The Cooper files: Eric Broadley and the 1997 MasterCard Lola fiasco

The MasterCard Lola F1 team failed after just one race weekend

“You learn from a conglomeration of the incredible past,” wrote Bob Dylan in his 1970 novel Tarantula. No, I haven’t ploughed through that infamously impenetrable tome, I just borrowed the line from a Dictionary of Modern Quotations!

I thought it might be fun to use this blog not just to gossip about what’s going on now, but to take a look at history, via retro features and snippets of stories and features as they appeared at the time. So let’s go back to the days of Windows 3.1 and floppy discs – and yes, I did have to use one to dig the original interview below out of an ancient PC – and see what we can learn from the incredible past of the sport we all love.

And there was rarely a less credible attempt at starting an F1 team than the unfortunate MasterCard Lola effort of 1997. The return of a great name from the sport’s history, a Cosworth engine, a programme rushed through in a matter of months, lots of stickers on the car, and a flashy launch at a major London venue – who says history doesn’t repeat itself? I don’t wish to imply that the current Lotus team has not been built on sturdy foundations, but certainly Campos Meta and US F1 have yet to convince us that they can back up the bold promises of a few months ago.  

As you may recall, Lola boss Eric Broadley had grown tired of supplying other teams, most recently Scuderia Italia, and at 68 he thought it was time to go it alone. He even had plans to build a Lola-branded V10 engine. The great coup was to attract a massive blue chip name in the form of MasterCard. However, there was less to the deal that met the eye. It wasn’t about hard cash – the theory was that the team would eventually get a percentage of revenue raised from card holders who joined an ‘F1 Club.’

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but the sums didn’t add up. After just one outing in Australia – where the hapless Vincenzo Sospiri and Ricardo Rosset were miles away from qualifying – the whole thing collapsed like, well, a house of MasterCards, as Broadley wisely decided to cut his losses. The title sponsor later resurfaced at Jordan.

The aborted F1 project nearly finished off Lola, but the company was saved by Martin Birrane, and it is thriving today. Last summer it was ’97 all over again as Lola launched an F1 project, but its pitch didn’t impress the FIA sufficiently (it didn’t help that one of the two key speakers was stuck in traffic), and no entry was granted. Whether that rejection was ultimately a lucky escape or not for Birrane and co, we’ll never know.

Meanwhile back on the day of the MasterCard team launch, held in a ballroom at the London Hilton hotel, Broadley was full of optimism…

Eric Broadley Interview – February 1997

Q: Are you looking forward to the challenge of this season?

“Personally I enjoy a challenge. If not motor racing, I enjoy sailing, but I don’t get the time!”

Q: What do you think you can achieve this year?

“A lot of people have asked me that, and I have great difficulty in answering. We’re coming in with a strong attempt to win the World Championship. Not this year though, and not next. There’s a lot of learning to do this year, but I hope we’ll win a few points. We’ll be very happy if we do. After that, I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait and see.”

Q: Is it true that you’ve only had since November to get things running?

“Yes. The finance is so huge in F1, you can’t get on with it until you have the whole thing in place. But we manufactured the transmission a couple of years ago, and we’ve done a lot of detail work on it since then, rig-testing and electronic development. 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.”

Q: Are you happy with the driver line-up?

“I think it’s good. We all get on very well, and they’re both bright young guys with a lot of potential. It’s going to work very nicely. One of the things that has become pretty obvious is that a good driver in a good chassis will do a very good job. There’s a whole load of drivers across the board who are very good. It takes someone like Schumacher to take a chassis which isn’t very good and make it look good, But there are very, very few of those guys. The rest are good guys with good talent, with the right attitude, and with enough experience, they’ll do a very good job for you.”

Q: What are the important factors in finding success?

“There’s a lot of factors. You can put them into a list of priorities of you like; the aerodynamics and the engine are evenly matched, then there’s team organisation and attitude, and the engineering attitude. Don’t forget that we have a situation now where the downforce on the cars is pretty drastically reduced. It won’t mask problems in the car any more. You used to have so much downforce that it didn’t matter what you did. You still have to have the best aerodynamics that you can, but it’s not enough in itself. The mechanical aspect of the car is much more important than it was.”

