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.