In the late 1990s, the Lola company was looking to get involved in Formula 1. Not as a customer supplying engines, or as a partner with a team. But as a fully fledged F1 team in its own right. The idea of a Lola F1 team was an incredibly exciting one, and something that Formula 1 was very keen to have. And it looked promising when MasterCard signed up as a big sponsor, the cars were painted in those colors and the team was able to get onto the grid for the 1997 Formula 1 season.
However, things were not as they seemed. The car was underdeveloped. The team had not got enough cash. MasterCard were putting all sorts of pressure on Lola and as quick as they arrived, the Lola team vanished from F1’s grid without even qualifying for a race. The tale of this failed team is one that has gone down in Formula 1’s folklore, and many say that MasterCard Lola was probably the worst team to ever grace the Grand Prix field. This is how Lola’s F1 team came into being, and why it all went so horribly wrong.
Backstory To The Lola Entry
Lola, under the guidance of Eric Broadley, had been a chassis supplier for a number of F1 teams over the years. Mainly the famous Larrousse team, but it always had ambitions to gone step higher and form its own Grand Prix team. Broadley and Lola spent the 1994 F1 season designing a car that should be ready to compete in the 1995 season, with Allan McNish behind the wheel. The car that they tested was clearly illegal as it had no airbox, but it was all part of the development curve for 1995.
However, Lola did not have quite enough money to fund a full F1 entry, and thus they missed the deadline for the 1995 entry deposit. But Broadley stated at the time they would not rush. Soon after that, it was announced that Mastercard sponsor the Lola F1 team and both parties stated an intention to enter F1 for the 1998 season. However, the Stuart F1 team then announced that they were to enter Formula 1 for 1997. Mastercar then demanded that Lola enter F1 that year too, or they would pull their title sponsorship. Lola was still honing its F1 aerodynamics from it was learning from IndyCar, and its V10 engines were nowhere near ready. Things were already spiraling out of control.
A Rushed Debut In 1997
To plug the gap, Lola took on the Ford ECA Zetec-R V8 engine, and signed Vincenzo Sospiri and Ricardo Rosset as its two drivers for 1997. Broadley said that “if we don’t beat Stewart, we need a good kick up the backside.” How prophetic his words would be. An impromptu and flashy team launch ensured things looked good, but many already wondered how fast the cars would be, as virtually the entirety of the grid was using V10 engines.
The car, the T97/30, never saw a wind tunnel, and barely managed any laps in testing before the team lost two of its Ford engines. And this was put on full display in Melbourne for the opening race of the year. The car not only lacked any meaningful downforce, but it was also so draggy it had no top-end speed. To put it into context, Sospiri’s fastest lap was a 1:40:972. The 107% rule, a time required to be able to qualify, was 1:35.625. And Jacques Villeneuve’s pole time was a 1:29.369. Things were looking very, very bad.
Defiant In The Face Of Defeat
Broadley though remained defiant regarding the team's issues. He said that “I have no doubt that we will qualify in Brazil and then begin to work our way up the grid.” Speaking to Autosport magazine at the time, he also claimed that a lack of a basic setup meant Lola couldn’t put in a reasonable time. So there was defiance from the team that things would go well soon, and they duly traveled to Brazil for the Grand Prix. But no sooner had they turned up in São Paulo, that things would go wrong again. And this time, there would be no coming back.
A Fast Exit From Formula 1
On the Wednesday of race week, Lola announced they were withdrawing from the weekend due to “financial and technical problems.” This quickly followed MasterCard pulling its funding for the team, ironic as it was their pressure to join a year early that had cost them any shot of making the field. Had they entered F1 in 1998 as intended, Lola might have stood a chance. Astonishingly, the British team had amassed £6 million worth of debt, and Lola Cars itself entered administration in late May 1997. No sooner had Lola entered the sport, they were out. It was a sad way for a once promising F1 entry to end, and left many wondering what could have been for Lola.
Sources: Motordiction, Motorsport, Car Throttle, F1 1997 Twitter Account,