From Co-Drive To Prodrive

When David Richards tired of being a second-seat man in rallies, he went from performing in the show to producing it. John Davenport charts the rise of a rally man with his heart – and head – in the sport

My old history master used to say to us that “history is about people, not events.” If that’s true, then the history of rallying covering the last 25 years is going to be more than a little interested in David Richards; the man has done more than anyone alive to evolve this sport.

David was born in Kent but his formative years were spent in North Wales where he got interested in rallying at an early age. “My brother and I were members of the local motor club and, since it was the hey-day of road rallying, we were doing night navigation rallies in Wales almost from the start.”

It was that time in the early 1970s when the Ford Escort Mexico Championship was all the rage with Russell Brookes, Tony Pond, Nigel Rockey and all those other drivers who were shortly to become household names. But the young Richards had other commitments: “I was articled to a firm of accountants in Liverpool for five years, doing rallies in Wales at the weekend and then trying to catch up during the week. It became a bit difficult and I thought about doing stage rallies; I fell in with a bunch of the Yorkshire Mafia — Colin Grewer, Tony Drummond, Pip Dale and ‘Piggy’ Thompson”

This fitted in much better with his studies and, in the year that he completed them, he won the inaugural Castrol/Autosport National Rally Championship with Tony Drummond in a Ford Escort RS 1600 Mk 1. “And then, instead of taking a gap year at eighteen as most kids do, I decided to have a gap year then and go off rallying round the world with Andy Dawson. Andy had won the Kleber Scholarship and he took me with him. We did all kinds of events, rallies in Jamaica, Africa and even the Caravan Rally — which we won.” The Kleber prize was a factory Datsun Violet with all the spares. Before that, however, the pair were due to take a works Escort on the Tour of Dean, a prize Dawson had won on the Mexico Championship. But the season kicked off on a low note when the rally car was stolen from outside the hotel before the start.

In Jamaica, Richards met An Vatanen for the first time. He came to stay with Richards a couple of times and eventually Vatanen suggested they do the Scottish Rally together in an ancient Ascona, which was promptly shuttled off to Dealer Opel Team at Tong Park for a re-build. “At the start of the rally we were up there at the front, beating the likes of Roger Clark, Timo Makinen and everybody, which was a great surprise to all. But then the car started to self-destruct and we finished eighth. We did win the Man of the Rally Award, which was a giant bottle of scotch. This for a teetotal Finn from Tuupovara. He told me that ten years later the unopened bottle was still in a cupboard in his mother’s house.”

The Ascona was cobbled together again and they did Donegal and then the Lindisfarne. Vatanen was shortly to be snapped up by Ford while Richards, through the DOT contact, teamed up with Tony Pond in the newly rejuvenated Leyland Cars team. At first they drove a Dolomite Sprint and finally a TR7. The Pond/Richards combination was evidently quick, but the car was, frankly, not up to it. “The TR7 days were interesting as it had been my first chance to be part of a factory team, apart from working with Tony Fall in his very professional DOT operation,” says Richards. “But now I concentrated most of my efforts on running the Middle East Rally Championship. I was asked to get involved in the first place by Rothmans who were sponsoring the Kuwait Rally. But the chap due to run it wasn’t available — he had been shot dead while in the Lebanon. I got rung up and asked if I would like to take over, which is a rather unique head-hunter proposal: “Hello, would you like to do this job as the previous incumbent has been shot ?” “

Kuwait was a success and Richards was asked by Rothmans to set up a proper championship with events in other countries. The result was a new championship and a happy Rothmans. And at the end of 1978, Richards renewed his partnership with An Vatanen. Vatanen had been having a torrid time at Ford where he crashed rather too frequently for the team boss’s liking.

