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Lola and Its Formula 1 Attempt: When Years of Know How Meant Nothing

Matt HillContributor IIIFebruary 6, 2011

9 Mar 1997:  Vicenzo Sospiri of Italy driving his Lola Ford during the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. \ Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau /Allsport
Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

The Lola group has been involved in Formula 1 in some form or another many times. On many of these occasions, they were constructing cars for other people to use. All of the cars they built for other people were never particularly strong.

In 1995, a prototype was built and Allan Mcnish was used as a driver.

In 1996, after years of providing cars for other people, Lola decided to have a full works attempt at Formula 1. They managed to secure a sponsorship coup getting Mastercard to sponsor their team. Mastercard put $35 million into the team, which despite not being a huge amount by Formula 1 standards, was enough to allow the team to begin work on a car.

The deal with Mastercard is unlike most sponsorship deals I have ever heard about. The amount of money coming in depended on the amount of people the Lola team could bring into the Mastercard credit card group.

The schedule for construction was designed for the car to be ready for the 1998 Formula 1 season. They secured a deal to run Ford Zetec-R V8 engines which Sauber used in 1995. So the engines they had were old, had two less cylinders than every other teams motor (except Minardi) and were down on power.

It wasn't the most promising of starts, Then Mastercard decided they wanted the team to enter in the 1997 season, in other words throwing all the Lola plans totally out of the window. Somehow they designed a car called the T97/30. Meanwhile, they were designing their car the Stewart team were unveiling theirs and were beginning their testing programme.

Whilst making the T97/30 they said they were using their knowledge of composites to build the car. What they actually did was use parts from their other racing cars and try to lighten them to make the useable in Formula 1.

The Lola team proudly said that the team had done "wind tunnel work we have done at Cranfield with the Indycar is directly applicable to Formula 1." The truth was the Formula 1 car had never seen the inside of a wind tunnel and the aerodynamic data they had from Indycar was of no use.

They had one very brief test session before going to Melbourne for the first race and it was obvious the car was horrifically slow. The car had gearbox problems and its lack of wind tunnel time made the car very aerodynamically flawed. Despite this before the first event Eric Broadley said they wanted:

"To beat Stewart and if they didn't they needed a good kick up the backside and if they missed the 107 percent cut they didn't deserve to be in it at all"

Comments like this when looked back upon are about as stupid as Tony Greig saying he would make the great West Indian cricket team of the 80s crawl and then going on to get slaughtered 5-0.

They hired Ricardo Rosset and Vincenzo Sospiri as their drivers and headed out to Melbourne with Andrea Montermini as their test driver. The team worked around the clock to get the cars ready for the first practice session.

The best part of the car was without a doubt the paint work. It looked pretty good. But as a truly competitive Formula 1 car it came staggeringly short of the mark. 

In the first practice, Sospiri produced a 1:42.590 and Rosset could only do a little better with a 1:41.166. Meanwhile the best cars were very much in the one minute and 32 second area. In second practice, they managed to go even slower somehow with Rosset producing a 1:41.416 and Sospiri a 1:44.286 with Jacques Villeneuve in the Williams setting the pace with a lap around 1:28.

In qualifying, Villeneuve was again the class of the field producing a 1:29.369 around 1.7 seconds quicker than second place man Frentzen. Sospiri managed a 1:40.972 and Rosset could only do a 1.42.086. No one was going to allow the Lola team to race.

The team was understandably disappointed but they did have new parts on the way with the main one being an all new V10 in house built engine so they weren't totally disconsolate. What many members of the team didn't realise was the awful financial situation they were in.

The Formula 1 team was $6 million in debt with half of this money owed to the parent company Lola cars. Also Mastercard was pulling the plug due to the poor publicity after the Australian Grand Prix debacle. The team arrived in Brazil just to read the newspapers telling them the team had collapsed.

Regrouping efforts failed and that was the end of the team. The Formula 1 disaster nearly ended the whole Lola empire and it took a last minute ditch effort from Martin Birrane to save the company. Since the catastrophic Formula 1 team effort, the company has stabilized with Lola going back to their usual markets of all sports car and lower formula car production.

They applied to enter the 2010 Formula 1 season but were denied. I do hold hope that Lola may eventually manage to produce a Formula 1 team that lasts and is successful.

On a final note, I hope Robert Kubica recovers as soon as possible.      

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