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How Lola rose to rule F1's feeder series
Lola’s first Formula 3000 car wasn’t a success, and neither was its second. But perseverance in the F1 feeder series would eventually be rewarded.
At its height, the Formula 3000 International Championship featured intense multi-make competition and helped drivers and engineers prepare for the final step into Formula 1. Lola was a key player throughout the category’s life, but at times it was a tough experience.
Right from the start Lola was up against it. F3000 was introduced to replace F2 in 1985 and provide a home for the Cosworth DFV, which had finally been usurped by turbos in F1. While Ralt and March were able to use versions of the F2 machines they’d planned, the time constraints hurt Eric Broadley’s team. The T950 was the marque’s first ‘big’ European single-seater since the days of F5000 in the 1970s.
“Eric wandered in one day and said, ‘We’re going to build an F3000 car’,” recalls Lola designer Mark Williams, who had worked on its Formula Fords and was helping Nigel Bennett on the Indycar programme. "He slapped a copy of Autosport on the desk that had a picture of the [John] Barnard F1 McLaren and said, ‘Do something like that’.
“At that time I was quite naive – we didn’t have much time but I thought we’d make a go of it. I subsequently learned that when he said that you had to really seriously question the amount of time you’d got.”
The T950 borrowed the monocoque from the successful T800 Indycar and used Toleman F2 running gear, which Lola had bought the rights to. The time limitations meant the design hadn’t seen a windtunnel before it was built, so aerodynamic development took place during the season, along with efforts to bring the weight down to the minimum limit, which sometimes hurt reliability. Those were the factors identified publicly as being Lola’s problems – it was outclassed by both the March 85B and Ralt’s RB20 – but Williams says the biggest flaw was a hidden one.
“Generation one wheel bearings had become very popular in the automotive world – nice sealed units – but they were designed for road cars, not racing cars with sticky tyres and downforce,” he explains. “We didn’t realise you had to modify them for racing.
“At the end of the year we replaced them with a Timken taper roller-bearing pack. We didn’t change anything else on the car and went from the back of the grid to being players at the front.
1985 Johnny Dumfries, Lola Motorsport
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“Everyone was sniffing round the car looking to see what bits of aerodynamics we’d bolted on, but we’d just changed the wheel bearings. Now the wheels were always pointing in the right direction!”
With the problem solved and Ralph Bellamy, the veteran designer who had won the inaugural title with Christian Danner, joining from March, 1986 promised more. They combined ideas, with Bellamy being broadly positive about Lola’s direction, but his rear suspension geometry raised eyebrows.
“Eric and I looked at it and said we’d never have got there,” recalls Williams. But the car was quick in testing – in Danner’s hands – so things looked good. Even more so when Pascal Farbre took pole for the Silverstone opener and won, but it didn’t last and the Frenchman slipped to seventh in the final standings.
“I think that pole was down to the conditions and other people not being that organised,” reckons Williams. “It slowly became apparent that the car wasn’t every driver’s cup of tea, particularly the less experienced guys.
“We did a test with Gary Evans, who was engineered by Dave Luff. Dave said Gary couldn’t drive the car, so we put geometry on that we would have done without Ralph. Gary went out at Snetterton and was immediately happier and faster. So I concluded only Christian could drive Ralph’s geometry!”
By 1987 Williams was in control of Lola’s F3000 project and also race engineering the lead car for Lola Motorsport, the works team owned and run by Jean-Francois Mosnier. In ’87 the lead driver was Luis Perez-Sala, who took two wins in the driveable T87/50, and went to the season finale with an outside chance of the crown against Onyx March driver Stefano Modena.
While Lola Motorsport’s other driver, John Jones, put his car on pole, both Sala and Modena qualified near the back, 18th and 23rd respectively. Both opted to start on wet tyres in mixed conditions, until Perez-Sala came storming into the pits at the end of the parade lap to fit slicks. He charged to fifth from the back, but it wasn’t enough.
1987 Luis Perez-Sala
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A Lola driver was second again in 1988, but it wasn’t one of the works racers. Lola Motorsport ran Mark Blundell and Paul Belmondo, but “we had a car that understeered off the planet and Mark hates understeer” says Williams of the T88/50, which appeared late. The result was that Williams swapped with the engineer that had been assigned to GBDA Motorsport, Duncan McRobbie, and advised the customer squad instead, where he got to know Jean-Paul Driot.
GBDA driver Olivier Grouillard took two wins late in the season to finish second to newcomer Reynard’s Roberto Moreno, but more importantly Lola discovered that the rear wheel bearings were again proving unable to take the new increased aerodynamic loads.
The specification was improved for 1989 and Driot’s new DAMS squad led the charge with the T89/50, running French duo Eric Bernard and Erik Comas.
“We went with Lola because of Mike Blanchet, who was a very good commercial salesman and was with Lola for years, and because we were a new team,” says Driot. “There were teams that were very well connected to Reynard and I thought [in order] to have a good relationship with a manufacturer it was better to go with Lola.
“We were developing the car with them. The relationship was very nice. They were very natural people, really straight people. We could discuss any matter. It went very smoothly. Even in the hard times we never had any battles or problem with them.”
Williams also believes the T89/50 was one of his best: “That was quite a good car and we had a pair of equal drivers. Eric was anticipated as the team leader, but it turned out that Erik was also blindingly fast. Bernard would have won the championship if he hadn’t got an F1 test and lost focus. Comas came up and we ended up having points sharing.”