On the point of departure from the team, Vatanen talked to Richards and in turn he talked to Rothmans. They were happy to sponsor the pair for a year in the Ford team for £100,000. “In those days, this was a very significant sum of money. So I went along to Peter Ashcroft and said ‘Well, if I bring this sponsorship, do we get to keep the place in the team?’ And that became the arrangement,” explains Richards. Their year started with a Group 2 Fiesta on the Monte Carlo where they finished tenth overall and second in Group 2. From then on, it was Escorts all the way and, in the second half of the year, it became evident that Richards had brought something to the Vatanen equation that produced results rather than accidents. They were fourth on the RAC Rally and wound up fifth in the World Championship standings.

But at the end of that year, Ford made the decision to take a sabbatical from WRC. However, Rothmans had got the bug and Richards was able to broker a deal for the Ford works team to be sponsored by them and run by David Sutton’s private team. During 1980, there were two cars, for Mikkola and Vatanen, and the programme was the British Championship plus a number of WRC events. The British Championship went well and Vatanen and Richards came out as winners but the same could not be said of the WRC. Both Escorts went off on the same bend in Portugal, actually landing on top of one another.

For 1981, the team decided to go all out for the World Championship. Mikkola had left to take up driving duties with Audi and thus it was practically a one-car team. But the remarkable result was victory in the World Championship.

There had been a lot of pressure on the pair of them during that year. Vatanen had been doing his military service with the Finnish Army during 1981, while Richards strove to keep Rothmans interested in the proceedings. Throughout, David Sutton somehow kept all the balls in the air and it was a hard-won victory. But it left Richards wondering whether he wanted to do all that again. The answer was a definitive “no”.

“Since then, I have never sat in a rally car again. Not even in one of our own cars during testing. Richard, Colin — all of them — have asked me to go with them and I have always said ‘no’. I have done that, and now I have stopped. No temptation.”

He set up his own promotions company in Marsh Gibbon near Bicester. “The first major contract was from Rothmans. They asked me to look at their Formula One involvement which was with March. I actually advised them not to continue. But I had seen that there was an opportunity to go with Porsche on their sports car programme and that is what they decided to do.” Not a bad bit of advice, as with Jacky Ickx, Jochen Mass and others Porsche won Le Mans, masses of other races and several World Championships in Rothmans livery.

Thus the link with Porsche was formed, and in 1983, when they were starting to look at a Group B car, they consulted Richards’ company. The 959, excellent for long distance events, was too big and heavy for normal rallies so Porsche were persuaded to build 20 special 911SCRS models for rallying. Over the next two years 12 of these came to Prodrive, the new company that Richards had formed. These cars were the foundation of Rothmans Rally Team that had so much success in the Middle East and in European Championship rallies.

But Richards still worried: “By the end of 1985, it was clear that we needed to have a proper 4WD car if we were to maintain anything like that level of success in Europe. So I acquired a Metro 6R4 for Jimmy McRae to campaign in Rothmans livery. Thus, for 1986 we had a split programme with the Porsche out in the Middle East and the Metro in Europe.”

As the 1980s progressed and the Group B cars bit the dust, there was no obvious way forward. The next rally car for Prodrive was the BMW M3, another two-wheel-drive car. “The indications were that it could be very good on asphalt so we put a proposal to them to do an asphalt programme across Europe,” says Richards. In came drivers like Bernard Beguin, Patrick Snijers and Marc Duez and with them came a clutch of French, Italian and Belgian championships spread over the three years from 1987 to 1989. The most important result of those years was Beguin’s outright win on the Tour of Corsica in 1987, Prodrive’s first WRC win.

It was all very well doing asphalt events but the majority of the big rallies were on ice and snow or gravel, an area in which 4WD still reigned supreme. “I did a scout round to see what there might be out there. And then Mr Kuse of Subaru turned up after being out to the Safari Rally on an exploratory visit,” explains Richards.

Through their competitions department, Subaru had already entered cars on the Safari, winning Group 1 at their first attempt in 1980, and at this point were considering a step up. “We came in just at that time when there was a big discussion as to whether to go down the F1 route or go rallying,” says Richards. “I talked them into rallying and went straight out and signed up Markku Alen while Dave Lapworth got on with developing the car.

