Features - Interview
OCTOBER 1, 1997
BY JOE SAWARD
If his father had his way Richards would be a chartered accountant. He studied for four years while rallying in his spare time but in the end the sport won the day and the rather less exotic world of accountancy faded into history.
"I started co-driving in road rallies in North Wales when I was 16," Richards remembers. "Stage rallying was only just starting out then and I got involved with a whole group of people from Yorkshire and I won the National Championship in its first year, co-driving Tony Drummond. That year I finished most of my accountancy exams and I didn't have a job as such so I thought: "Let's have a year out to do some rallying" and I did events all over the world - from Jamaica to South Africa - with Nissan. Through that I co-drove with Tony Pond and was offered a contract with the British Leyland factory team in 1976. We won the Tour of Britain together and in 1977 I partnered Billy Coleman in the European Rally Championship in a Lancia Stratos. Through that I met Daniele Audetto and in 1978 I set up the Fiat rally team at premises at the Fiat offices on Western Avenue in London. It was quite an interesting experience, considering I was only 25 years old!"
At the end of that year Richards managed to persuade Rothmans that it should sponsor the Ford works rally team with drivers Bjorn Waldegaard, Markku Alen and Ari Vatanen - and as part of the deal Richards would be Vatanen's co-driver. The deal extended until the end of 1981 when Vatanen and Richards won the World Rally Championship together. Richards then retired.
"At the end of that year I approached Rothmans and asked if I could have a consultancy agreement to act as an advisor to develop the Rothmans motor sport programme. They wanted to expand the rally programme and were looking at other opportunities in motor sport. I said I would like to set that up for them. When I went into the office in January 1982 they said: "Oh, by the way, the Rupert Family (which controls the Rothmans empire) has just signed an agreement to sponsor the March Formula 1 team. Can you please go and find out what it is all about and get it organized." The deal had been done at the last moment and it was not well-conceived. The team was run by John Macdonald (who would later run the RAM F1 team) with Adrian Reynard as the designer, Guy Edwards doing the sponsorship and Jochen Mass and Raul Boesel as the drivers. It was underfunded and I was young and inexperienced in those days and was like a fish out of water. I did not feel comfortable in that area. The team was not successful - to the extent that we did not even qualify at Monaco and we had a couple of hundred guests to look after! It really was a baptism of fire. I did most of the races but by mid-season it was clear to me that we had a major problem on our hands and I went off to see Porsche to agree the deal to take Rothmans into sportscar racing. We transferred later that year."
Part of the deal with Porsche was a rally programme with the Porsche 911 RSR which David ran for Rothmans in the Middle Eastern Rally Championship. It was the beginning of the Richards empire. At the end of 1985 the first team - called David Richards Autosport - became Prodrive. After a brief interlude with the Metro 6R4 Prodrive turned to the BMW M3 and the team hit the headlines in Corsica when it became the first privateer operation to win a World Championship rally. This led to an expansion of Prodrive's activities with BMW and there was a British Touring Car team in 1988 and 1989, Frank Sytner winning the BTCC title in 1988. That year the team moved from its original base at Silverstone to new premises in Banbury.
In 1989 the team signed a deal to develop a rallying programme with Subaru and - backed by Rothmans - Colin McRae won the British Open Rally Championship for the team in 1991 and 1992. Richard Burns added a third title in 1993 but by then McRae - with backing from British American Tobacco's 555 brand - was challenging for the World Rally Championship, which he won in 1995.
The first hints of a Prodrive involvement in Formula 1 came in 1994 when Team Lotus was on the rocks.
"I was approached about Lotus and I looked at it," Richards admits. "It did not make sense at all but I suppose that was the start of the thought process that it might be realistic for Prodrive to consider F1. My ambition to get into F1 has been exaggerated. Sure, it had been an appeal but to be very honest it has only been in the last two years that it has come about as part of a strategic approach for Prodrive. We reorganized the company about three years ago and split it into three divisions: motorsport, engineering and sales. We then analysed each area of the business and looked at what to do to develop in that particular area and where we would be by the year 2000.
"When we looked at motorsport we saw very logical historical reasons for us to be in rallying and there are long-term contractual reasons for us to stay there. We then said: "What other opportunities are out there?" and when we analysed it all we found that the most stable form of motor sport - with the possible exception of NASCAR in America - is Formula 1 and it therefore followed that this was something we should try to go into if the opportunity arose. We sat down and looked at how one goes about it and did a lot of analysis work of the existing teams. To be honest I had not followed F1 very closely and I had to get up to speed quite quickly. As we did this we started to understand that you are talking about four teams which have dominated the sport for the last 20 years.
