The future of Lola Cars might not yet be mapped out, but in Multimatic it appears to be in good hands 12 months on from its devastating liquidation
So what's the plan for Lola? "Damn, I knew you'd ask that question," replies Larry Holt, vice-president of Multimatic Engineering, the company that rescued the racing car constructor after it was liquidated last year. We're in an almost empty office above a 10,000 square foot Coventry warehouse, where Multimatic is putting Zagato bodies onto Aston Martin's Vantage chassis.
The company has a long history with Aston and was responsible for designing the body and chassis of the limited-edition One 77. It also supplies Red Bull and three other F1 teams with dampers and builds the front lower control arms for the Ford F150 pick-up. Yes, its portfolio is as diverse as the company is huge. It's divided into two arms, manufacturing and engineering, and there are six facilities in Toronto, plus a further 250,000sq ft in Butler, Indiana, 150,000sq ft in Mexico and 30,000sq ft just west of Shanghai. Today I'm in the engineering offices and there is also a 150,000sq ft stamping plant south of Coventry.
Holt says acquiring Lola was "an opportunity" and not something that was part of Multimatic Engineering's business plan — "I'm not much of a business plan kind of guy," he adds. But still he's adamant that Lola can be made to work. "Dallara works," says Holt, "but that is more of a business. With all due respect to Martin [Birrane, the man who still owns Lola Cars in name] he's a property development guy and has never built a racing car himself. Gian Paolo Dallara grew up doing it.
"Lola went bankrupt in May  and the first thing I did was hire all the guys because I've known them for a long time. They're great engineers and many of them have been there for decades — you can't buy that kind of knowledge. The company went bankrupt and those guys were on the street the next day. They were all hurting, but we aren't in the charity business and I'm always looking for good engineers. Usually you hire people out of a newspaper, you hire them from a headhunter, but then it takes three months to get to know them. Are they right for the job? You don't know. The Lola guys I've known for years.
"Lola then had the grey period between bankruptcy and liquidation and the administrators started to say 'this could be a nice little business', but Lola Cars was nothing more than the brainpower and that was all gone [the historic side is tied up in Lola Heritage, a separate entity]. What were they going to sell? It then turned out that the brand didn't actually belong to Lola Cars; it belonged to Martin in a separate company. So now what have you really got? The Intellectual Property? The IP on a year-old LMP car is worthless. IP to me means patents, but there weren't any. The buildings belonged to Martin's real estate company and things like the CFD were leased.
"Anyway, they liquidated it all — and Martin bought it [back]. What was there was inventory, probably the largest inventory of racing parts in the world. We figure that at the time of relevancy, when a wishbone for that year's car was worth £1000 or so, the inventory was worth £50 million You want a wishbone for a 1983 Lola Indycar? Or maybe one of our 35 Formula 3000 main cases because someone overordered? There are six sets of bodywork for the Lola B2K/40, a car we designed and built for Lola. Apparently, they laid everything down to do six more cars, but never did them. Weird eh?
"Martin tried to put the band back together after the liquidation, but no one bit so that's when he approached me. I had hired all the ex-Lola staff so it made sense. I said I was interested and he asked for a load of money. 'What?' I replied, 'I'll give you a bag of old hockey pucks and buy you dinner'. So somewhere in between the two we made a deal."
Multimatic bought the inventory from Birrane and an eight-year licensing deal to use the Lola brand.
"I did it 50:50 with Carl and Bernie Haas because they have been a Lola distributor in North America for years," says Holt. "We moved everything out of the old Lola offices and into a 20,000sq ft warehouse. It's just full of Lola parts.
"In Martin's defence, the guy was an enthusiast. One thing you can't take away from him is the fact that whatever he spent, he kept that company alive. He deserves all due credit. He bought it in 1997, out of bankruptcy, and God knows how much he spent on it. Millions I would say. Mind you, any privateer running a race team is throwing money at it. Everybody thinks that it's sustainable — motor racing, the sustainable business. That's bullshit. Some of those sports car teams will be throwing £10 million a year away. Martin spent considerably less than that owning his own motor racing car manufacturing company, but maybe that was his kick? The world should appreciate that he kept it going.
"What I think happened was that he had a series of guys who weren't running it properly. Martin came in and had a couple of guys look around. They opened the cupboards and there was all kinds of stuff going on. He was probably asked to put more money in and enough was enough. He had a burn rate, but then he found out that it was much worse than he thought. They had 85-100 engineers and they were flat out for a month supplying LMP cars, but then the rest of the time they weren't so busy. It wasn't organised well."
