Spirit level

Lola's triumphs and tribulations

At the start of 1993, everything looked fairly rosy for Lola. Fate had cast Nigel Mansell in the general direction of IndyCar racing, where he would drive one of the Huntingdon manufacturer's chassis for Newman-Haas. Inevitably, the explosion of media interest in American motorsport focussed on Mansell to the virtual exclusion of suppliers such as Lola and Cosworth. though Lola insists that it has enjoyed sufficient reflective coverage on the back of Mansell's successes. "We never used to feature in the daily papers at all, for instance," says Formula 3000 Project Manager Nick Langley, "but now we're popping up everywhere."

No question, America has been the marque's salvation this year. In addition to Mansell's performances, Lola entered successfully into the first of three years as supplier of monotype chassis to the improving Indy Lights series. The relationship has, thus far, been hugely successful. Grids increased by 50 per cent last season, and similar growth is forecast for 1994. "We've come a long way since Roger Bailey and I launched the formula, as the American Racing Series, in 1986," says co-founder and experienced IndyCar entrant Pat Patrick. "The purpose was to launch the careers of young drivers, and it's beginning to happen." Indeed, Indy Lights' appeal has increased since Lola threw one year's loan of an IndyCar into the champion's prize fund. As a result, 1993's leading light Bryan Herta now finds himself with a valuable bargaining tool when it comes to looking for a full-time Indy drive next season. "In many ways," says Herta, "it's better than bringing sponsorship money to a team, from a driver's point of view. It's a fixed asset."

"Now," continues Patrick, "I believe that we have, pound-for-pound, the most sophisticated racing series in the world. $700,000 covers the cost of the car, 12 races and all the testing that you need to do. In Formula 3000, eight races will cost you around $1,000,000 . . " Most F3000 entrants will tell you that his maths is a little shaky there, but you get his point. And it's not as if the F3000 champion gets free use of an F1 car for the following season, is it?

Beneath this garden of roses, however, there lie some sickly roots. Not everything went Lola's way in '93.

Far from it.

The company had already taken a kick in the bank balance in 1992, with the demise of the World Sportscar Championship, for which a customer car had been designed. It had been built, at considerable cost, before it became apparent that the category had no future.

This season, continued triumphs in the States were offset slightly by the news that Bruce Ashmore, head of the design team which produced Mansell's T93/00, was defecting to Reynard, to play a leading role in development of the latter's new 941 IndyCar, which debuts next year.

Rubbing salt into the wound, Reynard also monopolised the European Formula 3000 market in 1993, though Lola found solace in the Japanese equivalent.

To cap it all, Lola's return to motor racing's global showpiece, Formula One, replacing Dallara as Scuderia Italia's chassis supplier, was a flop.

The cars were regular inhabitants of the back row of the grid, and the relationship failed to survive the season.

There are thus three pressing issues. In no particular order of urgency, Lola needs to counter the predatory menace of Reynard in the USA, to regain customer confidence in European F3000 and to restore its tarnished image in F1.

On the latter point, managing director Mike Blanchet is quite open about the T93/30's dismal record. "Naturally, I'm going to say that we didn't have a decent crack at it, but it didn't work out for a whole feast of reasons. That said, I have to admit that we underestimated the challenge. We'd been away from F1 for a couple of years, and the technology had progressed enormously in that time. We were taken slightly unawares. We certainly never expected to be as uncompetitive as we were. Realistically, we hoped to be able to qualify in midfield. In that light, the project has to be regarded as a failure, but we are determined to prove that we can still build a competitive F1 car."

Indeed, in the corner of the main assembly room there nestles a small office containing the nascent T94/30, which is tucked away behind protective sheeting whenever the press are around.

If Lola is to return to F1, says Blanchet, it wants to do so on its own terms, though the team would have to be autonomously structured, away from the main manufacturing base.

Should such a works F1 team come to pass, it would put Lola in a unique position. You do not, after all, see McLaren, Williams, Ferrari or Benetton attempting such diversity, although the latter may run a junior team in Formula 3000 next season, albeit as a paying customer, not a constructor.

Blanchet argues that it is not an unfeasible proposition. "You can learn a little bit from every category, whether it's Formula Ford, IndyCar or Formula One. You get more lateral ideas, and that input can help across the board."

There remains, of course, the perennial thorn of finance. The commitment to go it alone in F1 increases the ante. "We will only do it," stresses Blanchet, "if we have the money to do so properly."

