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Howard Dawson, the Peer Group/Lola managing director, recalls his experience of Lola’s work and the motorsport heritage it created.
Shortly after I joined Martin Birrane’s Peer Group in May 1997 he made a call to Eric Broadley, having heard Lola was in trouble. Eric said things were OK, but shortly afterwards it was announced Lola Cars had gone into administration.
Martin put in an indicative bid to buy the assets of Lola Cars and the administrators initially dismissed it. They spent the next six weeks going through the management buyout option and the dreamers and no-hopers, and ended up coming back to Martin in July 1997. The deal was completed on September 23 ’97.
Many people think Martin bought Lola because of his passion for racing, but there was always an underlying business reason why he did things. He wanted to make Lola successful on the race track again, but he also knew he had to diversify the business. He immediately set about investing in facilities and people. We grew the workforce from 68 to a peak of 220. Martin put investment into composite manufacturing and the Wind Tunnel facilities.
Martin and Lola went back a long way – his Crowne Racing T292 had won the European 2-Litre Sports Car Championship with Chris Craft in 1973. The manufacturers’ trophy still went to Lola, even though Martin had beaten the works team, and not long after Martin bought Lola, Eric Broadley came to the factory and presented him with the trophy. That meant a great deal to Martin.
When Martin bought Lola, the windtunnel wasn’t there. Chris Saunders was already negotiating with BAE Systems to buy the steelwork for the tunnel but it was an enormous engineering challenge – most of the tunnel and all the plant and supporting equipment was designed from scratch. Martin had to decide whether he wanted to carry on with the project and he didn’t hesitate. He knew the success of racing cars was dependent on great aero.
Chris led the engineering project and I was asked to oversee the building contract and the budget. The hardest job was keeping Chris under control because every week there was something new and shiny he wanted to put into the windtunnel! But we didn’t compromise on quality. You can’t really modify windtunnels so you have to get them right from the start. Martin believed in the engineers and provided them with the best facilities he could.
Martin always had a passion for sportscars – he did Le Mans 10 times as a driver and won his class in a BMW M1 in 1985 – and the SR1, SR2, LMP1 and LMP2 cars were the DNA of the business under Martin. He wanted success at Le Mans and he delivered in spades – the cars won lots of races.
Lola took MG back to Le Mans in 2001 with the EX257 and, after developing our open cars and the coupes, we did the Lola-Aston Martin. We continued to have success and it was a source of great satisfaction for Martin.
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But he also knew Indycar was important. In 1997 there was a problem with the car and even before completion of the acquisition of Lola Martin wrote a cheque to allow the engineers to go to invest in research and development to identify the problem, which they did. We knew we had the makings of a competitive Indycar after that and we got more and more Lolas onto the grid after ’98.
We also kept the Formula 3000 contract for 1999, which was important, and again in 2002, though by then the pressure on cost-capping was beginning to bite and profit could only be derived from spares sales.
Lola’s reputation has always been that it can produce competitive cars that have engineering integrity and are safe. Martin said they had to be quick, safe and beautiful – he took great interest in the final product.
By 2012 the recession had been with us for four years and it was deeper and longer than anything we’d experienced previously. Motorsport was changing as well. Single-make racing was getting harder and the market for customer Le Mans cars was diminishing, so in April ’12 we took the difficult decision to stop trading Lola Cars.
Martin felt the next chapter of Lola needed to be written by a new investor. For three years we kept everything together so it could be sold, with the brand, to reignite Lola, but in 2015 we decided we needed to let out the factory.
Wind Tunnel Developments continues to operate the tunnel and Lola Group Holdings still has the Lola IP, brand and heritage. The tunnel has proved to be a successful and sustainable business in its own right. Between 2000 and ’02 we had Toyota in the tunnel, taking about half the available time, and other F1 teams used it over the years. It allows for a quick changeover between customers and has partitioned servers so they can maintain confidentiality.
The tunnel is one of the finest, technically advanced and commercially available facilities in Europe, with excellent repeatability and the tunnel-to-track correlation is recognised in the industry as being of the highest order.
It’s also had a versatile range of uses – it’s been used for F1, automotive, rallying, Scania trucks and a number of defence projects. The diversity of the projects that have come in and worked is impressive, and now our ambition is to sell the tunnel, along with the seven-post vehicle-dynamic test rig.
We will either sell the facility alone or, in the right circumstances, sell it with the Lola brand. The heritage of Lola stretches back 60 years and over 4000 cars, and it’s ready for someone with the same passion as Martin to write the next chapter.
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