Lunch with... David Richards

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The multi-faceted motorsports tycoon discusses his rallying background, a laid-back management style, Aston Martin, helicopters and entry to F1
By Simon Taylor

You see David Richards everywhere. Go to just about any significant motor sporting event — the Le Mans 24 Hours, a distant grand prix, an overseas world championship rally, the Goodwood Festival of Speed — and there he is, smiling and relaxed, chatting easily with the Bernies and the Rons, looking like he has all the time in the world.

Yet this is a man who controls one of the largest, and most versatile, motorsports companies in the world. And an iconic supercar manufacturer. And a web of companies stretching from the USA to the Far East and Australia, responsible for the livelihoods of over 3000 people. At Le Mans he’s watching the Prodrive Aston Martin DBR9 sweep to victory in GT1. At a grand prix you know he’s wheeling and dealing, putting together the building blocks of Prodrive’s entry into F1. He’s on a far-flung rally special stage while the works Subaru rally team, which Prodrive has run for 18 seasons now, continues its renaissance. At Goodwood he ducks out of the Drivers’ Club for an hour on an unnamed errand, which turns out to be a quick trip to Chichester to check on the classic Sunbeam yacht he’s having built to satisfy a sudden yen for ocean racing. He never stops, yet he never seems busy. Clearly he has mastered the arts of management and delegation. 

“People say that I’m a good delegator, but I’m just lazy. I’m not very good at detail — I can do detail if I have to, and when we were preparing the Aston Martin transaction I did have to get right into the minutiae. But it’s not my skill-set. What matters is the structure you build, the strategy you put together, the goals you aim for. You should never try to manage too many people, because you won’t do it well enough. So I have just 10 people reporting directly to me.”

David’s choice of restaurant is smart yet relaxed, too: the Enterprise in London’s Walton Street, an elegantly converted corner pub. He arrives promptly, on foot under an umbrella against the rain. He’s walked from a nearby board meeting for ISC, another of his companies, which owns the TV rights to the World Rally Championship. He greets the staff like old friends — wherever you go, David always seems to have friends — and orders no-nonsense sausage and mash with a glass of Shiraz.

*

He has houses in Warwickshire, Knightsbridge and Cornwall. So if he’s lazy, what’s his normal working day? “I’m usually in my study by 5am, reading paperwork, reacting to correspondence, dictating e-mails, catching up on stuff. This morning it was 4.30am. I like absolute silence: I’m slightly dyslexic, and have real concentration problems if there’s any noise.

“My secretary actually lives in Scotland. I dictate e-mails to her digitally, and she does all my filing on computer. That’ll be winging round so that when the girls get into the office they can sort what comes from that. By 7am Karen, my wife, wanders in with a cup of tea. Then it’s off in the Vanquish to Prodrive (beside the M40 at Banbury) or Gaydon (where Aston Martin is), or to my office in London, or to meetings somewhere else. Much of my day consists of meetings. I get five or six hours’ sleep every night. I can operate on that all week, but by Friday I’m ready for the weekend. Then I’ll be at race meetings or rallies somewhere, but I’m not directly hands-on with any of that these days, so I try to get two nights of eight hours’ sleep, and then I’m bushy-tailed for the new Monday.

“I couldn’t do it without my helicopter. I love flying, helicopter and fixed wing. I keep a Learjet 45 at Coventry Airport; that gets me to the Middle East, or to the States with one stop. But I just love flying my Eurocopter. On my birthday recently I was at the Acropolis Rally, so I had breakfast in Greece. But the Astons were testing the same day at Le Mans, so we flew there and had lunch in France. We called in at home in Warwickshire and had tea with the kids, and then flew on up to Scotland and had dinner with some friends on the Ecosse Tour.”

*

This highly-charged existence is a long way from the forests of North Wales, where David’s love affair with cars and motorsport began. The RAC Rally used to come through Clocaenog Forest above his home. “When I was 13 I would herd my three younger brothers into the forest as far as the nearest corner, and we’d watch every car come through, from the first to the last. When I was old enough I borrowed my mother’s car to do some club rallies myself, but I put it backwards through a hedge.” So he tried co-driving, and found he was very good at it, winning the 1975 Autosport Championship partnering Tony Drummond. When his accountancy articles were done he turned professional, co-driving with the likes of Andy Dawson and Tony Pond, and by 1977 he was tackling the European Championship with Billy Coleman in a Lancia Stratos. Then came three years for Ford with Ari Vatanen, which culminated in winning the 1981 World Championship. 