Q: Is there a scenario where if MasterCard does not get enough club members, you won’t get the funding you’ve been promised? Is there a risk involved?

“There is a risk. But I think the deal is self-generating. If we show potential, that will be good for the club, and the club will grow, the finance will increase. There’s no guarantee.”

Q: Have you got back-up plans if you don’t get enough money?

“Yes. We have back-up plans. If we get more than we planned for, we’ll do more testing and development, and we’ll throw it into the engine programme. We’ll just get there quicker.”

Q: Are you worried that another team might try to steal MasterCard from you?

“Well of course they get approached all the time, like everybody else. We have a four year deal with MasterCard. They’re attitude to this thing is that it’s a long term deal. They know what they’re after, world markets, and they see the potential of F1. They are saying quite specifically that if they can’t make it work with us, they will pull out and do something else. They will not shuffle around (to other teams). They want a fresh team, and they don’t want to come in as a secondary sponsor. It worked in very well with us. It’s basically an American company, and Lola is very well known in America.”

Q: Are you officially the chief designer?

“I did lay out the design of this car. In Lola we try and avoid the sort of ‘chief designer’ title. The problem with that, is that because you’ve got a really good guy, it can work really well. But only to the point of his specialties. In motor racing there’s a great deal of ‘Not invented here’ syndrome. We try to avoid that. Years of experience have indicated that we must use a group of experts. So what we tend to do is have specialists in various area, like transmissions, aerodynamics, chassis dynamics, carbon technology. We have all these experts and they all work together. The first thing is you have to do is lay out the car, you define all the areas, and then you get all the guys going. That’s how we do all the projects. Now, my input in this case was on the initial layout and the initial direction that the project should go. Then, everybody else took off from there.”

Q: What are the plans for the Lola engine?

“We really need that, as soon as we can, but there’s a lot of work to do yet. The first engine is almost complete. We don’t know how long the testing will take, and we’re not going to run it (in a car) until it’s reliable. We’re not fixing a date on that yet. We would like to run it this season. Everyone else says ‘How you can you build your own engine?’ Everybody says its costs $100m to design and build one. I don’t think that’s true. If you find the right people, the technology is available, and you can make anything on modern machinery with a bit of organisation.”

Q: How big is your engine building team?

“It’s Al Melling and three or four designers, and we’re manufacturing the engine.”

Q: Do your Indy engineers work on both projects?

“That’s right. We think of it as a machine at Lola which produces race cars. We can do it in three months, regularly. So we use the same machine, the same people. The Indy project was completed, and we took those people and people off everything else and put them on F1.”

Q: Do you think that you’re too gentlemanly in the way you do business? People like Reynard are very pushy.

“They are very aggressive. I don’t know why, but I guess we just do business in the way we do. It’s difficult to change the animal. We’ve been in business longer than anyone else, and we always survive. These things happen from time to time, but we always overcome it.”

Q: Are you looking forward to living out of a suitcase, travelling to all the races?

“Well, I’m quite looking forward to the challenge. I’m not looking forward to the travelling, and all the wasted time at race meetings. It takes three days, and another couple of days for travelling.”

Q: What was the highlight of your years supplying other F1 teams?

“Well I suppose the first one we did with John Surtees in 1962 was amazingly good, and the thing we did with Honda in 1967 was amazing too. We did a pretty good job for Larrousse really, but that was very frustrating, because we were very isolated and we weren’t able to advance and consolidate that programme. That was the start of the realisation that it wasn’t the way to go. We got led into the Scuderia Italia deal, which was a mistake, a big mistake.”

Q: Do you regret not starting your own team 20 years ago?

 “I suppose so, yes. We probably should have done it, I guess. We could have grabbed a Cosworth DFV and been in the same ballpark as everyone else. But we’ve done a lot of other things instead, and here we are, still in business, unlike most other people. That can’t be bad!”

Do let me know via comments if you’d like see more historical stuff on here, and I’ll see what I can find!

13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Cooper files: Eric Broadley and the 1997 MasterCard Lola fiasco

  1. F1 Outsider

    Great stuff! The behind the scenes stuff is just as fascinating to me as the racing itself. I was too young back then to follow F1 as closely as I do now, and we certainly don’t get enough insight into the politics and “goings-on” of that time. There are video highlights a plenty, but not enough of what people were saying in the background.

