 was fundamentally flawed, and the lack of wind-tunnel time had made it even more of a joke.

Vincenzo Sospiri deserved a better shot at F1 than what Lola gave him. Vincenzo Sospiri deserved a better shot at F1 than what Lola gave him.
• Way off 107% with little improvement on the horizon
Despite their rather fetching paint-job, the crew had to work around the clock for several days prior to the start of practice in Melbourne just to ensure that both drivers would get some track time. But immediately it was clear that Lola's trip down under would be entirely fruitless. On the Friday both drivers had problems balancing the car, and while the best times dipped into the 1 minute 32s bracket, Rosset had only managed a 1:41.166, and Sospiri a 1:42.590. It was desperately clear that they would have to find a few extra seconds if they were to stand any chance of qualifying the next day.

But improvement was simply not forthcoming. On the Saturday morning, instead of going quicker, both cars actually went slower, Rosset recording 1:41.416 and Sospiri doing a 1:44.286. This when virtually all other cars were going quicker, Jacques Villeneuve in the Williams recording the (then) fastest lap ever seen at Albert Park of 1:28.594, some 13 seconds faster than Rosset and almost 16 seconds over Sospiri. People were justifiably asking whether or not the T97/30 could be any faster than an F3000 car.

The writing was well and truly on the wall. Indeed, when Villeneuve put in one of the most dominant qualifying performances in recent memory, recording a 1:29.369 time, some 1.7s faster than 2nd-placed team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, that left a 107% cut-off mark of 1:35.625. Only 21 of the 24 entries made it below that time, with Pedro Diniz in the Arrows only managing 1:35.972, despite having gone faster than that in practice. After some grovelling by Arrows boss Tom Walkinshaw, Diniz was allowed to start, but nothing was ever going to give the Lolas that kind of break.

The best that Sospiri could do was 1:40.972, while Rosset blew out to a 1:42.086. Never in anyone's wildest dreams would Broadley's cars be allowed to start. Simply, neither driver had been able to find anything remotely resembling a grip-conducive set-up all weekend. Said Sospiri: "It was always going to be a tough job. We all tried to make it work but we need more track time to find the balance and how to generate more grip." Rosset lamented: "I know that we will be expected to do better for the next race and I do need to show the many race fans at home that we are progressing as a new team."

The Lola cars all packed up and ready to ... be scrapped! The Lola cars all packed up and ready to ... be scrapped!
• F1 effort crumbles in debt and their GP sojurn is history
There were indeed new parts and more development planned for the future, as well as a new, in-house built V10 engine, so Rosset would have thought that he had reason to be optimistic after the pathetic showing in Australia. But there was to be no next race. Both drivers went to Brazil, only to read in the newspapers that their team had collapsed. In the space of a few short months, Lola's Grand Prix arm had built up some 6 million pounds in debt, half of which was owed to parent company Lola Cars. The risky sponsorship program with MasterCard had not helped things at all.

The MasterCard Lola debacle of 1997 almost spelled the end of the great Lola name altogether. Lola Cars itself went into receivership shortly afterwards, and was only saved when Martin Birrane bought the company from Broadley. Since then, in an upturn of fortunes, with Reynard having folded Lola once again has a monopoly in CART as well as in F3000, and a burgeoning sports car program. However, Formula One looks out of the picture, and the 1997 farce serves as a reminder to anyone thinking of entering the top flight of just how tough Grand Prix racing can be.

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