Conceived in just seven weeks, Lola’s T282 had little chance against the factories. But now it’s an overlooked gem that is due to shine at the Donington Historic Festival this spring | writer Andrew Frankel – photographer Jayson Fong
It is a temptation of which I am as guilty as any. You see something like this Lola T282 and think, ‘what a lovely old racing car’. It looks like fun, a toy, an amusing diversion. You might know its history or, more likely, something of the T280 series of Lolas that raced in the early 1970s, but you probably won’t. So because it clearly never won any big race, because it was never driven by a Jacky Ickx or François Cevert, because, frankly, it’s a private Lola rather than a works Ferrari or a Matra, you run an extreme risk of somewhat underestimating its abilities. You might even and entirely unintentionally aim the odd patronising thought in its direction.
So let’s put that one to bed right now, and I think I know how. This little old Lola is so fast that despite ace preparer Simon Hadfield being happy for me to have as many laps and use whatever revs I liked around Donington Park, it was me who called time on it. After 10 laps in two different sessions, such was the maelstrom trying to pull my helmet off my head at 170mph down the main straight, my neck was no longer able to take the strain. Sheepishly I returned to base, flicked off the motor and sat, stunned by this extraordinary device.
“If you’re not comfortable in the car, you haven’t got a chance,” said Hadfield. “It’s not like a 1950s racer on skinny L-sections that will slide before you do. In cars like this, if you’re not completely bolted in with everything where you want it to be, it’s going to beat you up.”
I could vouch for that. “But if you are, it is absolutely incredible.” Coming from a man who has raced and won in almost everything in general and F1-powered slicks and wings racers in particular, that is some accolade.
Today, resplendent in its EVOCATIVE livery, the Lola is a head-turning star of the Pre-80 Endurance Series that promises to be one of the many highlights of the forthcoming Donington Historic Festival on April 30-May 2, its 60-minute race on the Sunday evening a welcome addition to one of the best classic meetings of the year.
The car deserves all the attention it can get, but it’s hardly surprising it was little more than a bit-part player in period. In the early 1970s sports car racing was dominated by just four names. In the beginning it was Porsche versus Ferrari with Alfa Romeo picking up the pieces when they failed; then when the big bangers were banned at the end of 1971 and Porsche stormed off to North America in a huff to take out its frustration on the Can-Am series, it was Ferrari versus Matra. These were quasi-Formula 1 cars with enclosed bodies and they were very little slower. In 1973 when the T282 made its debut, Jacky Ickx climbed into his Ferrari 312PB and lapped the old Spa circuit in 3min 12sec, an average of more than 163mph. F1 had paid its last visit just three years earlier, still with slicks, wings and 3-litre engines, and none had lapped within 14 seconds of Ickx’s time. Indeed, to this day no Formula 1 car has lapped a track faster.
They were also driven by the best: in that race at Spa, Ferrari had not just Ickx, but Brian Redman, Arturo Merzario and Carlos Pace on the strength. Matra had Henri Pescarolo, Chris Amon, Graham Hill and Gérard Larrousse. A race of attrition was finally won by Derek Bell and Mike Hailwood in a Mirage. The cars were anything but toys, and they were driven by heroes.
Some Lolas, like the T70 in its various guises, have passed into motor racing folklore; the T282, emphatically, is not one of them. Just one was built, and was delivered to the once great but by 1973 fast-fading Scuderia Filipinetti. Mainly it was to be driven by F1 journeyman Reine Wisell and Jean-Louis Lafosse, a man known for coming second at Le Mans in 1975 and ’76 and losing his life there in a Rondeau in 1981. In period the T282 never won an important race, took pole position or claimed a fastest lap or even put a driver on a podium. More often than not, it broke.
Why is it here? Because of its brutal appearance, the gut-twirling excitement of driving it and the epic period of sports car racing it represents. One more thing: its bloodline is as good as it gets.
This is a car with four fairly extraordinary parents. The first was Jo Bonnier, who originally asked Lola for a 3-litre version of the T290 2-litre sports car and, were it not for the pressure he put upon Lola to make it, the T280 and therefore its T282 derivative would never have been built. Sadly Bonnier never got even to sit in the T282, losing his life at Le Mans in 1972 when his T280 tangled with a Ferrari 365GTB/4 on the run down from Mulsanne to Indianapolis.
