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Lola lands Mastercard

LOLA CARS has confirmed that it intends to enter its own team in Formula 1 next season and has announced a four-year sponsorship deal with the giant American credit card company Mastercard.

The late nature of the decision will make it hard for Lola engineers to have everything organized in the time available but the new car - which will probably be called the T97/30 - should be ready in February. It will be designed by ex-Lotus engineer Chris Murphy and his team at Huntingdon.

The intention is for the team to use Ford ED customer V8 engines at the start of the year with Lola's own V10 engine due to begin testing in the midseason. The prototype Lola V10 engine is currently being designed by Al Melling.

It will be Eric Broadley's sixth attempt at Grand Prix racing since he founded Lola in 1958. The first attempt, as long ago as 1962, saw Lola built cars for Reg Parnell's Bowmaker Yeoman Credit F1 team. The team lasted less than a year. The second attempt was in association with Honda in the late 1960s but the Lola-built cars scored only one victory, John Surtees winning the 1967 Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

In the late 1960s Lola dominated sportscar racing but returned to F1 in 1974 with Graham Hill's Embassy Hill team. The relationship was also short-lived and Lola concentrated on other formulae in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s the company went Indycar racing and in 10 years won seven Indycar titles. It was nominally involved in Carl Haas's Beatrice-sponsored FORCE team but this was in little more than name, as Haas wanted to use F1 to promote the fact that he was the Lola distributor in the United States. In the 1980s Lola also made a big impact in Formula 3000 racing.

Lola returned to F1 with the Larrousse team in 1988 and in the four years which followed enjoyed limited success before Larrousse ceased to be able to pay his bills. Lola then did a deal with Beppe Lucchini's Scuderia Italia to build Ferrari-engined cars in 1993. The project was a disaster and Lola pulled out of F1 at the end of that year - deciding to embark on its own F1 project, without the need for partners. The last few years have been spent looking for money and building up the industrial infrastructure which is essential in F1 today.

"Formula 1 offers stability for the company," says Lola F1 marketing director Brett Trafford. "It is good for Lola because the technical developments produced in F1 will filter down to other aspects of our motor sport operation."

It is Trafford who is responsible for having found the budget for the team - he says it will be in the region of $45m. Lola will be funding a considerable part of the project from its own funds but the innovative deal with Mastercard is expected to raise around $10m a year.

This will be achieved by the creation of an exclusive club of Mastercard holders, who will sign up to be members of the scheme, which will give them a range of exclusive benefits - unavailable to normal F1 fans. The scheme will feature three tiers of membership. The first will be open to members paying between $79 and $99 a year; the second between cost $279 and $299; and the third - which will be limited to a membership of 320 - will cost between $1999 and $2999. In return for the contributions - which will be charged to Mastercard credit cards - members will get a range of benefits, including newsletters, autographed photos, exclusive team clothing and merchandise available only to them. There will be auctions of racing memorabilia open only to club members and, for the top tier members, there will be special events with the team and dinners with the team's drivers.

Mastercard hopes that as many as 100,000 people will sign up for the scheme. This may seem an unlikely figure but with 370 million cardholders around the world the company may find demand outstrips its expectations.

"This is something completely new in the arena of sponsorship marketing," says Mastercard's Mava Heffler "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."

The project is no great risk to Mastercard as its customers will bear the costs while it will gain from the international exposure available from F1 and from increased usage of its cards. There will also be extra revenue generated from royalties from the licensing of the Mastercard Lola Formula One merchandise. The scheme will be launched to cardholders in February next year.

The deal was signed last Tuesday and Lola has yet to consider who will be employed to drive. There is no shortage of possible drivers but it is logical that Lola will try to get its hands on a driver with F1 experience. The logical choice for this would be Martin Brundle, although he is still hanging on hoping to get a drive with Jordan. Another likely candidate for a drive is Scotsman Allan McNish, who has done a lot of Lola's test driving in recent years. Also being mentioned are Brazilians Ricardo Rosset and Ricardo Zonta and Dane Tom Kristensen.

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