Paul Fearnley asks Eric Broadley about his patient wait to enter Formula One on his own terms
Formula One is big business. To compete at motorsport’s highest level requires a huge financial undertaking. Lola Cars has invested wisely over the past 38 years, salting away the funds generated with a view to eventually moving into its dream racing home, but the escalating costs of the category in recent times have kept it just out of the Huntingdon company’s reach. It has overstretched itself on a number of occasions, but is now confident it has the portfolio to succeed.
In 1997, a ground-breaking sponsorship deal with MasterCard will enable Lola to enter Formula One on its own terms, according to its founder Eric Broadley. His company has survived and prospered thanks to acute pecuniary acumen as well as engineering expertise. Lola might not register as easily with the man-on-the-street as say, Williams or Benetton yet it has a formidable record of success in a daunting range of formulae, including lndycars, sports and GT cars, CanAm, Group 7, F5000, F3000, Formula Two and Formula Ford. It has proved that Formula One is not the be-all-and-end-all. This is lucky, because in F1 terms, Lola is distinctly in the red. Broadley insists that he has not taken leave of his senses to enter a formula which has left him with a few bruises over the years.
“There are very good business reasons for doing it,” he stresses, “Due to the efforts of Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One — along with Indycars — is the most stable formula in motor racing. It’s also the strongest formula, and we need to be in it.
“The whole thing is about exposure. Sponsors are in it for commercial reasons. It’s very expensive to get into Formula One, and it’s difficult to find sponsorship if you are not in — it’s very Catch 22. You need big finance, because you can never do enough development or testing. We have been working hard for the past three years to make this happen — now we’re ready. There is a deepseated ambition to be successful in Formula One, but it’s not the main driving force behind the decision.”
The marques relationship with Formula One has been stand-offish, Lola happy to share hide behind or share the limelight with Bowmaker, Honda, Embassy Hill, Haas and Beatrice, and Larrousse. But none of these proved satisfactory. Lessons have been learned.
“It’s not just about marketing and finance,” says Broadley “The actual engineering control of it is vitally important — it’s impossible to compete in F1 without it. We discovered that over the years. We have tried to get back into Formula One in various ways, but it has all gone horribly wrong.”
The fiasco with the Ferrari-engined BMS Scuderia-ltalia cars in 1993 was the last straw for Broadley. “We stated that we would never do it like that again. We promised ourselves that we would only do it with our own teams. So that’s what we are doing.”
According to Broadley, his concern is now big enough to take on such a big in-house project — which will eventually include the engine — without it encroaching upon its Indycar arm.
The reason we are going is because the operation has built up to the point where we have a lot of good people and our facilities are improving. There is a basic difference between a manufacturing, commercial operation and Formula One, which is dependent on sponsors. We have been involved in lndycars and Group C and things of that sort, and they are pretty demanding projects.”
They are, but F1 still represents a big step. Broadley, however, is confident of the project’s feasibility and eventual success “What we have now is a group of people capable of doing well at any project that you care to put in front of them, so we are tackling it slightly differently. We don’t feel that we need a ‘name’ designer to head the project, we’ve sort of gone off that idea, because what you get then is one guy’s ideas — very often fixed ideas — which is not what you want these days. You need a group of specialists, and that the way we are tackling F1. “
Plenty of ‘name’ designers have emerged from Lola portals, however, not so fresh perhaps, but stuffed full of ideas and knowledge fuelled by the company’s varied and renowned fast turnover approach to the sport. Does it niggle Broadley that the likes of Patrick Head, John Barnard and Tony Southgate went elsewhere to make their names?
“I wouldn’t say so because all those people have had tremendous talent of their own. In a way, were privileged to have them for a while.” Had he been more involved in F1 at the time, perhaps he might have kept them. . .
“I think what happened in the mid-’60s was that we had to make a decision on the direction to take the company, When we first went into the business, we did very well in the 1100s and things like that. But the whole problem with racing and producing racing cars is that they can be good for a while and then fade away. The markets are all very limited, so we had to tackle a lot of markets.” Formula One history tends to be seen in the light of its current high-powered image. Yet it has not always been so flush. CanAm success in the late-’60s and early ’70s was far more lucrative than the GP circus. For a long time F1 simply did not fit Lola’s bill. It does now, and MasterCard intends to foot it.