Thursday, 10 May 2012

A visit to Lola Cars

In preparation for a feature that appeared recently on dailysportscar, I visited Lola Cars in Huntingdon, and spent a very enjoyable, interesting and informative few hours looking around. The main purpose for my visit was to interview the new Managing Director, Jean Marchioni, but thanks to the good offices of Lola’s Press and PR manager, Sam Smith, I was also given a guided tour around their splendid factory.

Lola celebrated its fiftieth anniversary a couple of years ago and although these days it concentrates on sports prototypes, its history covers virtually every form of competitive motor sport. Photographs adorn the walls not only of the reception area, but also of every corridor: there are Formula 1 cars, Indycars, Can-Am, Formula 5000, Le Mans prototypes and more.

Our first stop was the seven-post rig, which is used for ensuring optimal set up of suspension - all Lola’s racing cars get shaken down on this rig - literally. Sitting quietly alongside is Julian Bailey’s Formula Ford Festival winning T640E, which brings back fond memories for both Sam and me.

The advantage of a seven-post rig is that the car can be subjected to additional forces such as those caused by aerodynamics and braking as well as surface irregularities and cornering g-forces. In addition, Lola often ‘rents out’ the rig to road car manufacturers as well as racing teams to evaluate and fine tune suspension geometry and vehicle dynamics. This is considerably more cost-effective than test sessions at a circuit.


The highlight of the visit was undoubtedly the wind tunnel. This is a 50% scale tunnel, and it was in operation, with the 2012 Le Mans car undergoing testing, when I visited. The unit sits on a turntable, so that the car can be subjected to sideways airflow if necessary, and a rolling road can generate speeds of around 150mph. It is the unexpected which makes the biggest impression though. In the case of the Lola wind tunnel, this was the sheer size of the installation. The half size model of the car is dwarfed by the tunnel in which it sits and by the orifice through which the air is blown at it. But then Sam takes me behind the scenes to see the complete installation, a vast tube, shaped roughly like a doughnut, at least four feet in diameter, around which the air circulates as specially-built fans accelerate the airflow.

The other aspect that is easy to overlook, is that when you have a wind tunnel, you have to make models of the car that you wish to test. If you want to test something, like a different wing profile, a louvre panel or air intake, you have to manufacture it first and then put it on the model. To do that, you need to have a rapid build process - and this Lola has, thanks to (among other things) stereolithography (Google it if you want to know more). In effect, this is three-dimensional printing, enabling parts that have been designed on the computer to be rapidly manufactured - in either plastic or resin - and evaluated on the car in the wind tunnel. Dan Cox, senior aerodynamicist, says: “It’s so important to be able to rapidly assemble plastics into whatever form you want. The kind of thing that would have taken you more than a week to make by hand, with this type of manufacture you can do it in five hours”.

Standing in the wind tunnel, observing the latest bodywork tweaks on the new LMP car (I wasn’t allowed to take photos), we discussed the way that design evolves. Even if the form of the bodywork is not as aesthetically pleasing as it once was, it is clear that the mantra is “if it goes quicker, it looks better”!

The wind tunnel and the seven-post rig are integral to Lola’s capacity to produce racing cars in the volumes it does. When I visited, it was relatively quiet, as most of this season’s cars have now been delivered. But as you walk around, Smith points out various items that might have made things different - the abortive Formula 1 project, Indycar, etc. “We’ve got the space, the resources and the capability here to do virtually anything,” he says.

I am also introduced to Phil Tiller, CFD Manager, who takes me through the processes used in the design phase at Lola, where Computational Fluid Dynamics and Finite Element Analysis is used without the need for the expense of wind tunnel time. “Of course we still need the wind tunnel, to validate the findings here,” says Phil, “but the speed with which we can do design and development before it goes to the wind tunnel, means that we get to the optimum design much more quickly.”

CFD is not just used for bodywork and aero design - Tiller also shows me the dynamics of the refuelling process. “We take the viscosity of the fuel and the shape of the tank into account, and work out how we can get the fuel into the tank as quickly as possible within the constraints of the gravity feed demanded by the regulations.”

A large part of the work at Lola, is however, nothing to do with racing cars. And if racing car design is a sensitive matter, there is a whole department that I am not even allowed to visit - which sees Lola doing work on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for the Ministry of Defence. The Mantis was designed and built for BAE systems in just three months, and Lola also produces and assembles the Watchkeeper range.

In some ways, this work is more crucial to the company than the racing. “If we can base the financial security of the company on the defence work, then that enables the racing development to continue,” says Smith. “The trouble with motor-racing is that is ebbs and flows, and that makes it difficult to rely upon any revenue streams. The government isn’t like that.”

The Managing Director of Lola Cars International is Jean Marchioni, who joined from Level 5 Motorsports in the USA in March this year. The tone for our meeting is set as Sam and I are admiring a photo on the wall of the boardroom showing two Lola Mk4s in the pit lane at Monaco in 1962. “That was the first race I went to,” says Marchioni, as he comes in. “You can see here behind, the castle is here, and there is a road with a wall, you know - that is where we watched from. We didn’t have grandstand tickets or anything, we just sat on the wall, overlooking the gasworks hairpin.”

Much of the rest of our conversation revolved around the state of sportscar racing and the squabbles between the various organising bodies. It can be read on dailysportscar (if you are a subscriber), but some fascinating other snippets that weren’t really relevant to that article also came up.

Such as when we were talking about Jean Alesi (exactly how the conversation got onto that subject I can’t quite remember), and Marchioni said “I know Jean very well, I ran him in karting. Actually I am trying to get hold of him right now to see if he needs a spotter at Indianapolis. It would be cool to re-unite and for me to go to Indy.” There speaks a real enthusiast, not just the MD of a successful manufacturing company.

And on Don Panoz: “He’s a really interesting guy - I had a few conversations with him. I think the guy is awesome. He is always thinking about going global. He is not thinking about doing something in his own little corner to protect what he has. He has a wide range of thinking. Look at his businesses - they are all over the world. When he wakes up every morning he knows that five million or six million dollars went in the bank!”

The other topic that kept creeping into the conversation was that of a Lola “works team”. Sam Smith makes it clear: “Martin Birraine, our CEO, doesn’t want it to happen. It isn’t really feasible anyway, as we exist for our customers. Sure it can be frustrating not being able to choose our drivers, and always having to think about the financial side. The heartbeat of the team is the racing… if you would ask the workforce, I am sure they would want a works team.”

What is clear though is that if a major manufacturer would come to Lola with a partnership proposal, then a quasi-works project similar to the Nissan Le Mans effort in 1989/90 would “absolutely be possible,” in Marchioni’s words. “It would be the only way we would do it. It would need to be in the building next door (or somewhere). We need to keep the customers comfortable with what we are doing, as the business side is still very important to us. But we are constantly talking to manufacturers, looking for opportunities. You have to remember that from concept to finished product, we can do it really quickly here - and we have a lot of brainpower upstairs.”

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