Why RML means business

From touring cars to paddock hospitality, Ray Mallock’s company is well established in the sport. But the boss still harbours Le Mans ambitions…

There’s sentiment in all of us, but in top-flight motor sport you’ll generally find more hard-headed realists than dopey romantics. Willem Toet is very much among the former, an over-achiever with a gilded résumé that includes stints as Ferrari, BAR and BMW Sauber’s aerodynamics chief. But surveying his largely unadorned office, even he seems surprised that he’s latterly found himself working on a trading estate in Wellingborough as the new managing director of Ray Mallock Ltd. “I’ve known Ray [right] for a long time,” he says, smiling quickly between bursts of fervent speech. “He gave me my first job in England. We met in Australia back in 1981 when he was racing a car belonging to the guy I worked for. We’ve been in touch ever since, generally discussing things. He would sometimes use me as a foil to bounce ideas off.

“In the meantime I’ve been running bigger groups of people and found that I enjoy it. I like the challenge of managing people. There’s real joy in finding someone with raw ability, watching him or her grow and then harnessing their strengths. Ray and I think very much alike. The business has to be viable for us to continue but winning races and championships is what it’s all about. We like winning, but it’s also about the people and getting the best out of them. I’ve only been here 10 days and it’s obvious that there’s no flash at RML but a hell of a lot of substance.”

Which is about as good a précis of this unpretentious, 130-strong concern as you will find. Comprising seven different companies, involved in everything from World Touring Car programmes to LMP2 bids, paddock hospitality to engine building, this resolutely British firm has proven itself on the global stage time and time again, but somehow its praises haven’t been sung quite as loudly as they ought to be. Wandering around the (first) shop floor, the breadth of RML’s activities is all too obvious. In one corner there’s a Lola B08/08-HPD being stripped down to its skivvies for a rebuild: the squad won its class at Le Mans in 2005-06. Behind it is a Nissan Micra with a V6 mounted amidships, a left-field reminder of the firm’s 20-year relationship with the Japanese marque. Next to it is an RML40, a GT40 clone built in small series during the early ’90s.

That’s just one corner. Moving swiftly on, there’s a factory-sanctioned, RML-built Mercedes SLR772GT from the recently axed ‘gentleman drivers’ one-make series. Partitioned off is a crumpled WTCC Chevy Cruze, much of the damage having been inflicted by the ‘safety’ crew at the Istanbul round, while emerging from the spray booth is a U2 Clubmans car, just to remind you of the genesis behind the firm: Mallock’s early progress was as much by nurture as nature. And this is just the opening salvo, a whistle-stop tour taking in standalone units for all manner of assorted programmes, a lot of them husher than hush. Visit many constructors or race teams and there’s little indication of a prudent central plan, or a grand design, but here you’re left wondering what don’t they do?

Brag for one thing. Ushered into the boss’ office, Ray Mallock is friendly if slightly surprised at the interest. He’s clearly not one to wear success on his sleeve. A driver of distinction in single-seaters and sports cars, he nonetheless didn’t quite scale the ultimate heights and recalls the tipping point where it was obvious his future lay outside the cockpit. “That would have been Le Mans in 1989 with the Aston Martin AMR1 project,” he smiles. “We’d formed a new company called Proteus Technology; Richard Williams was the MD while I was the engineering director. I was also a driver. My last serious race was that year’s 24 Hours. The pressure of dividing my roles was too much of a distraction. I had David Leslie on board, who was a great development driver. Any of the successes I ever had at the wheel were down to squeezing a bit more out of a car by engineering it properly. With someone like David I was able to carry on with the development side but from outside of the cockpit. As a driver I suppose I turned amateur.

“Of course I originally wanted to be a professional single-seater driver but I got a very good grounding in both the engineering and the business sides from my father [Major Arthur Mallock]. I started my career straight out of school. I was an apprentice at Aston Martin, then stayed on there full time.

“My father had been selling his U2s for a while and my brother Richard and I subsequently joined him. Dad had this scheme whereby each of us had our own area of the car. The U2, or Mallock, whatever you want to call it, was a popular machine and Arthur sold it as a kit of parts. I don’t know if it was a conscious thing but it worked out really well: I was responsible for wheels, gearboxes and exhaust systems, while Richard was in charge of chassis, nose cones and so on. When someone bought a kit they wrote out three cheques: one to me, one to Richard and one to Dad. We all had our own little business and it was great training for me as I had to look after stock control, do VAT returns, negotiate prices with suppliers and so on. That really stood me in good stead.

“Anyway, I left in 1979 to form Ray Mallock Atlantic Racing as a separate entity, although I was still based on the same site [in Roade, Northamptonshire], just in a different unit. I then started doing stuff for [Aston Martin entrant] Geoffrey Marsh, Hugh McCaig and David Duffield on their Atlantic car. A few years later Hugh reformed Ecurie Ecosse and that was the start of something else.”