  2. Simon Benedict

    Good lord, an excellent question Adam! — Q: Is there a scenario where if MasterCard does not get enough club members, you won’t get the funding you’ve been promised? Is there a risk involved?

  3. Rob A

    Enjoyed this a lot – would love there to be more ‘historical’ stuff here.

    PS glad to see RSS feed up and running now, thanks!

  4. Uppili

    Thanks for a little historic refresher Adam! I sure would love to read more of this and whenever i get such an urge i head out to f1rejects.com! Thats not to say i don’t want to read the history of successful f1 teams! So in essence…keep them coming….

    Dont want to jinx anybody,but a lot this interview reads like something that came straight out of the mouth of Peter Windsor or Ken Anderson isn’t it?

  5. BasCB

    Thank you Adam, for giving us this pearl of an interview. I reads as a perfect mirror of the asperations of this team as well as most of the teams wanting to make it to Bahrain this year.

    I Would certainly like to read some more of the same stock.

  6. I remember this well!!

    Great post. I was incredibly happy to find you have your own blog after reading your articles for many years …

  7. Alex Yarnell

    Didn’t you have front row seat when Senna tried to punch Irvine at Suzuka on 93? Wouldn’t mind hearing about that on a slow news day sometime…

    • That’s a good idea. Maybe after Schumi gets into a fight with a rookie this year! It would be nice to retrieve some original stories from that era. If anyone knows hows to get files off a Tandy 200 and its external floppy drive, do let me know!

  8. I was working for Bernie from 97 onwards and well remwember having a look at the Lola in Melbourne that year. What an embrarrassment when qualifying came along.
    I also remember a car on show in a shopping mall in Sao Paolo at the next race, but of course, they never made it.

  9. Fantastic article! The whole MasterCard Lola story has fascinated me even as it was happening in 1997. I remember there was talk in some media that because of the recognition Lola had they would easily be competing in the middle of the F1 gird in 1997.

    What I will say about Lola in 1997 though was the qualifying session in Australia was dominated by Jacques Villeneuve so much even Damon Hill nearly failed to qualify, so the Lola’s recorded pace was not truly representative . I seem to remember Frentzen in second was even 1.7 seconds behind. The Bridgestone tyres in Melbourne were also far behind the Goodyear’s, but this was only the case for this one race throughout 1997. After Melbourne the Bridgestone tyres dominated the Goodyear’s which blistered too easily, best evident in the Argentinean, Spanish and Hungarian Grand Prix’s in 1997.

    The point is maybe Lola were not really 11 seconds off the pace but maybe closer to 6 seconds, and could have possibly qualified for the next few races. Would the plug have been pulled if the Bridgestone tyres were as competitive as they had been for the rest of the season in Australia?

    Lola were not the only team to rush to the grid as well because I also remember thinking at the time that Super Aguri did the same thing in 2006 after only getting the green light in November and earned praise for their performance considering their circumstances by the end of the year.

    I have always wanted to know however why the MasterCard Lola team folded before Brazil? Was it Eric Broadley who pulled the plug or did MasterCard pull out first, and if so was it purely because of their failure to qualify in Melbourne?
    Either way the history and debate of F1 is fascinating. As said please post more historical stuff!

    • Thanks for the comment. As I recall it was Eric Broadley who personally pulled the plug on the eve of the Brazilian GP, when the team was already in situ. I can’t recall what the trigger was but in essence he realised that the numbers didn’t add up and it was better to stop. We’ll never know what would have happened had he tried harder to put a rescue package together.

  10. Thanks for the reply, interesting that Broadley was actually the one who pulled the plug first and not the sponsors!

    You would have also thought this story was a lesson in regards to starting late for an F1 season. However if the anonymous source from USF1 is to be believed in that the operation did not seriously “push production” till December it might partly explain their current problems.

    Still, at least Campos Meta and possibly Stefan GP will not have to worry about the 107% qualifying rule as Lola did if they make it to Bahrain.

    I do hope Lola can return to F1 in 2011 though and avenge 1997.

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