F1: The Disastrous Story of MasterCard Lola

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Source: Twitter (@mastercard_lola)

Founded by Eric Broadley in 1958, Lola have provided chassis for various Formula One teams, such as Embassy Hill, Haas-Lola, BMS Scuderia Italia and Larrousse, as well as teams in Formula 3000, CART and Le Mans.

After their relationship with BMS Scuderia Italia broke down at the end of 1993, Lola spent 1994 producing a car with the intention of entering F1 in 1995.

The result was the Lola T95/30, the brainchild of Julian Copper and Chris Saunders, who’d previously worked for Benetton and Williams respectively, and used a V8 Cosworth engine.

Tested by Allan McNish, the car was also unique as it was tested without an airbox, which made it unable to comply with the sporting regulations.

As testing continued, it became apparent that Lola were starting to run out of money and because of this, they failed to meet the deadline for paying the FIA the deposit for a 1995 entry.

Speaking to Autosport in December 1994, Team Principal Eric Broadley stated that Lola weren’t going to rush their entry:

“We have made it clear all along that we are only interested in entering F1 at a highly competitive level, and the budget we had secured to date did not give us sufficient confidence that we would be able to achieve that aim.”

Allan McNish tests the Lola T95/30 during 1995. Image Sourced from GP Rejects.

At the end of the year, Lola announced their partnership with MasterCard, who’d become the team’s title sponsor.

Broadley added that the team intended of competing in the 1998 Formula One season, to give them enough time to prepare and produce a competitive car and infrastructure.

As well as creating their own car, Lola were planning to build their own V10 engine, courtesy of Al Melling.

The designers had the idea of having the car shaped around the engine, which would improve its aerodynamic flow at the rear end.

As 1996 raged on, the team’s aerodynamicists were starting to understand how they could get around the Formula One regulations, given that most of them had previously worked on Lola’s CART project.

However, after the announcement that another new team, Stewart Grand Prix, were entering the sport in 1997, title sponsors MasterCard gave Lola an ultimatum; ‘enter Formula 1 a year early, or we’ll pull out.’

MasterCard Lola Team Principal Eric Broadley at the team’s 1997 launch, with drivers Vincenzo Sospiri (left) and Ricardo Rosset. Image sourced from snaplap.net

With four months before the start of the new season, Lola had their backs against the wall, as their V10 engines were nowhere near ready and the car’s designs were far from being finalized.

Despite this, Broadley accepted and Lola had a lot to do, with very little time on their side.

One compromise that was made involved using their technology and knowledge from competing in CART to get the car finished on time for its debut at the Australian Grand Prix, something Broadley himself admitted during an interview in February 1997:

“We didn’t start with nothing in November. Which we wouldn’t have done anyway, since we’re just bringing in a whole lot of knowledge from Indy and everything else we’ve done.”

“There’s actually a lot of carryover from Indy. There are a lot of differences, because of differences in rules, engines, and types of tracks. But in a way, F1 is simpler.”

“CART runs from street circuits to 200mph speedways. You have a broad range of departments, that the car has to answer with some changes.”

“It’s very complicated. In F1 the circuits are much more similar. But the actual competitiveness is just that little bit extra in F1.”

“We have the experience, the commitment and the desire to succeed in F1.”

The unveiled Lola T97/30, which proved to be unfit for the world of Formula One. Image sourced from GP Rejects.

With their own V10 engine not ready for 1997, Lola had opted to use a stop-gap instead, in the form of the Ford ECA Zetec-R V8 engine.

The 3.5 Litre power unit developed between 610 and 630 bhp, and was used by the Forti team in 1996, which saw the Italian team struggle to qualify for many races thanks to the introduction of the 107% rule for qualifying.

Many began to doubt Lola’s competitiveness, as the only two other teams that were planning to use a V8 engine in 1997 were Minardi and Tyrrell; both of whom were struggling near the tail end of the pack.

MasterCard were hopeful of Lola’s chances in Formula 1, and they had to be as they’d created an exclusive ‘F1 Club’, which would provide members with exclusive benefits, such as newsletters, autographed photos and select team merchandise.

“This is something completely new in the arena of sponsorship marketing”, stated MasterCard’s Mava Heffler in November 1996.

“We have put the sport in the hands of participating MasterCard cardholders. We have packages providing access to benefits they’ve never had available to them before.”

It was reported at the time that the Credit Card company had promised Lola $10million for the 1997 season, with Lola’s Marketing Director Brett Trafford adding that the team’s total budget would be in the region of $45million.