“The first event was the Acropolis Rally in 1990 where Markku set fastest time on the first stage and then the wheels fell off. We managed to bolt them back on but they kept falling off at regular intervals. It was only ten years ago but it was all so different then. Now we sit in air-conditioned motor homes at service points waiting for the cars to come in, but then we were like a gang of gypsies chasing round trying to keep up with Markku. We knew that teams like Lancia had 25 vans and 120 people while we were just 20 people. So we decided to put all our best guys in a helicopter and take them to every place that we could. This was a bit demanding as we were servicing before and after every stage — and I was also flying the helicopter. One day we did no fewer than 46 landings in order to service the car!”

Within four years, hard charging Subaru was the runner-up in the WRC, and the following year the team won both WRC titles.

But in 1991, only the second year of the Subaru contract, David Richards took what appeared at first sight to be a big gamble at long odds — he signed up Colin McRae to drive a car in the British Championship. “He reminded me very much of Ari.” recalls Richards with a wry smile. “We weren’t getting results at WRC level but we were able to notch up wins — and the championship — here in Britain, as well as getting a lot of testing. And at that time we could take that sort of risk, hiring a youngster, something that you could not do so easily today.”

“When you are entering two or possibly three cars on a WRC round, you cannot afford to take a risk and put a raw recruit in there. One of the fundamental problems that we face today is that the sport is not structured in such a way that we can easily pick out these people or nurture them along.”

“So we need to be looking at rallying with some fresh vision. There are two sides to the sport. Looking at the top, it is 100 percent professional. And it is pure entertainment for spectators. It is a medium for marketing of cars and associated sponsors. At the other level, it is all about participation. One reason why historic rallying has been so successful over the past ten years or so is that it is not encumbered with all the paraphernalia, problems and expense. At the top level, rules and regulations are being created to deal with the top teams and their levels of technology, which are just not appropriate to the majority of the field.”

Richards and I talked about the possibilities of making World Championship rallies open to far fewer entrants. With a smaller entry, multiple use of stages becomes a practical possibility. And the need for spectators to move around on public roads will decrease drastically while static TV cameras also get to record a good deal more action.

The WRC appears to have found a very good technical level at the moment, with eight manufacturers due to compete next year. I was gently reminded that it was David Lapworth who had done much of the work in devising the WRC car concept and then convincing the FIA that this was the way to go. “But what is needed is a second tier beneath that and the failing at the moment is that no one has yet put this into place,” says Richards. “That is why national championships have to say they will accept WRC cars because there’s no clear option below that which is acceptable. The proposal on the table is for the new 1600cc category [already nicknamed Formula 3]. It will never be really cheap, but it will cost a lot less than WRC cars and will have the major advantage in that all the cars will be very closely matched.

“Some people might suggest that you would not take someone straight from that category and place them in a WRC car. I would dispute that and I think that Frank Williams is about to prove the point very publicly with Jenson Button in a Formula One car. More important than 4WD experience is experience on events. Therefore, a World Championship that comprised WRC cars and a separate category for these new 1600cc cars would have the desired effect. The new category could head up the national championships while the same cars and drivers could also do selected World Championship rounds. I think that is where we will be in two or three year’s time.”

Richards and I wound up our conversation by talking about the old events we had both done in the 1970s and, despite his continued reluctance to volunteer for the co-driver’s seat, David Richards was unequivocal. “I loved those old events. I am very nostalgic about them. But it is more important today to think how we are going to preserve our sport for the future. We have to change things if World Rallying is going to take a major place in tomorrow’s sport A few years ago, it was difficult to film a major rally effectively. With the new technologies that are coming on stream now, in a few years you will be able to watch a World Championship rally wherever it takes place, inside the car, on the stage and with any driver. We must not lose that opportunity through nostalgia.”