The second was Eric Broadley, in the frame not just as the founder and owner of Lola Cars, but also the man who sketched out a quarter-scale model of the car and gave it to two young guns to knock into shape. These are parents three and four, better known to you and me as John Barnard and Patrick Head.
“Without Jo, it would probably never have happened.” The voice on then other end of the line belongs to the now knighted Sir Patrick Head, who started his racing life at Lola. “Jo wanted the car and he was a very important Lola customer, so we tacked it onto the T290 project, which was far more successful.” Indeed it was: reliability and the outrageous speed of Merzario’s Abarth Osella denied the T290 the European 2-litre Sports Car Championship for Makes in 1972, but the following year – piloted by the likes of Chris Craft and Guy Edwards – the T292, essentially a 2-litre version of the car you see here, won five out of eight rounds, claiming the title with ease. Unsurprisingly, and unlike the T280 and T282, the T290 sold well, with 34 being assembled powered mainly by Ford but also by BMW engines. Then again, rivals Abarth and Chevron were tough without exactly being Ferrari and Matra…
There was only one powerplant ever heading for the T280 and T282, the Ford Cosworth DFV. English garagista manufacturers selling production cars to private teams never stood a chance against the likes of the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512S prototypes (as attested by the fact that the ultimate Lola T70, the MKIIIB won but one major international race, and that only because the quicker opposition fell out of the 1969 Daytona 24 Hours). But with a 3-litre formula and the DFV being so widely and freely available, there was at least the possibility of going sports car racing on a reasonable budget and not being completely left in the works teams’ dust. Or so it must have seemed at the time.
“It was a pretty conventional car,” says Head. “John and I were fairly junior. Broadley told us what he wanted and gave us seven weeks to turn it into a racing car, which was pretty much par for the course back then.”
Lola had been using aluminium monocoques for its sports cars since the mid-1960s while others clung to traditional spaceframe design, and the T280 was no different. Head: “It had a riveted rather than bonded monocoque using 18 and 20 gauge aluminium, which meant it was incredibly light. That was great until you hit something. I’d had nothing to do with its predecessor [the T210], but it was a good car and we ended up carrying over hubs and uprights, that sort of thing.”
The layout was conventional with double-wishbone front suspension, and a reversed lower wishbone and trailing arms at the back. The rear brakes were moved inboard to allow even more massive tyres to be fitted. “We also extended the wheelbase over the T210, which
is why the T280 suited having the DFV fitted. But the focus was still very much on the T290 and it was left to me to work out how to shoehorn in the bigger engine.”
In theory, then, the T280 and this T282 – which was essentially a T280 with higher-downforce bodywork – should have been at least competitive. They were light, powered by an engine with a far better power to weight ratio than Matra’s V12 and, for all-out shove, probably not far off Ferrari’s flat-12. What’s more, and unlike the T290 whose engine sat in a rear subframe, Head was able to bolt the DFV to the monocoque and use it as a fully stressed chassis member.
Reality, however, was somewhat different and anyone who thought such a car, built to a price the customer could afford, would ever be able to hold a candle to full factory race cars designed from a clean sheet with a blank cheque was being naïve, even before you considered the calibre of those who would drive them.
Briefly, it looked good. The T282 qualified a stunning fourth for the Daytona 24 Hours behind one works Matra and two similarly powered factory Gulf Mirages but would retire after 19 hours of struggle. At Vallelunga it was once again the fastest behind the factory Ferrari, Matras and Mirages, heading home a creditable sixth, a feat it would repeat at Dijon. But some idea of the performance gulf between it and the very best was provided at Spa where, once more it was beaten in qualifying only by works cars, yet by the time it was crashed and damaged too severely to race, it was a whole 20 seconds off Ickx’s ridiculous pole-sitting pace. Another 19th-hour retirement at Le Mans would be the last race the T282 entered that year, before being sold by the now-defunct Scuderia Filipinetti. It was raced for another three seasons by the Jolly Club, driven by Lella Lombardi among others, but without notable success.
It’s a very easy car to climb aboard, its ‘doors’ a welcome convenience more than a necessity. There’s ample leg room here – Hadfield makes the point that Lola was mindful of the requirements of gentlemen drivers, particularly those hailing from the US – and were I suitably slim-hipped I’d be as comfortable in here as I’ve been in any purpose-built racing car. There’s the usual set of clear dials ahead – a Stack tacho flanked by oil, water temperature and fuel pressure readouts and a simple bank of switches to the right to turn on the ignition and pumps, and a master switch on the left. What there is not is any kind of screen.
