Although its products won the CART and Japanese F3000 titles last season, 1991 wasn’t a wholly successful year for Lola. Undeterred, the Huntingdon constructor is preparing a spectacular assault on motor racing’s four major disciplines in 1993
Winter 1991 cannot have been too comfortable a time for Lola, the specialist volume racing car constructor founded by Eric Broadley in 1958. It was forced to terminate its association with the debt-ridden Larrousse Formula One team, which had been unable to meet its bills, and its reputation as a Formula 3000 constructor had been badly tattered in the West, following the T91/50’s failure to win a single European Championship race. On the plus side, there was always the impressive new T92/10 Group C racer, in which a great deal of time and money had been invested.
Except, of course, that the Sportscar World Championship had just been axed . . .
Happily for Lola, the SWC’s continued existence has now been confirmed. The T92/10, the first Group C car to be badged as a Lola since the T610 in 1982 (though Nissan’s most recent, and highly successful, sports racers, were Lola-built), will be run on the factory’s behalf by Euro Racing. Lola is disappointed that FISA has failed to introduce control fuel, a decision which will favour franc-happy Peugeot, but overall remains optimistic that its new baby will be competitive.
Lola’s ‘arrival’ in Group C means that, despite its temporary absence from Grand Prix racing, there are still three strings to its global bow. Naturally, it will defend its Indycar and Japanese F3000 titles with vigour. Reigning CART champion Michael Andretti will handle one of around 25 T92/00s that are expected to appear Stateside this year, while in Japan the T92/50 is selling almost as quickly as the Nintendo Game Boy. In Europe, F3000 teams are adopting a more cautious approach. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the season doesn’t start until May 10, around a month later than usual. Secondly, customer confidence has been shaken by the T91/50’s dismal European record in 1991.
That came as a surprise to everyone, not least Lola. In 1990, Erik Comas won the European title in the DAMS-run works chassis, fitted with Avon’s cross-ply tyres. In Japan, Kazuyoshi Hoshino used a similar T90/50 chassis to take the national title running on Bridgestone radials. When Europe switched to radials last year, nobody foresaw any particular problems for Lola. Indeed, given its Japanese record, it was assumed that the company would be in better shape than Reynard, its chief rival in the F3000 market.
While the T91/50 continued its immediate forebear’s winning form in the Far East, Venturi-Larrousse F1 recruit Ukyo Katayama eventually taking the title after a close fight with the Reynard-equipped Ross Cheever, it was clear from the start of the European campaign that Lola had a problem, or rather four of them — one at each corner of the car. “It isn’t that the Avons were inferior to the Bridgestones or anything like that,” stresses Mark Williams, head of Lola’s F3000 design team. “They’re just different. We often tried to apply Japanese solutions to the problems we encountered during the year, but of course they didn’t work. The most productive test session we had all year was at Nogaro, after the season had finished.”
At the south-western French circuit, Damon Hill drove Bridgestone- and Avon-shod Lolas back to back, and found that a car which felt well-balanced on the former behaved quite differently on the latter. “It was as interesting for Avon as it was for us,” continues Williams. “The two products simply aren’t interchangeable. When the test was over, we’d learned an awful lot. Damon reckoned that we could have been competitive if we’d started the year with the car in the form it was after that Nogaro test. Unfortunately, last April, we didn’t have a solid base from which to start developing a good Avon set-up. We were slightly fooled by our early testing form. In cold conditions, the car was reasonably competitive. When we got to Vallelunga, for the last major pre-season test, we ran in hot temperatures for the first time, and that’s when we realised we had a problem.
“After Jerez, where we’d really struggled, the Lola teams got their heads together. We all went to Mugello, running the same set-up and pooling all our information. We came away happy that we’d made some progress, and it showed.” In the Mugello race which followed, Lola took four of the top six places, but fortunes subsequently dipped once more. “After that, the effort became diluted again. Some teams preferred to run a longer wheelbase, others favoured such and such a suspension configuration. Without a common direction, it was hard to get everyone to pull together as they had at Mugello.
“All the same,” concludes Williams, “it was an interesting season, even if it wasn’t for the right reasons. I’m sure that 1992 will be too, and at least we know where to start now with our Avon set-up.” After the experiment at Nogaro, Lola is confident that the T91/50 can be a competitive proposition in this year’s British F2 Championship, to which end a couple of teams have shown interest in running the car. As for the T92/50, that is all-new, only a few nuts and bolts being interchangeable with the ’91 model.
So while Lola is confident that it will be in good shape on three major fronts this year, there remains the gap left by the demise of its F1 programme with Larrousse. That won’t be filled for the moment. Instead, Lola plans to run its own Grand Prix team in 1993, the first time it will have done so, despite several previous F1 liaisons.