"We examined the possibility of a start-up F1 operation but I have watched very good people doing that and foundering and we concluded that it was not economically viable as we did not have the financial clout to do it. Nor was it desirable because of the distractions it would create in the other areas of our business. And so we looked at the four teams. Clearly there was no opportunity at Ferrari, no opportunity at Williams and no opportunity at McLaren. We sensed that there might be a possibility at Benetton and we pursued that quite doggedly. We were led to believe it would be for sale but when we examined the situation carefully and talked to the Benetton family it was clearly not for sale in the way we had envisaged. We compromised as we went along and finally we found a middle ground that worked for both parties and that is where we have ended up today."
The only link between Benetton and Prodrive is David Richards himself but he believes that any success he has with Benetton will have "a halo effect" for Prodrive although he admits, mysteriously that "there are long term agreements which we have which we will see develop in a more tangible way in the future."
Would he like to more be more specific?
Does that mean that if he is successful Prodrive might eventually take over the team from the Benetton Family?
"I always believe that if you do a good job with people and things work out well, then people are more open-minded about situations than perhaps they were originally..."
Whatever the future holds, Richards has work to do to get Benetton up to speed again.
"When I first came on board - two weeks ago - I was very apprehensive. I went to the Luxembourg GP and I was looking around and I really did not sleep the night before it was all announced. I was wondering what on earth I was letting myself in for and why did I need this extra headache. But as I looked around the paddock I saw a lot of old friends and that made me feel quite comfortable and I also started to see what a great team of people there are at Benetton and how solid it is as an engineering operation and I began to realise that the ingredients are there and I think that in the medium term I have a big contribution I can make."
What will that be?
"I think it will mostly be on the commercial side of the business and in the man-management. In the overall marketing approach - the way we go about our business - I would like to concentrate our efforts with three or four partners rather than a consortium of people as it is now. I would like to develop a far cleaner and more straight-forward image which reflects Benetton values. To a certain extent I think that has been lost in the recent past. With two new young drivers - Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz I think we have a great opportunity to rebuild the team spirit. I don't think it has really gone away - it is inherently in the organization - and I can see it in all the people I speak to."
So how long will it be before we see a new look Benetton?
"Our contractual base is there and we are obliged to continue in a similar manner next year but I think that in the 1999 season you will start to see big things. It is an evolutionary process. The team isn't fundamentally wrong. All it needs is a change of emphasis - and style - and this should not be imposed. It needs to develop naturally from within the organization as you get everyone to buy into the whole idea. From that you can create change."
What about specific issues. Why has Benetton not announced an engine deal for the 1998 season?
"We are in discussions with somebody at the moment and we will make a formal announcement in the near future. We have an arrangement for the engine supply and it is not anything different to what people will surmise, but there are other issues associated with that are best left for a formal announcement."
This presumably means that the Mecachrome engines may be badged by a different manufacturer. Does Richards see possible manufacturer links between F1 and his other activities?
"Well, I don't believe that rallying competes with F1 or that touring cars compete with rallying. I think each of them should be developed to have very clear identities. If you are selling three different products, let's say a Ford Escort, a Ford Sierra and a Ford Scorpio, you would have clear targeted markets for each of those cars. You would identify the group you are aiming for with each model and you would build your product image and your whole strategy around that. There will be a natural overlap but you could offer a very natural marketing platform for a range of products that would target a far broader spectrum of audience."
What other parallels can be drawn between F1, rallying and touring car racing?
"I think anyone who has watched my role in the current World Rally Championship knows that I have always felt that rallying has a lot to learn from F1. I have seen slogans painted on walls on the Monte Carlo Rally suggesting that I should go to F1 because I treat tradition with a certain amount of disdain. That is not to say that I don't respect rallying tradition. I have a great love for all traditional values but I think that if it is going to mix it with other major sports rallying has to change. It has to become more user-friendly and accessible to the press and TV. Some of the traditionalists think that traditions are sacrosanct and I fundamentally do not believe that. F1 is very good at the marketing and presentation and that is one of the appeals it has for me."
But how will you manage both Benetton and Prodrive?
"I still provide a very clear strategic direction for Prodrive. I attend the board meetings and I am in touch, on a day to day basis, about specific issues in which I am involved. I have to say that today this is only in the motorsport area. So I am still fairly active in Prodrive. I am, however, going to have to focus my involvement on Benetton now to make sure that I can get this up to its full potential.