But first came the decision not to chase the Formula 1 dream. Despite titles in Clubmans and Formula Atlantic, interspersed with a season in Aurora AFX F1 and a podium visit in F2, it was an end of ’81 disappointment that prompted the switch to sports cars. “Throughout the ’70s my focus had been on single-seaters. I won the Atlantic title in 1979 and the only reason I went back in ’81 was the FOCA Trophy prize, which Bernie Ecclestone had instigated. If you won the series you would get a proper F1 test. Well, I won the championship, but at the end of the season I was off to race in Macau, Australia and Malaysia. I phoned Bernie and told him I could pop back in between races. I was told that wouldn’t be necessary but when I did eventually return home I called him again. Bernie said there had just been a test at Paul Ricard with Brabham, which would have been perfect… Well, without going into too much detail I never got the test.

“That was the end of my journey as a serious single-seater driver, but it happened to coincide with Group C being launched. I’d heard Aston Martin was going back to Le Mans [via Robin Hamilton’s Nimrod Racing Automobiles concern] and I knew [sometime director] Michael Bowler at Aston and called him. He told me Viscount Downe was getting a car and Richard Williams was going to be his team manager. I knew Richard from a one-off drive at Le Mans in 1979, which he’d managed, and put myself forward.

“During all this time my father was backing me up; Arthur was instrumental in helping me. We out-performed the works car and were in third place behind the factory Porsches during the night in ’82, but then a valve dropped on the Sunday morning and we limped home in seventh place. That was still a great debut and the following year we pushed on with our own bodywork, one of our guys being a certain Willem Toet who’d come over from Oz. We got three times the downforce and about 10 per cent less drag. We went back to Le Mans in 1983 with the same chassis and engine, but with the new body, and lapped 11 seconds quicker than the year before. That was a phenomenal improvement and immensely satisfying. Unfortunately the Nimrod project finished in the worst way possible the following year with a horrible accident that sadly took the life of a marshal.”

Development of the Nimrod led to RML’s first genuinely in-house made car, built for the reanimated Ecurie Ecosse squad. “Well, not exactly,” counters Mallock. “The first Ecosse C2 car was drawn on the back of a fag packet. Hugh came to me with a de Cadenet chassis and asked if we could turn it into a Group C car. We took the Nimrod body mould profiles, cut ’n shut them, and ended up with a very effective and pretty little car. I’d started the business as it is now in 1984 and this really was the start of us as a constructor, as car builders. From there we did the Aston AMR1 but we never got to show what we were capable of as the rules changed to 3.5-litre cars rather than stock-block units and there wasn’t a cost-effective way of us continuing. That was hugely disappointing, but we regrouped and in 1990 we got the deal to run the factory Nissan Performance Technology cars at Le Mans; we were fighting for the win for much of it but the lead car was sidelined with a split fuel tank. And once Group C died we got involved in touring cars.”

Fast-forward to the present and with several BTCC titles already in the bag, and that first WTCC crown for Chevrolet a tantalising prospect, isn’t there ever the worry that RML might be spreading itself a bit thin? Silence. Mallock’s ambitions clearly have more appetite than many of his rivals. “I think we came into touring cars as outsiders,” he considers. “It was frustrating at first because we were up against unofficial homologation specials, things like the Alfa 155s where on the road car the spoiler and the spacers were in the boot. But we started our relationship with General Motors in 1992, and it’s been a long and fruitful one. We had the Vauxhall programme, supplied Opel customers from 1995, built the S2000 Corsa rally cars. Not many motor sport companies enjoy that sort of long relationship with a manufacturer.

“Since then we’ve moved onto the Chevrolet Lacetti and now the Cruze, and the return to the BTCC coincided with our Mercedes SLR race series programme being abruptly canned. We cooked up the BTCC deal [for 2009] with Jason Plato in only a few weeks and came very close to winning the championship. Without wishing to sound big-headed, ours is one of the biggest teams in touring cars. But we are looking elsewhere and, far from spreading ourselves thin, it’s our ability to move between formulas that’s key to our success.

“We looked seriously at Formula 1, and were one of the companies on the FIA list for a 2010 entry. But that was at a time when Max Mosley was talking of a £30 million cap on budgets. If you came in under that figure you would have been allowed extra engine performance, extra revs, freedom on the aerodynamics. That’s what we were told initially. That made sense to us, and we talked to a number of potential investors who were seriously interested. It would have been perfect had it been properly policed. But of course the goalposts then started moving on an almost weekly basis, so we pulled out. But under the right circumstances we would definitely consider doing F1.

“We’ve also looked at doing a road car; it would be nice to have an RML project. Of course RML Automotive designed the Saleen S7, which we also raced successfully, but my memory of that car is tainted for reasons I won’t go into. We have since been involved in similar projects, some with major manufacturers, but obviously there are confidentiality agreements, so…”

And where does he see RML being in 10 years’ time? “Oh, that’s a hard one,” he ponders. “I hope we would have won more titles with Chevrolet. I’d also like us to win Le Mans outright. The 24 Hours is unfinished business. Most of all, I hope we can carry on with a fantastic team, all motivated and engaged on racing and doing what we do best. My main focus these days is ensuring the right team is in place with the right budget for winning titles and also looking at long-term business opportunities. It’s the guys on the shop floor and in the engineering department that make RML work.” Having someone who lifts the performance of everyone around him by leading the way must surely help, but then Mallock’s name is above the door after all. RML, it seems, is still in the throes of creation.