It is 30 years since Lola built its first F1 chassis, the Mk5, which was commissioned by Reg Parnell for Bowmaker Racing. John Surtees and Roy Salvadori drove the cars, the former taking pole position for the Dutch GP at Zandvoort and finishing second in both the British and German Grands Prix, at Aintree and the Nürburgring respectively. Surtees gave the marque its first F1 win in the one-off Mallory Park 2000 Guineas, a Whit Monday non-championship affair. Subsequently, the ex-Salvadori chassis passed on to privateer Bob Anderson, who won the non-championship Rome GP in 1963 at Vallelunga. Lola’s only other F1 success was in the 1967 Italian GP, though the T130 was in effect just another customer chassis. History records that John Surtees’s victory at Monza that day was at the wheel of a Honda RA300 . . .
After Honda’s withdrawal, Lola eschewed further F1 involvement until commissioned by Graham Hill to produce a car for the 1974 season. The Embassy-Hill patron scored the T370’s only point, the last of his career, finishing sixth in the Swedish GP at Anderstorp. The chassis survived into the early part of the following season, when it was reworked by the late Andy Smallman. After racing once as the Lola T371 , it was rechristened; the Hill GH1 was born, and the Lola name departed F1 once again.
Late in 1985, the Beatrice team entered Grand Prix racing with a Lola chassis, which showed occasional flashes of promise in the hands of Alan Jones and Patrick Tambay during a brief, season-and-a-half flirtation with F1.
By the time Beatrice had tightened the corporate purse strings and knocked its motor racing activities on the head, there was another customer – Gérard Larrousse – knocking at the door. The relationship started promisingly, Philippe Alliot being beaten only by Jonathan Palmer’s Tyrrell in the normally-aspirated subdivision which existed within the 1987 World Championship, and peaked in 1990, when Aguri Suzuki and Eric Bernard helped the team into sixth place in the constructors’ championship.
Last year, however, the team’s finances took a dive and so did its fortunes. Unable to keep pace with its chassis supplier’s invoices, elaborate development programmes were clearly out of the question. The Lola L91’s potential was barely tapped, and the relationship was terminated – by Lola – in early December. Lola’s immediate F1 prospects are now in the hands of Brian Sims, an old Formula Ford adversary of Lola managing director Mike Blanchet, who noticed how his rival had a flair for attracting sponsorship back in the ’70s. Twelve months ago, Sims was wooed back from South Africa, where he had lived for many years, racing saloon cars for a living and running the racing school at Kyalami. He is now director of Lola Motor Racing Management, a scheme designed to assist young drivers’ career progression. Its first signing is Californian Bryan Herta. The reigning Barber-Saab champion came close to finalising a British F3 budget for 1992, but has instead opted to race in the Indy Lights series in his homeland. “With our involvement in F3000, Indycars, F1 and Group C, we’re in an excellent position to assist his future, in either Europe or the USA reasons Sims, whose other, by no means trifling, responsibility is to raise the capital Lola needs to run its own F1 operation, which will be run out of new workshops, not far from the existing HQ. If Lola is to meet its projected targets, the money needs to be in place by July, though there is a safety margin of a couple of months.
“It is important for Lola to be in F1 with its own team from a profile point of view,” reckons Sims. “Lola has been building racing cars a lot longer than Williams or McLaren, for instance, and has been successful in many categories, but we don’t have their image. At the moment, not many details of the programme are in place, but we’re confident that we have the resources to do the job properly.”
As with any Lola, its execution will be the reponsibility of a team headed by a project co-ordinator. Company founder Eric Broadley will take an active role too, but nobody has yet been handed overall responsibility for design. One avenue which Lola is pursuing with above average vigour is a tie-up with Michael Andretti. The 1991 CART champion’s F1 aspirations are well-known. Last year, Michael tested for McLaren on a couple of occasions, and his name was in the frame at Ferrari in the wake of Alain Prost’s curt dismissal last October. In the end, Maranello chose Ivan CapeIli and Andretti opted to remain Stateside, partnering father Mario once again in the Newman-Haas Lola team. In 1993, however, he’ll be a free agent.
“Michael would be an ideal choice for us,” bubbles Sims, “We’ve enjoyed a good working relationship with him in CART, and there would be no pressure on him in a new team, no benchmark for him to be compared to. We could build the team up around him, and learn about F1 together.”
Although precious few pieces of the jigsaw are in place, Cosworth’s HB V8 is the likely engine option. Whatever happens, Lola’s stated intentions have aroused plenty of interest. On the morning of MOTOR SPORT’s visit, the previous entrant in the visitors’ book was a certain Mark Blundell . . . SA