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David Richards: ‘There’s not a single driver I haven’t fallen out with’
F1 Sport

David Richards: ‘There’s not a single driver I haven’t fallen out with’

From building a team in a Silverstone lock-up to a remarkable success in Formula One, world championships in rallying and sportscars, few have a tale to tell to match that of David Richards and Prodrive. What better time then than Sunday’s British Grand Prix as the company marks four decades of a journey for a man and team where racing is in the blood.

Richards formed Prodrive in 1984 with a complement of 14 people. It is now a racing and engineering group of more than 700 strong with Richards still at the helm. He will also be at Silverstone in his long-standing role as chair of Motorsport UK, British motor sport’s governing body.

Richards’ team enjoyed enormous success, running the BAR F1 team between 2002 and 2004, managing Jacques Villeneuve and then bringing Jenson Button on board to great effect. Then came three World Rally Championship (WRC) drivers’ and three manufacturers’ titles with Subaru. This included one, in 1995, for Colin McRae, who became the first British driver to take the WRC, an event that made the front pages. He followed that with Aston Martin world championships and class wins at Le Mans in sportscars and most recently in the Dakar rally.

It has been some ride, as Richards observes after 40 years in the business. “I don’t think there is a single driver that I have worked with that I haven’t fallen out with at some point during our relationship,” he admits. “But years later they have always come back and been good friends.”

This was, of course, no little feat given the egos and singularly demanding nature of all pedallers. “You can imagine, Colin McRae crashing the cars and I didn’t have the budget for repairs,” he says. “Then Jenson Button taking us to court twice to try and get out of his contract, and Jacques Villeneuve behaving like a petulant child because [Villeneuve’s manager] Craig Pollock was winding him up, the fights between Carlos Sainz and Colin … having to manage those relationships.

“I look back and they certainly make you grow up and teach you lessons in life. It’s about the same as bringing up a teenage boy.”

Richards started the company shortly after winning the WRC as co-driver with Ari Vatanen in 1981, with a view to building his own rally team. There was no grand plan to conquer the world but he did in many ways change it. “We were young, it didn’t matter that we were working 24 hours, all weekends, all-nighters, that was just the norm in those days,” he recalls. “We could all sit round the table at lunchtime and have our sandwiches, next door to Eddie Jordan.”

Running their own cars, it was quickly clear they could not compete with the big boys logistically. “Those teams would turn up and have 150 people, trucks and lorries. We had 30 people, a couple of estate cars and a couple of small vans,” he remembers.

So they had to think differently and chose to use a helicopter to shift equipment between stages. It was the sort of initiative that he believes has defined the company. Others took notice too and Subaru chose Prodrive to make its tilt at the WRC.

They were not only successful but turned the previously obscure Japanese brand into a household name. “In those days no one had heard of Subaru,” says Richards. “The managing director of Subaru in the UK told me a few years later: ‘When you lot came along I was selling pick-up trucks to pig farmers and now I am selling performance cars to petrolheads.’”

David Richards with a Subaru rally carView image in fullscreen

Richards went on to serve as team principal at Benetton for one year in F1, before the struggling BAR team called on him and Prodrive to run the team. He inherited an outfit that was flailing, despite ample backing. Richards wrought changes and brought in Button. By 2004 the turnaround was unprecedented and they finished second in the championship to Ferrari.

It was a masterpiece of exploiting the most from limited resources and BAR would ultimately turn into the championship-conquering Mercedes of today. “I still see people we worked with there,” says Richards. “Some are at Mercedes, some at other teams, they all have a positive feeling about that period. James Vowles, who is now heading up Williams, was there. It was a pretty formative period for the young engineers.”

Prodrive has been an unusual success story, a healthy reminder at Silverstone that British motor sport governance could not be in better hands than those of the man who knows and loves the sport inside out.

“Back then we were ambitious, starting with nothing and had great plans. We were prepared to work and we had some good fortune along the way,” adds Richards. “But I always like to think and believe that the best is still to come.”

Source: theguardian.com