By November, the money was not in place. If the T94/30 doesn't run in F1 next year, what happens then? Is that another case of wasted investment, like the T92/10 Group C car?

"Not at all," counters Mike. "In that situation, we'd run a test programme in 1994, to be properly prepared for the following year. Besides," he adds, warming to his theme, "Formula One might be a good place not to be in 1994. Does anybody really know what the regulations are, or what we can or can't build? It says you can't have driver aids but what constitutes a driver aid? The steering wheel? The brake pedal? The way I see it, you could drive a coach and horses through the regulations at present. There are lots of grey areas, and there could be quite a barney."

If Lola takes the test route, it will merely be a repeat of its European F3000 experience in 1993. Bereft of customers, the factory ran a T93/50 in a private research and development programme. At the end of the year, Paul Stewart Racing ran the car and one of its own Reynards at Silverstone. In the hands of two different drivers, Paul Stewart and Vincenzo Sospiri, the Lola proved quicker. The results produced mixed feelings for Langley. "Obviously we were delighted, but with hindsight we really regret not having contested the closing two rounds of this year's series." That had been the plan but, like much else, the idea was knocked on the head on the grounds of expense. "All the same," he emphasises, "I'm absolutely confident that we will be back in European F3000 next year. The recent tests have stimulated enormous interest, and the reaction of the teams we've spoken to has been most positive."

Presently, Lola thrives on optimism borne of pragmatism.

Commercially, however, the biggest test is that to be tackled in the US. Can Lola handle Reynard's invasion of the IndyCar market, with its inevitable accompaniment of aggressive marketing? Reynard has already laid down a batch of 15 cars, although Stateside observers reckon that there will only be six or so racing at the start of the year. That notwithstanding, there was impressive interest in the 941, given that the firm has never before built an Indy racer, and that was before Ashmore was recruited to fortify the design staff. . .

Lola has reorganised its troops, however, and Blanchet is fully confident that they will sell at least 30 T94/00s. In recent years, of course, Lola has faced stiff opposition from Penske, though the latter has concentrated essentially on supplying its own works team. Reynard will be taking a more scattergun approach to the matter of chassis distribution, and has also landed something of a coup with the recruitment of Michael Andretti to drive a car for Chip Ganassi. Say what you like about Andretti's lacklustre arrival in F1, he is still regarded as an awesome IndyCar racer, and with good reason.

Blanchet accepts that they face fierce opposition. "We've always tried to do our best, even when we haven't faced commercial rivals," he says, "though we accept that we have to improve communications next year when it comes to making teams aware of our various development programmes.

"We've actually strengthened our Indy team. There are more people working on it than ever before, an increase in workforce of about 20 per cent. Since Bruce left, John Travis and Keith Knott have taken responsibility for the design, and they've produced an all-new car which wind tunnel results confirm is quite an improvement aerodynamically."

Cynics will note that, every winter, manufacturers the world over produce new cars, claiming to have improved torsional rigidity, aerodynamics, suspension geometry. . .

Blanchet laughs. "I know, I know. Why didn't we design it like that in the first place? Every year, you read about so and so's new car doing such and such a time in testing. If you applied all the claims you'd heard over the years, the outright Formula Ford record at Snetterton would be down to about three seconds by now!

"We were going to produce an evolution of Bruce's last car, but when he left we made the decision to do something different. Besides, the Penskes had started to give us a bit of a whipping in mid-season, so it made sense to start afresh. There's no point trying to play catch-up all the time. You've got to make the effort to jump ahead."

For the first time. Lola will use a transverse gearbox in IndyCar racing next season. "That allows for superior weight distribution," continues Blanchet. "Really, the longitudinal 'box has the same effect as hanging a sack of spuds on the back of the car. I'd say that we were as quick as the Penskes this year, but they were a little easier on their tyres in races because of their transverse gearbox, particularly on the road circuits."

Results bear this out. While everyone expected Mansell to be at his most competitive on the series' road circuits, he scored a greater number of his victories (four out of five, to be exact) on ovals.

With logical, if unproven, remedies to its crises in F1 and European F3000, continued customer loyalty in the Far East, a blossoming Indy Lights market and a feisty confidence in its IndyCar prospects, Lola might be entering 1994 a tad bloodied, but its spirit is most assuredly unbowed.