MasterCard had high hopes for their partnership with Lola in Formula 1. Image sourced from F1 Retro.

With the 1997 season on the horizon, MasterCard Lola unveiled their car and driver line up.

The Lola T97/30 sported a scattered livery which used a mixture of blue, red, orange and white to reflect the corporate colours of MasterCard.

In addition to their title sponsor, Shell brand Pennzoil was signed as the team’s official fuel lubricant, whilst using the tyres of the returning Bridgestone.

Furthermore, magazines Men’s Health, Track and Field and F1 Racing also appeared on the car, as did OZ Wheels.

Given that the Stewart team were a de-facto Ford factory outfit thanks to their brand-new Cosworth CR-1 V10 powerplant, Eric Broadley was asked whether the aim was beat them on track:

“If we don’t [beat Stewart], we need a good kick up the backside and if we miss the 107% cut, then we don’t deserve to be in it at all.”

Autosport weigh up the chances of MasterCard Lola ahead of the 1997 Formula One Season. Image sourced from GP Rejects.

F1 Racing had reported towards the end of 1996 that Tom Kristensen, Jos Verstappen and Lola’s former test driver Allan McNish were the front runners for a seat with the team.

As the launch approached, former Forti driver Andrea Montermini, Formula 3000 driver Ricardo Zonta and 1995 German Formula Three Champion Norberto Fontana were also linked with Lola.

Instead, former Footwork driver Ricardo Rosset was signed to drive for Lola alongside his 1995 F3000 team-mate, Vincenzo Sospiri, who went on to win the Drivers’ title that season.

Rosset bought sponsorship to the team in the form of brands Lycra and Safra, likewise Sospiri with CosmoGas and New GPR.

Sospiri, who had spent the 1996 campaign as a test driver for Benetton, was wary about the team’s chances in Australia:

“I think we will have some small problems, but I hope [they’re] as small as possible.”

MasterCard Lola had only briefly tested the T97/30 for eight laps at Silverstone before an engine failure occurred.

A shakedown on the Santa Pod strip followed, in which a second Ford engine expired.

The car also didn’t enter a wind tunnel before they were shipped over to Melbourne for the first race of the year.

On track, this became very apparent, as both Rossett and Sospiri crawled around the Albert Park circuit in a car that lacked speed on the straights and downforce in the corners.

Consequently, the Lola was too slow and both drivers failed to qualify with Sospiri’s 1:40.972 and Rossett’s 1:42.086 well off the 107% time of 1:35.625.

To demonstrate how badly Lola did, pole sitter Jacques Villeneuve posted a 1:29.369 in his Williams-Renault.

In contrast, the two Stewart’s of Rubens Barrichello and Jan Magnussen made the cut comfortably in 11th and 19th respectively.

After a disastrous debut, Eric Broadley was still positive:

“I was disappointed that we did not race in Australia, but not entirely surprised. I have no doubt that we will qualify in Brazil and then begin to work our way up the grid.”

Ricardo Rosset in the Lola T97/30 during the 1997 Australian Grand Prix. The Brazilian would fail to qualify for the race with a time 13 seconds slower than that of Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve, who took Pole Position. Image sourced from F1 Retro.

Speaking to Autosport, Rosset gave an insight to how bad Lola’s situation was:

“It’s been hard, as I knew it would be.”

“We’ve had a lot of problems. We’ve got a lack of downforce and too much drag.”

“The biggest problem is that we don’t’ have a basic setup for the car, so we guessed at the settings and when they were wrong we panicked a little.”

The Wednesday before the Brazilian Grand Prix, Lola’s chances of survival looked bleak.

MasterCard decided to pull out the project altogether, with most of the remaining sponsors following suit shortly after.

The MasterCard Lola T97/30 in an empty garage; an image which summarises the state the team was left in at its demise. Image sourced from GP Rejects.

This left Lola no choice but to withdraw with the second race at Interlagos, and shortly after, the championship all together.

On the 26th of May 1997, Lola Cars went into administration.

Although the F1 Team was a separate entity, it had managed to amass debts of around £6.3Million – half of which was owed to its parent company – whilst in possession of assets less than £450,000.

As for MasterCard, they’d return to the sport as a sponsor of the Jordan team, who’d go on to win three Grand Prix at the hands of Damon Hill and Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the end of the 1990’s.

Rosset would go on to drive for Tyrrell in their swansong season in 1998, with little success, whilst Sospiri had brief forays in CART and Le Mans.

More recently, the Italian setup his own team, Vincenzo Sospiri Racing, which competes in the International GT Open and the Lamborghini Super Trofeo Europe respectively.

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