Features - Technical
JULY 4, 1999
BY PETER WRIGHT
Forty years is a long time in motor racing. The last forty have seen the technical explosion that has taken racecars from the front engined, tube-framed, skinny-tyred vehicles, devoid of all aerodynamic aids other than an eyeballed, aluminium, streamlined body, to the sophisticated machines racing all over the word today.
Eric has been part of the emergence and consolidation of all the milestone technologies - rear engines, aerodynamic downforce, CFRP and control systems - and he has trained and provided experience to two generations of engineers, some of whom have gone on to dominate their chosen areas of motor racing. Of the five Designers already featured in this series, three of them - Patrick Head, John Barnard and Nigel Bennett - have worked at Lola during a key period of their careers. He has also seen the transition of motor sport from an almost cottage industry into a multi-billion pound business that is a big player in the entertainment industry. Through all this he has steered Lola Cars on a course that has enabled the company to maintain it's position as the major supplier of racecar hardware to the sport.
Eric always wanted to be an engineer, but the ambition did not arise from the home environment. His father and grandfather were both in the clothing retail business: "It was a totally non-mechanical family". At school during the second World War, Eric satisfied his engineering interests with model making, collecting parts of crashed aircraft and motorcycles. On leaving school at 16, his father advised him not to go into engineering, but rather into building, as there would always be a need for it; and so Eric did just that, joining a construction company to learn the business.
"I was really not at all interested in motor racing at that time, until one day my cousin, Graham Broadley, roped me in to help construct an 1172 Special to race in 750 Motor Club races. I drove it once and was absolutely hopeless, but I became involved in Club racing." For 1957 Eric built and raced the first Lola, an 1172 Special, winning the Championship.
The following year saw the appearance of the 1100 cc FWA Coventry Climax engined Lola Mk2, whose superiority was so great that Lotus, who dominated the market for 1100 cc sports cars with the Lotus Eleven, was unable to mount a competitive response to it. Eric had analysed the Chapman strut rear suspension, first employed on the Lotus Twelve Formula 2 car, and designed a rear suspension for the Mk2 that eliminating it's weakness - the strut. 750 Motor Club racing was a hotbed of plagiarism and innovation, in which the foundations of the UK motor racing industry's dominance of the market was laid. At the end of 1958 Lola Cars was formed and three replicas of the Mk2 were built for customers. Lotus' response, the Lotus Seventeen, was problematical due to struts at both ends, and the Lolas swept all before them in 1959, setting the new company on it's way.
"The car was very quick and I thought it must be the driver. Anyway, towards the end of Ô58 I took the car to Brands Hatch for quite an important race - the Press were there, Graham Hill as well - and I was pretty good in practice. Before the race the Secretary of the BRDC came up to me and said: ÔYou've obviously got a quick car there, why don't you let someone quick drive it'. I said ÔPiss off!' in no uncertain terms. But he was right. I made a mess of the start and spun off.
"Shortly afterwards I crashed the car into a ditch at Goodwood, when someone spun in front of me, and I spent the one and only day I have ever spent in hospital. Next day, when I went into work, my boss took one look at my bruised face and said: ÔTime we had a talk.' He gave me an ultimatum, and I took the second option and started Lola Cars."
"Club racing in the early days was really tremendous fun. We drove up to Silverstone on Sunday morning, spares and tool box stowed in the car and no spare tyres. We had to get through Scrutineering, carried out by some funny old boys who homed in on a different aspect each week; it might be battery boxes this time. It was always the same group of people, and we had some terrific battles. It was the period of motor racing that I enjoyed the most." As an environment to learn by experience and from others, it has proved to be without equal.
Three cars stand out in Eric's memory as Lolas that have given him the most satisfaction: the Mk2; the first GT in 1963 that led to Ford asking Eric to design the GT40; and the first Indy car which won the 500 in 1966, in Graham Hill's hands, Jackie Stewart having led most of the race in the other Lola. Worst car? "Lots!"
I first met Eric in 1969, shortly after joining Specialised Mouldings, located close to Lola Cars in Huntingdon. Peter Jackson had collaborated with Eric in building the GRP body of the Lola GT and subsequently that of the Ford GT40. Peter wanted me to persuade Eric to invest in aerodynamics and to support the building of a 1/4 scale wind tunnel. I soon discovered that Eric thinks long and hard about all aspects of racing car design, and only comments or replies having done so, with an economy of words. If he thinks little of what has been put forward, the words are replaced by a slight smile, which can be somewhat disconcerting. Eric did invest in aerodynamics, at a time when few were doing so, and having worked with him in the wind tunnel on Indycar, Can-Am, F5000 and sports car models, I gained great respect for those periods of silence. I soon learned that Eric would not accept anything until he, himself, was totally convinced about it's advantages. He questioned every aspect of everything, until sure that the benefits outweighed the inevitable disadvantages. He has a healthy suspicion of new, unproved technology, believing in sound design rather than gimmicks.
I suspect that it is this abhorrence of technical bullshit, coupled with a severe distaste for politics, that have guided Eric into creating a business that no longer encompasses competing in Formula 1. In Formula 1 the product is racing, funded by sponsors and using hardware that is produced as only a part of the business. Lola's products are racecars. There is a model range, options and spares - just like any road car manufacturer - that have to be sold to customers on performance, price and service. Since the mid-1970's Eric has focused Lola on producing cars for those classes of racing where a really sound product excels, rather than one that relies on being at the cutting edge of technology. Investing in manufacturing technology - Lola was among the first to create an in-house CFRP facility (Lola Composites) and to reap the benefits of CAD, and more importantly CAM - has enabled the company to offer their customers what they want in classes as diverse as Indycars to the starter, single-seater formulae.