As well as problems and crashes not normally of Bernard’s making, there was also a crucial race at Brands Hatch. A DAMS one-two in qualifying was turned into a three-four – behind Jordan Reynard pair Martin Donnelly and Jean Alesi – in the race thanks to a “formation cock-up” at the start, as Autosport described it.
“I take the blame,” says Williams. “I’d done enough Formula Ford around Brands to know the sloping grid was tough. Eddie Jordan had also taken wing off, as it was his chance to get by us, so we couldn’t get near them on the straights. I was so pissed off.”
1989 Brands Hatch
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Comas – “the revelation of the season” according to Autosport’s Tony Dodgins – ended up as Alesi’s closest rival. He tied on points with the future F1 victor, only losing out on wins countback, but it should be noted that Alesi skipped the final round, having already put the championship out of reach.
Dodgins also reckoned the Lola was the ‘car of the year’: “The T89/50’s strong suit was its mechanical grip, the car in possession of a very positive turn-in and tremendous high-speed stability. The Lola, it was generally felt, also used its tyres better.
“A greater number of poles [6-4] and fastest laps [7-3] proved that the Lola was probably the quicker car, but the Reynard saw more chequered flags. It came down to strength in numbers.”
Things came together in 1990. The T90/50 was more tricky than its predecessor, but it had more downforce. Comas won the Donington Park opener, though that event was overshadowed by his new team-mate Allan McNish’s huge crash, which claimed the life of a spectator. Remarkably, McNish won the next race at Silverstone before Comas led at Pau until sliding off.
“I managed to place the car on pole ahead of many Reynards but the car was low and it was on the edge, which is why I crashed – it sat down at the Foch statue corner,” recalls Comas, who bounced back to win the next rounds at Jerez and Monza.
“I worked with Mark Williams and had a nice relationship. It was a smart move of Jean-Paul [Driot] to get close to Lola in 1989 and develop the link with the factory. We were not officially a works team, but quite close. Mark was very intelligent and a good designer and engineer. I think it is important to have this relationship.”
Comas hit a tricky patch mid-season, but none of his rivals scored consistently. A dominant win – his fourth success of the campaign and seventh for Lola – in the penultimate round at the Le Mans Bugatti circuit secured the crown. Finally, Lola had done it.
1990 Silverstone, Erik Comas
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“There was a lot of pressure on me because in 1989 I ended level on points with Jean [Alesi] in my very first international season,” adds Comas. “This meant that in ’90 there was no chance of being second: I had to win, nothing else.
“It was not an easy season because of this pressure but looking back it gave me good experience for when I went to F1.”
But what should also have been a great launchpad for Lola – in a category that Williams reckons was worth £5million to the firm at the series’ peak – was utterly ruined in 1991, despite the highly rated McNish staying on at DAMS. One problem was control tyre supplier Avon switching from crossply to radial.
“I’m very sorry to say the T91/50 was one of the worst cars I drove in my life,” remembers McNish. “It just didn’t work with the radial. It worked with the Bridgestones in Japan – a completely different animal. All year we were just fighting with different problems – front grip, rear grip, every type of grip, stability…”
As well as not being able to make the new rubber work, Williams recalls another fundamental problem that affected the car. Changes were made to the Cranfield windtunnel, which had been the home of Lola’s aerodynamics work for many years, that included dropping the rolling road. The result was erroneous data, something that wasn’t identified for some time.
“The boundary layer didn’t work so we went from a fantastic tunnel that developed our early cars to one with a problem we didn’t realise,” explains Williams. “In Japan our importer put our old underbody and front wing on the chassis and it worked, so I knew there was something wrong, I just didn’t know what.
“We went into the tunnel one day and the technician said, ‘I’m really sorry, you’ve got to ignore the last six runs because I’ve just realised the boundary layer fans are switched off’. So we did another run, boundary layer on and boundary layer off, and the results were the same. It wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. That explained why our front wing work was against what we’d always known and why the diffuser wasn’t working.”
There were no Lola wins in 1991 and Paul Stewart Racing’s Marco Apicella was the marque’s highest driver in the points, in fifth. That, combined with Reynard’s ability to undercut Lola’s pricing, meant that only DAMS and, to begin with, GJ Motorsport, bought Huntingdon’s F3000 products in Europe for ’92.
1990 Hockenheim, Jean-Paul Driot, DAMS
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“It was a question of fidelity,” says Driot. “If you are with someone who is doing well for you, you don’t drop them at the first corner.”
But Lola was still trying to sort its problems and Jean-Marc Gounon’s win for DAMS in the Magny-Cours finale was its only success. It was not enough to keep DAMS from finally moving to Reynard, making it an all-Reynard grid for 1993.
But Lola wasn’t finished with the championship. With the windtunnel sorted and Williams gone, Andrew Broadley led the design of the mediocre T94/50 before Lola finally returned to the winner’s circle with the T95/50. Indeed, Nordic’s Marc Goossens finished third in the 1995 drivers’ standings, the final year of multi-make competition in International F3000.
Reynard had taken more wins and titles, but – to a certain degree – Lola had the last laugh. As Autosport put it when discussing the new one-make F3000 era in March 1996: “In the war to land the contracts, Lola beat Reynard in the race to build the simpler, cheaper chassis.”
That car became the T96/50. And Lola secured the next two reduced-cost F3000 deals too, producing the T99/50 and B02/50, thus supplying the category until its replacement by GP2 for 2005.
One could argue that it had won the war despite losing most of the battles. But it had proved a bruising contest.
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1999 Hungaroring, Nick Heidfeld
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