BIG AL

Richards could be lost to F1; for the time being, at least

Rightly or wrongly, I was always impressed with David Richard's capacity for lateral thinking during his year's stewardship of the Benetton F1 team. More fool the Benetton family, in my view, for ditching him simply because he didn't cosset the dynasty's heir Rocco enough for everybody's taste. His departure cleared the way for Flavio Briatore's reappearance on the scene, so we'll never know quite what David might have managed had he been left in control of the reins for another few years.

Certainly, Richards doesn't seem to have been troubled unduly by this involuntary change of career path. All self-made men are ego-driven to some extent and, while Richards isn't backward coming forwards in the self-confidence stakes, he's by no means a millionaire petrol-head driven purely by an obsession to be involved in the F1 business.

Far from it, in fact. This week it has become clearer than ever that Richards has now placed any F1 aspirations he may have nurtured firmly on the back burner. His number one priority is now the re-structuring of his Banbury-based automotive empire to concentrate exclusively on making international rallying a top class televised sport.

Richards, who sold 49 per cent of Prodrive to venture capitalists Apax for a reputed 40 million pounds, has invested his windfall in purchasing the television rights for the world rally championship from Bernie Ecclestone.

"I still hold 33 per cent of Prodrive," said Richards, "but we have restructured the business over the last 12 months to concentrate on two distinct business streams. There is the motorsport department run by David Lapworth and the automotive and technical business which has Hugh Kemp as its engineering director and is being overseen by Ian Parry. I am now concentrating a 101 per cent effort on the rallying project."

Richards had been tipped to make a bid for British American Racing by buying out Adrian Reynard's stake in the Brackley-based F1 team, but it is clear that has now been ruled out for the time being.

In short, Richards is poised to do for rallying what Ecclestone has done for F1. "We are going through the same process F1 did 20 years ago," he told The Observer newspaper today.

"But I always distance myself from direct comparisons with F1. We are a competitor of all global sports and F1 is one of the best examples.

"But we are fundamentally different and there is a lot of space for world championship rallying to sit, in great comfort, alongside F1. Rallying is not an alternative; it's complementary.

"Our goal is to be one of the top five global sports within the next three years. I know we will achieve it."

On the face of it, this seems an extremely tall order. But if Richards can pull it off, it will have been a commercial triumph calculated to make F1's promotion look like a piece of cake. I for one certainly would not bet against Richards achieving the success he clearly craves. And the profile that goes with it.

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