"We are tending to get into one make formulae. We have a very good manufacturing facility and if someone comes along and asks for a single-seater racecar, we ask: "How big, how fast, how many and roughly how much?". We put it into the system and work out a price for it. It's a different business as you are competing on price rather than outright performance. If we get it, we get it, and that's that. We are pretty competitive and both the new Formula 3000 and Indy Lights, which is coming up to requiring a new car, are working well.
"I don't get too involved with that process now, though perhaps I should. The guys did the car straight from CAD, without making a model. I'm not too happy about the looks of the car - you should always do a model."
"It's proving hard to pull back from the design process though. You really want young guys sweating away, and you want their ideas. I've always been keen to bring young guys on, and inevitably one makes mistakes, but that's motor racing - you make a mistake, recover from it; make another and climb up out of it again. When that happens you have to step back in and control it again.
"I want to get away from the individual designer, and create disciplined teams. Take Indycars, for example. There are so many sides to the car: aerodynamics, structures, crash safety, transmission, fuel and cooling systems, electronics, suspension etc., etc. It takes a big group who must really work together. At the moment it still requires me to pull the whole lot together and I have some trouble getting away from that."
This brought the discussion round to the subject of who will succeed the current leading designers, most of whom have been at or near the top of their profession for at least a decade. "In the end the level of competition is the level of the people involved. If the designers and engineers who succeed us are not as good, the level of competition will drop, and vica versa, but motor racing will go on.
"The banning of control systems has upset the balance of things. A new breed of technocrats was evolving, who had an ever increasing influence on the performance of the car. They and their systems would ultimately have dominated the layout and design of Formula 1 cars, but they were brought up short by the regulation changes in 1994. That has caused a hiatus, and the traditional designers and engineers have had a new lease of life while there is a pause to bring on a whole new breed. I think the future lies with engineering, as opposed to design. The strength of an organisation will lie in it's engineering, particularly the intelligence of it's test and development engineers.
"Look at Williams. Patrick (Head) has developed an organisation with breadth and depth in engineering skills. The Williams cars are really the only ones that are sorted out, and they were the only team whose cars were ready at the beginning of the season. He has invested in the right facilities and people for a long time now, and it shows. Testing is very frustrating, and nothing like as much fun as designing new parts, but there is absolutely no substitute nowadays."
As Principle of the "British College of Racecar Design", Eric has seen dozens of young designers and engineers at various stages in their careers, and is well qualified to report on the inherent qualities that determine their future success, or otherwise. "You get a feel for a guy, though it's not always right! Not so much their actual design ability, more their attitude and approach. Patrick had a good Degree, but he also possessed an instinct and ability to get right to the root of things, and it showed as soon as he started. His drawings were awful, but his engineering was very good from day one, and he was extremely practical.
"John (Barnard )was completely different; he was a bit of a cold fish, and his designs were very clinical. He hated to be steered, but was very organised and did beautiful drawings.
"Nigel (Bennett) was different again. He was already in Formula 1 when he came here to do the Indy programme. He was much more of a test engineer, less an instinctive design engineer. With his tyre background he knows a great deal about getting the best out of a car, and that counts for a lot in Indy racing."
"It is a very big problem finding and keeping the good guys. You are only ever going to get a few good ones because it is such a competitive business. What I look for are the ones who have come up the hard way and have really learned what a car is all about, by bitter experience. There are plenty of bright people to chose from, who have all the science and who make a lot of assumptions about things because everything they think they need to know is known; everything appears to be in place. They believe that all they have to do is to apply that science and it will be OK; they don't realise how much there still is to discover.
"It should be easy because it's all been done and there isn't much new. And yet they make mistakes and are surprised. We all make mistakes, big ones sometimes, because there is so much that is not understood - aerodynamics and tyres, for instance, are still pretty mysterious. There are two particular characteristics I notice and try and correct in young guys: firstly, they believe all the bullshit, and there is plenty of it in this business! I try and instil in them a sense of suspicion of anything they read or hear. Secondly, there is a distinct reluctance, even a fear of deviating from the specification. They don't dare do anything, because they don't have the background knowledge. They don't want to stick their necks out.
"It's all been done and it's been institutionalised so that people don't question it any more; we used to question everything. Too much is taken as read today; there must be something wrong with their technical education - too much knowledge and not enough understanding."
If there is a single, personal characteristic that has enabled Eric to lead Lola successfully through the last, nigh on four decades, he declines to name it. I believe it is this questioning quality that stands out. From the moment that he analysed the Chapman strut he has accepted nothing at face value. Instead of just copying it, he saw that it was fundamentally wrong to put bending loads into a sliding member, causing it to stick during cornering, and so designed the forefather of modern racecar rear suspensions in it's place,. He takes concepts apart in his head until he is sure he understands every aspect, and then reassembles them into designs that he is truly happy with.
Currently much of Eric's time and efforts are expended on re-establishing Lola's position in Indycar racing, regaining the ground that Reynard have made into that important market. To do so Lola Cars are setting up their own operation to sell and support Indycars and Indy Lights. The acrimonious and litigious break with Carl Haas is something Eric could well do without, but he feels it is necessary for Lola to move forward in the USA. Queries about other future projects just elicited that smile and a "Watch this space!"
Eric will reach the age of 68 this year, but he is as fully immersed in Lola as he has ever been. He only ever once so much as considered giving up the business - when Tom Walkinshaw made a bid for the company. "Tom offered me peanuts, but they were big enough peanuts to make me actually think about it."
Winning is still terribly important: "It's a ridiculous situation really as you can't win all the time; it just gets extremely aggravating and depressing when you don't win - silly really. I even like to race when I go sailing. I did a race to the Azores last year - good fun."
As much fun as 750 Motor Club racing? That smile again.