Of course it is today a faster car than it would have been in 1973. It is set up a little more stiffly and the vast Avon slicks will likely give a load more mechanical grip, but the real improvement is that firing up behind my head: the Geoff Richardson-built DFV. Back then the best DFV probably gave about 465bhp in the back of a Tyrrell 006 or Lotus 72, but if you wanted any prayer of it going twice around the clock at Daytona or Le Mans, you’d probably be after an engine with maybe 400bhp and a four-figure rev limit. Today the T282 has about 485bhp at a conservative 10,000rpm. Back in the days when DFV development for historic Grand Prix cars went unchecked, the most expensive would have better than 520bhp at more than 11,500rpm and a very short shelf life. But in a car weighing roughly 650kg, the T282 still offers the same power to weight ratio as the just announced 1500bhp Bugatti Chiron, a car claimed to hit 124mph from rest in just 6.5sec.
I fire it up and hold it steady at 4000rpm, which is the slowest it will run. I can’t find first and don’t stall only because someone’s pushing and the Donington pitlane slopes downhill. The track is dry but cold, I’m sharing it with some serious Group C and modern Le Mans machinery and there’s very real concern that in this temperature the little light Lola will not be able to get any heat into its tyres, which will make it near enough undriveable.
I’m not out of Redgate before the first surprise registers. The car is hard work. Because of its size, weight and engine location I thought I’d only have to look at the steering wheel for it to move. Not so. It requires effort – wrists, elbows and shoulders – to manhandle around the track. But once you’ve made the right input, the Lola responds instantly. As ever I give myself a lap and a bit just to soak up the sense of occasion, make sure all the needles are pointing in the right direction and that the gears are where I’d hope them to be. Then, coming out of Coppice on lap two, I light it up.
It’s like watching the pieces of a jigsaw miraculously assemble themselves into a perfect picture at the snap of your fingers. One minute you’re sitting in a loose assembly of components, the next they’ve turned into a perfectly formed racing car. There’s a shout from the DFV, forward thrust from 7000rpm that even after all these years still somehow surprises and requires undivided attention. Next comes an urgent requirement for quite a lot of gears, and wind pressure on my Arai of the kind I expect you might otherwise experience only if you put your face in a wind tunnel fan. It’s very distracting but not the car’s fault: at 6ft 4in I stick just too far out into the airflow – even a small deflector on the front of the cockpit would transform the experience.
But I can’t be deterred by that, for I am discovering that this little toy is actually a serious weapon. How serious? Well, within a few laps and thanks no doubt to rather lengthy Dijon gearing, you are aware of how much more power the Lola could cope with, more even than it has. The challenge becomes finding the limit, which takes a while because grip levels for such an old car are simply other-worldly. So much so that I asked Patrick Head if it had meaningful downforce, because that’s how it feels: “I doubt it. It would never have gone anywhere near a wind tunnel. Probably enough to cancel the lift, maybe a little more, but not a lot, no.”
Yet by the time I felt the gentle push of the front tyres through Redgate, the Old Hairpin and Coppice, the car was absolutely flying. Hadfield says it’ll go flat down the hill through the Craner Curves and, while I could summon neither the talent nor courage to attempt it myself after so brief an acquaintance, I saw enough not to doubt the claim. It does that thing that downforce cars do, getting better and easier to drive the faster you go. It is, as a result, utterly intoxicating. Were it not for my neck’s inability to hold my helmeted head upright in hurricane-force winds I fear I might have driven and driven until I had thoroughly outstayed my welcome.
When it was all over and I was enjoying that couple of hours of quiet contemplation driving home, one thought kept coming back to me. This car was built half a lifetime ago, and by today’s standards of both structural rigidity and downforce it’s barely more than a leaf on a breeze. And yet in the way it encouraged you to attack the lap, the way it inspired so much confidence and was so clearly on your side, it felt incredibly modern.
Then again, given the people responsible for its design, perhaps that’s not such a surprise. What I do know is that barring the factory racers with their million-pound budgets and superstar line-ups that it was never realistically going to beat, this little Lola was in 1973 absolutely the quickest thing out there. It may exist today as a mere footnote in the Lola story but, as something just to get in, drive hard, go stupidly fast and enjoy without undue intimidation, I’m not sure I’ve known its equal.