What Holt won't do is launch a new Lola LMP1 car — he supplies many other teams in LMP1 through Multimatic and does not want to upset existing clients. However, he will continue to supply existing teams, which consist of Rebellion Racing in LMP1 which has just received an update and Dyson, HVM Status GP, DKR Engineering and Gulf Racing Middle East in LMP2.
"LMP2 is potentially interesting," he says. "I might make a new chassis. With LMP1 the market is shrinking because of the Grand-Am/ALMS merger in North America. It's also a manufactureronly class really, isn't it? I have a lot of respect for the guys like Rebellion, but look at Sebring the Audis were more than two seconds a lap quicker and they were probably sandbagging!"
What about making something for the Grand-Am/ALMS merger? "What a mess," replies Holt. "What do I make? Do I make a Daytona Prototype? Or an LMP2 car? Or should I make an ugly child, a mix between the two? No, in the end I want to support Lola's existing customer base and Martin, who's still involved, wants to see what else we can do. I've got all the engineers, I've got the inventory and I've got the eight-year licence to use the Lola name so we'll see. The next time a bid comes up for World Series or GP3 will I go for them? Maybe. Perhaps I'll take Dallara on in Formula 3. Will I take them on in the next IndyCar bid? Quite possibly I sure as hell could do something prettier than the current car!"
Despite the lack of firm plans, you get a sense that Holt will keep Lola's name alive. As I leave, Holt turns and says, "My message here, Ed, is that I will keep the firm going in some way. We have the wherewithal to do it, so we will." Watch this space.
Surtees takes Buckmore reinds
John Surtees is the new owner of one of the UK's most famous kart tracks. He hopes to use the Henry Surtees Foundation to develop a facility that will inspire children
John Surtees' thoughts on how the motor racing ladder should be restructured are well known: he's keen to make it easier to progress, even if you're struggling financially. But now he's on a mission to inspire young people from outside the sport through a new centre at Buckmore Park, the circuit he bought earlier this year.
It's more than 13 years since his late son Henry Surtees was taken to Buckmore Park by a friend of John's. He came back and said, "Dad, that's what I want to do'.' Surtees' connection with Buckmore had begun. Bill Sisley, the owner of the company that operated the track, approached Surtees soon after because he needed to update the facilities. This resulted in John Surtees Ltd getting involved in the design and financing of the clubhouse and paddock buildings on the understanding that the charity which owned the freehold, The Rochester Bridge Trust, would agree with the head leaseholder, the Scouting Association, that the circuit would eventually be sold to Surtees. It didn't happen.
This year, though, the 1964 Fl World Champion finally got his chance to acquire the freehold. What's more, John Surtees Ltd has bought up some land adjacent to the current site and is looking at extending the track and creating a centre for the Henry Surtees Foundation, where it will start a programme "to inspire people to go into education".
Surtees says: "The great thing about Buckmore is that it's not just a track laid out in a car park. It climbs, it drops, it's like a mini Brands Hatch and provides a tremendous challenge. It's great fun to drive. We've bought this extra land and we'll give a part of that to the Foundation to do the training. There'll also hopefully be a shorter track, which can link to the existing one if you want to use a longer layout. If you don't want to do that then both tracks, or the existing one and the Henry Surtees centre, can run at the same time.
"Motor vehicles and motor sport are emotional subjects. What I want to do is give young people from the community an opportunity to be inspired by that first visit to a track. What we need to do is create an emotion, because if you can do that it will drive young people forward.
"By acquainting young people with a kart, with spanners, the technology of data systems and engineering, I hope it will inspire them into a career path and more advanced programmes in specialist colleges and universities. We want to be an inspirational feeder into engineering and all the opportunities that exist in motor sport"
At the moment Surtees says that this is "all part of a dream", but he hopes more pieces will fall into place by the year's end. Sisley is the leaseholder and has a part to play, which is under negotiation. What is certain is that the track's future is safe — and that's good news.
Two forthcoming dates to watch are the Brooklands Team Challenge on June 25, at Mercedes-Benz World in Surrey, and the All Comers Challenge at Buckmore Park on October 23. Motor Sport will be competing in the former, so book your place and show us why we should stick to writing.