Remember When… Mastercard Lola Existed?

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Entering Formula 1 and being awful? Priceless

Lola has a proud history of motorsport success stretching back 50 years. One blip it is keen to forget is its attempt to join the Formula 1 ranks in 1997. On paper, it sounded so promising: Lola chassis, potent Ford V8 engines and, most importantly, huge backing from Mastercard and Pennzoil. Unfortunately for them, F1 teams don’t race on paper, and the reality was nothing short of a total disaster.

The Huntingdon based outfit already had a lengthy association with F1 before it had visions on becoming a grand prix team in its own right. Since the early sixties, Lola constructed cars for a number of outfits, notably Graham Hill’s Embassy Racing team and American outfit Team Haas, before withdrawing from the pinnacle of motorsport following the disastrous T93/30 for BMS Scuderia Italia in the early nineties. Undeterred, Lola’s head-honcho Eric Broadley began putting together plans to bring the famous marque into F1 as a bonafide ‘works’ team.

Broadley’s dream quickly began to pick up pace and by 1995 an F1 prototype had been built and given a shakedown by Allan McNish. The following year it was announced that Lola were planning on participating in the World Championship in 1998. A $35 million sponsorship deal with credit card giant Mastercard would later put enormous pressure on the team, and saw them enter a year earlier than intended  in 1997 – ill prepared.

The closest (and only) time the Mastercard Lola T97/30 came to starting a race was the season-opener in Melbourne. Former FIA F3000 champion Vincenzo Sospiri tried in vain, but fell short of the 107 per cent cut-off in qualifying. Strangely, he places the blame firmly on Jacques Villeneuve for his complete failure to start a grand prix.

“If he hadn’t done that fantastic pole lap, I would have qualified,” he says. Admittedly Villeneuve’s stunning lap was some 1.75 seconds clear of the opposition. But Sospiri’s was almost 13 seconds slower!

“I only missed out by a small amount. (Team-mate) Ricardo (Rosset) was 1.5 seconds slower than me anyway.

“The car was not the best to drive. We had done 12 laps at Silverstone, that’s all. It was very difficult to handle in the corners, and lacked aerodynamic grip. Even in a straight line it was going left and right! No one seemed to know why.”


The Mastercard Lola F1 team summed up in 14 seconds.

Sospiri’s F1 dream then fell apart in quite comical circumstances when it came to the next race, the Brazilian Grand Prix.

With the shortcomings of the T97/30  all too apparent, new parts and development were in the pipe-line, along with an in-house built V10 engine for the immediate future. The team had something to be optimistic about, even after the woeful performance in Australia. But there was to be no second race for Lola.

“I actually found out the team was over from a Brazilian newspaper on the Thursday morning before the grand prix,” Sospiri recalls. “It said, ‘Lola is out’, so I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ and phoned Ricardo Rosset. He confirmed it was true. He was in the truck and said it was about to be locked up, so I asked him to get my stuff and my helmet too! I went to the track and everything was sealed. It was all over.”

Reflecting back on his brief spell in Formula, Sospiri adds: “It sounded such a good idea, I left my test role with Benetton and signed up for four years. They had plans to make their own engines the following year, but the budget was never there. Everything they’d told me wasn’t true. In F1, when that happens, it doesn’t take long to find out.”

During its short spell in Formula 1 as a fully fledge constructor, Lola had incurred £6 million of debt and was unable to recover from such a large deficit. They later went into receivership before being purchased by Irish business entrepreneur Martin Birrane and, despite a recent attempt, has not been involved in Fomrula 1 in any capacity ever since.

It’s difficult to gauge just how well Lola would have fared without the commercial pressures placed on them by main sponsors Mastercard. Their insistence that the team debut a year ahead of schedule caused the T97/30 to be rushed through the design phase, yet Broadley remained confident of relative glory; despite the fact the car had never seen a wind tunnel as there simply wasn’t enough time.

In comparison to fellow debutantes Stewart Grand Prix, Mastercard Lola were (and let’s not beat around the bush here) bloody awful. With the benefit of hindsight though, we can enjoy such bold statements from Broadley, who at the time believed that they would trounce the new Stewart team: “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,” and in response to his cars perhaps struggling to reach the 107% qualifying barrier, 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.”

Never a truer word spoken.

14 Comments

  1. I felt sorry for Sospiri that this was as close as he got to competing in a Grand Prix.

    Rosset on the other hand was probably flattered by the T97/30. Although I had forgotten Rosset was runner-up to Sospiri in F3000 in 1995.

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  3. A very sad story of F1. I can remember a couple of years ago looking on an F1 site and seeing ‘Mastercard Lola’ and not having a clue who they were. Was only 9 when the M/Lola project happened and can just about remember the great pullouts the Sun/Daily Mail used to do and remembering a team, but couldn’t remember if they ever made the sport. Anyway it was a shame that Sospiri had that happen to him as he was a decent driver.

    Just goes to show that planning for an F1 season can be tough and no wonder you get the negative vibes from Campos and USF1 when you hear stories like this. That being said they were pressured to race early by their sponsors or they’d pull out, so really it’s the sponsors to blame here!

  4. From what I remember, the chassis ended up being a modified IRL car – it was unsymmetrical as the chassis was designed for ovals.

    Success: A Williams FW97
    Medicrity: A Prost JS45
    For team spirit and trying: A Minardi M197
    For everything else, there’s Mastercard Lola

    • Why for Mediocrity you have put the Prost JS45? That was one of the better cars that year. Should have put the Arrows A18 for mediocrity. 9 points with the reigning world champion and a very rich pay driver. That’s mediocrity for you.

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