X-ray spec -- Lola Mk4

It beat Ferrari in its debut year, so why did this project die? Keith Howard speaks to its instigator

John Surtees completed his unique double of world championships on both two and four wheels driving the Ferrari 158 in 1964. But it isn’t beyond the bounds of reason that he might have done it at the wheel of a car built in a small, unassuming factory just across the road from where he lived at the time in Bromley, Kent. That’s where Lola Cars Limited had moved from its original premises in Byfleet, to save designer Eric Broadley commuting time from his home near Orpington.

Lola was a young company with modest facilities and limited experience. Founded in 1957, it hadn’t built its first single-seater until ’60 and had never attempted a Formula One car. Yet the self-effacing Broadley’s reputation was already such that in ’61 Surtees felt confident enough to suggest that he design a car for Roy Salvadori and himself to drive in ’62. Disenchanted with piloting customer Coopers during the ’61 season, Surtees reckoned he might as well take the bold step of commissioning a car from a promising but untried source. It was a brave but also insightful decision which established a strong working relationship between the two men that would achieve its zenith with the Lola T70 sportscar.

Surtees had finished a disappointing 11th equal in the drivers’ championship in 1961, a single place ahead of what he’d achieved the previous year in just four races for Lotus (three of which ended in retirement), while he continued to campaign motorbikes. In ’62, driving the new Lola — which had initially been fitted with the four-cylinder Coventry-Climax FPF for testing, pending arrival of the FWMV V8 — he came fourth. At Ferrari the following year he wouldn’t better that, even with the vastly superior facilities, budget and experience on offer at Maranello. In the nine races of ’62 Surtees and the Lola Mk4 finished in the points five times, twice — at Aintree and the Nürburgring — in second place.

It was a project that clearly deserved better than to be quietly disbanded at the end of the season. But uncertainties over engine supply and funding persuaded Surtees to make the move to Ferrari, and without Big John the impetus was lost. Broadley continued to build his company’s reputation elsewhere, although Lola revisited F1 from time to time over the following 35 years. Had a little better fortune secured a second season in ’63, as Surtees explains here, things might have been so different.

“The project was killed off at the end of the 1962 season by the fact that Coventry-Climax said they would only supply their traditional teams in future,” says Surtees. “That was the final straw that sent me to Ferrari. I think if I’d stayed we’d have had continued financial support from sponsors Bowmaker-Yeoman because, let’s face It, we finished in front of Porsche and Ferrari that year. For a new manufacturer to Formula One it was probably the best performance there has been. Considering there was relatively little testing and we had to sort out the bugs as we raced, it was a remarkably successful season. The biggest problem was getting any time to test with the new Climax V8. We had to catch up because others had their engines before us. When I got to Ferrari I had to start afresh — it would probably have been better to put the Ferrari engine in the Lola chassis!”

“Once we’d got the chassis stiffer we found that in early development we’d ended up using too-stiff springs because of the flex elsewhere. That was one of the reasons it pattered around and wasn’t stable at Spa. With the chassis twist taken out we could tune the suspension more sensitively and soften the car up. We didn’t have to make any major geometry changes because, apart from that chassis twist, the car handled well from the outset. (In testing at Brands and Silverstone, it had set record times for a four-cylinder car.) If a racing car doesn’t work relatively well straight from the box you’d better start again because you never really catch up. Look at where it had its successes, like the old Longford road circuit in Australia that was quite frightening at the speeds you achieved with the 2.7-litre engine. The car performed well in wet races too. I had quite a tussle with Dan (Gurney) and Graham (Hill])at the Nürburgring, and a car’s got to work pretty well to get round there.”

Surtees on Lola’s Formula One graduation:

“I did four races for Lotus in 1960. Colin Chapman and I agreed that I would continue in ’61, alongside Jimmy (Clark), and I’d retire from motorcycling. But Innes Ireland raised such a stink that I walked away. Reg Parnell stepped in and said ‘Drive for me, we can have works Coopers.’ Actually we ended up with two customer cars. That year was a learning curve for me. Both Ferrari and BRM asked me to join them but I said to Reg, ‘How about Eric Broadley designing a car for us (for ’62)?’ From what I’d seen, he was the one person who could challenge Colin Chapman. Reg said he thought he could sell the idea if I stayed, so I did and we did a deal with Eric. I think we paid him £2250 per chassis.

The Mk4’s handling was closer to a Lotus than a Cooper. The Cooper was a very forgiving car and better, in my opinion, with the bigger engines. The Lotus 24 was more knife-edge, and that was the same with the 18 I’d driven in 1960. It wasn’t a car that you threw around — it was a car you had to be precise and forceful with. I was aiming for somewhere in the middle with the Lola and I think we ended up with that. It was moderately forgiving but more efficient than the Cooper. Probably the best-handling version was with the 2.7-litre Tasman series engine because that was very torquey and you could adjust the handling with your right foot. When I moved to Ferrari for 1963, the 156 was more towards the Cooper.”

Surtess re X-ray illustration:

“This is not the car as it finally raced. Some additional rails were added in the cockpit area, between the engine and centre bulkheads, to stiffen the chassis. We had a situation where the balance of the car between fast and slow corners left quite a lot to be desired, and this was most obvious where there were rough sections on the circuit — there was a certain instability to the car. This showed up particularly when we went to Spa, going down the Masta straight. It was not that easy to keep the car on line. It was while we were there that a jack was put under the car as Eric and I were standing beside it thinking about the problem. I said. ‘Eric. have you noticed that we’re keeping the two front wheels on the ground?’ He said, ‘Ah!’ — it was a bit of a giveaway! When we got back the stiffening was added and it transformed the car.”

“I see that the car is drawn with inverted dampers I think that’s wrong.” (With a twin-tube damper, like the Koni 8212 which came to dominate F1, this inversion was not possible, but with the monotube gas-pressurised Armstrong dampers used on the Mk4 it could be done, potentially saving some unsprung mass.) “People certainly played around with this at the time but, because we hadn’t had long development experience with gas-pressurised dampers, we generally didn’t use it.”