Guru of the Home Counties

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Rob Widdows

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Dick Bennetts’ West Surrey Racing team has shunned the bright lights of F1. The boss is far happier applying his renowned engineering skills to the BTCC
By Rob Widdows

Dick Bennetts has been around motor racing forever. He’s worked with no fewer than four World Champions and a handful of other very big names, and yet he’s one of the lowest-profile people in the sport.

In the past 38 years Bennetts has won 14 major titles and played a hand in the careers of Keke Rosberg, Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen. As I write, his team, West Surrey Racing, is leading the British Touring Car Championship. Known as ‘the guru’ at the height of his Formula 3 winning streak, Bennetts has somehow remained an enigma.

Like so many highly capable people in motor racing, Bennetts came from New Zealand, making the long trek from his home in Dunedin on the tip of the South Island to London in 1978. By that stage he’d already won two Formula Pacific titles with Rosberg and was soon snapped up by Ron Dennis, engineering Lauda to the Procar title in 1979 and Stefan Johansson to the F3 title in 1980. He was rapidly forging a reputation for excellence in both preparation and racecraft.

The winter of 1982 was a turning point for both Bennetts and West Surrey Racing. The team signed a young Brazilian driver called Ayrton Senna da Silva and a year later he’d won the British F3 title. The New Zealander’s attention to detail and his ability to set up the Ralt RT3 just that bit better than anyone else endeared him to Senna, who was clearly already on the road to becoming one of the true greats.

But Bennetts never followed any of his protégés into Grand Prix racing. A season with West Surrey was a ticket to stardom, yet the man in charge was never tempted to travel onwards and upwards. And the prospect has no more appeal now than it did back then.

“No, I have no desire to be McLaren, or Ron Dennis for that matter,” he says. “I worked for Ron for three years and it was good, I knew everyone. But I told him, ‘I don’t want to become number 42 out of 242 – and now, had I stayed, I guess I’d be number 42 out of 942.

“In Formula 1 these days you’re not allowed to use your brain – we’ve had guys go from here to F1 but, after three or four years, the ones with real initiative want to come back. They earn good money, yes, but they can’t use their initiative. The maximum workforce we’ve had here is 34, and that was big enough to be honest. So I don’t want to get involved in F1. I want to go racing, be an engineer, get involved and do things properly – and I have to be in a position to win races. I’m not interested in just making up the numbers.

“All these guys queuing up to do F1 next year, they’re dreamers. Ron wanted me to be his test team manager and maybe if I had stayed I’d be down there in Woking at the new ‘Dream Factory’, earning good money, but I might not be happy. I like what I do, I like to race, and to win.”

The ego is, unusually for top-level motor racing, well under control. As we said earlier, the man has a low profile.

“You remember the great days of F3,” he grins, “when we had Eddie Jordan Racing, Dave Price Racing, Murray Taylor Racing?” I do remember, vividly, pacing up and down wet and windy pitlanes watching Bennetts build an almost unassailable grip on the British championship. “Well, everyone wanted me to have Dick Bennetts Racing, but I thought West Surrey was just fine, a nice little engineering company that went racing. And that’s the way I feel today, in the BTCC, where we are leading the championship with Colin Turkington in the RAC-sponsored BMW 320si E90. It’s a great series, very competitive, and you can engineer an advantage into the cars.”

But before we examine the current WSR campaign, we must learn a little more about Bennetts from the F3 days. The last two titles came in 1990 and ’91 with Häkkinen and Rubens Barrichello respectively. Two very different people, and Dick knew which one was the more likely World Champion.

“After a couple of test days, you just knew how good these guys were,” he says. “Give them a good car and they’re going to win. Both Ayrton and Mika were like that – put them in the car, and bang, they’re right on it, wet or dry. It’s raw talent. Mika would drive a car with three wheels and still be quick, while Ayrton was very precise, so good with his technical feedback. So was Mauricio Gugelmin – outstanding with his feedback and in my view an underrated talent. The good guys are very, very focused – they’re there to do a job, nothing else matters. Total concentration.”

What about Barrichello, the only one still racing, and still winning Grands Prix today?

“Very emotional,” says Bennetts, “and I think he still is. He had nine poles in 1991 in the F3 car, and never once did he come round in the lead… He was an emotional guy, a little bit cautious on cold tyres. But quick, make no mistake. Rubens is talented and, remember, he’s been up against the very best, especially at Ferrari. I used to joke with Rubens that he went backwards at the start so he could fight his way through the field and therefore get better television exposure for his sponsors.”

But that’s all history now, ‘the guru’ having turned his attention to the BTCC. West Surrey Racing has won the Independents’ title three times in the past five years. Different cars, same attention to detail. This season, at the time of writing, WSR is on the verge of the overall championship – a major landmark for the team – with Turkington.

“We like the BTCC. It’s good, hard racing and we don’t spend weeks and weeks away from home,” he says. “But, like anything else right now, it’s hard financially; we’re not a full works team. The BTCC does turn me on, because it’s every bit as hard to get the last few tenths out of these cars as it was with an F3 car. We can play with corner weights just like an F3 car, we can get two kilos across the front axle and three or four kilos across the back axle by being careful, carrying ballast weight or not carrying any ballast weight, and a BTCC car does respond. Just because it has a roof on it doesn’t mean it’s any different. Apart from not having any downforce underneath, it’s like setting up a single-seater.

“The one thing that does annoy me is the way some of the drivers rely on data logging, on computers, whereas they should also be feeling the car through the seat of their pants. An average driver can improve by learning from the data, yes, but the best drivers still have pure talent and rely on that for their speed. I still insist that my drivers draw a map of the circuit and walk the track to get a feel for it.

“The series is very competitive. Maybe some of the tactics need to be looked at – I mean, rubbing wheels and bodywork we do like, but deliberately crashing into each other, no, we don’t want that.” There are many, teams and fans alike, who will say amen to that.

For 2011 there will be a new rulebook, some of it designed, as in so many other formulae, to make the racing less expensive. But how far will the new rules change the character and excitement of this popular series?

“It’s really about cost containment,” affirms Bennetts. “We are talking NGTC – that’s New Generation Touring Cars – and we all agreed that we need to return to a control gearbox, a controlled standard suspension layout and 2-litre petrol turbocharged engines – no diesels allowed because of the performance differentials with all that torque. [Series boss] Alan Gow wants to have exclusively front-wheel-drive cars, but I don’t think that’s the right way to go. If we’re going to go one way or the other, I think we should all go rear-wheel drive.

“For 2011, there’s no reason why it won’t be as exciting as it is now, and we do need to attract manufacturers because the recession is making things difficult for everyone. Nothing is cast in stone, but we certainly have to make the series attractive to the major manufacturers.”

*

West Surrey Racing has always been, and will always remain, an ambitious and hungry race team alongside its core values of great engineering and perfect preparation. These days, however, survival is equally important, and Bennetts has typically practical and realistic horizons. Kiwis on the whole are not prone to being carried away on the crest of the next fashionable wave.

“These are difficult times for motor racing,” he says, “but we are still ambitious to design and build our own car. You could say we did that with the MG programme a few years back. The only MG in there was the badge on the front, otherwise it was a West Surrey car. Winning with the MG was perhaps my proudest moment, so yes, that’s an ambition for WSR, to design and build our own touring car. There’s so much pleasure in doing your own car from scratch, like the MG, and we definitely want to do that again. We considered building our own F3 car way back when Mike Cox was running West Surrey and I was engineering the cars. Mike was keen to do it but I was concerned about not only the costs but also the fact that we had an excellent relationship with Ron Tauranac as we’d always run Ralts.

“The Ralt was a very good car, simple but effective, and we always built our own cars up to make sure we got everything perfect. The finish on the factory cars wasn’t always perfect,” he smiles, warming to the subject. “But that was Ron – I mean, he always had a built-in design problem and we were good at finding the problem. That was fun. There were lots of rough edges and we got pretty sore hands smoothing out all the rougher bits… These days in F3 you go out and buy a Dallara and it’s perfect straight out of the box. That’s why I don’t want to go back there – all they do these days is spend loads of money on smaller gears, expensive bearings and lightweight oils. That’s not engineering, that’s just about who’s got the biggest budget.”

The great thing about West Surrey Racing, after four decades of winning titles, is that this is still a real motor racing team. No bullshit, a refreshing absence of swanky graphics and empty-headed public relations. This is simply because the man in charge has remained true to his roots, while those who work for him are imbued with the same principles of clever engineering, attention to detail and an unbending will to be first across the line. When you visit the workshops in Sunbury, on the edge of London, you’re not followed around by pretty girls who insist on recording whatever you might also be recording, not asked to provide a detailed list of topics in advance. No, you are shown around by Dick Bennetts, encouraged to share his passion for racing cars. It feels good.

The 2009 British Touring Car Championship is currently poised for a spectacular climax to another fiercely fought season. As I write Colin Turkington in the orange BMW leads Fabrizio Giovanardi in the red Vauxhall Vectra by just 11 points. By the time you read this, there will be one race to go, at Brands Hatch. It will be tight, very tight. Just the kind of battle that Mr Bennetts relishes, the kind of battle he knows how to win. Nothing less than perfection will do.

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