“A co-driver needs a very specific set of skills. First, you have to give up all responsibility for getting the car around the next corner. That’s the driver’s problem. You just have to feed him the information he needs to do it, and have faith that he’ll fulfil his side while you fulfil yours. You have to be extraordinarily calm, obviously, and you have to be a good organiser. But primarily your job is to cut the driver off from all problems so he can concentrate on driving as fast as he can. You’re the bridge between the driver and the outside world: you deal with the team and the organisers to make sure everything happens. You have to be a psychologist as well, sense what your driver is thinking, know when to push him and when not to, when to give a bollocking and when not to. Today it’s called having emotional intelligence. Lots of good lessons there for later life.

“It’s ironic that the runner-up to us in that 1981 World Championship was the Talbot of Guy Frequelin — and sitting alongside him was one Jean Todt. Now Jean’s running Ferrari, so he’s put the lessons of co-driving to good use.

“When Ari and I were rallying it was a pretty tough relationship. We were both young, both under pressure, both pushing, and not always in the same direction. He is an extraordinary man. He came from a very religious background, a little Finnish farming community near the Russian border, and when he was a young boy he was in a car crash, and he saw his father die. He got to be World Champion, then he nearly died in that terrible accident in Argentina in 1985. He went through the most horrifying health and psychological problems, and came back to win the Paris-Dakar three times. He has huge strength of character. Now he’s a Euro MP, and he’s one of my closest friends.”

*

David retired from rallying in 1982, and Prodrive was born in some outbuildings behind his house near Bicester. In its early days it consisted of 14 people. “Half of them still work with us, and the other half are still friends. David Lapworth joined in 1984 from Peugeot Talbot, and today he’s Technical Director. I’m the amateur engineer, he’s the real one. He has this lovely ability to crystallise complex situations into simple solutions.”

Then came premises at Silverstone, before a dedicated site was developed beside the M40 outside Banbury. From then on, the company’s growth was prodigious. There had been rally programmes for Porsche and for MG with the Metro 6R4, but in 1990 Prodrive began a relationship with Subaru that produced a string of World Rally Championship titles, and continues to this day. In circuit racing there were touring car programmes for BMW, Alfa Romeo, Honda and Ford, and in GT racing the Ferrari 550GT project taught lessons which bore fruit in the development of the Aston Martin DBR9.

David’s close relationship with Subaru’s rally sponsor, British American Tobacco, led to his first taste of Formula 1. “BAT asked me what I thought was the preferred route for them to enter F1. I told them they should buy an existing team, and I thought Benetton was the right one to buy. But Benetton were not keen to sell at the time, and in the end BAT went for a greenfield start-up, and set up BAR around Jacques Villeneuve and his manager Craig Pollock.

“Then I had a call from Bernie Ecclestone, who said, ‘I know the Benetton thing didn’t turn out the way you thought, but you should fly down to Treviso and have a chat with them, because they want you to run the team.’ There’d been a parting of the ways between the Benetton family and Flavio Briatore. So I spent 1998 doing Formula 1 with Benetton.

“It was a transition period for them. Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn had gone to Ferrari, and they weren’t sure whether they wanted to sell the team or retain it. I told them they had one of two choices. In most things in life, I find, there are usually only two choices. One route was for them to invest sensibly in the team, get it working and go forward. The other was to sell. I didn’t think there were any options in between. I put together a plan for both routes, but they didn’t accept my view and wanted to carry on as they were. If you have a key difference of opinion with the management of a company, you should leave. So I did — and within a couple of years they sold the team to Renault.”

*

That Benetton season hadn’t been easy, but it taught David a lot about the ways of Formula 1. Meanwhile BAR’S first three seasons were almost laughably unsuccessful. BAT not only had a very poor return for its investment; it also had costs which were out of control. Towards the end of 2001 the company asked David to take over, and he found himself back in F1 for the 2002 season. 

“We went in and gave ourselves 90 days to appraise everything. We put together a five-year plan, and we were set three very clear objectives by BAT. First, they wanted us to stop the business haemorrhaging money. They’d never had a stable budget, and they were constantly being asked to invest more. Second, they wanted some results in return for that investment. And third, with tobacco advertising now doomed, they wanted to sell the business.

“I took in a team of people from Prodrive, kept some people who were already there, got rid of others. Formula 1 is a war, with battles and armies. It’s as close as you can get in modern times to the mediaeval concept of going off on the Crusades. You lock yourself down, you focus on the task, and you don’t see the outside world from March to November. In a situation like that, leadership is critical. The team around you have to believe in you. In the First World War, when somebody said ‘We’re going over the top’ they had to believe in him, they had to do it. That’s what happens in F1. I’m not suggesting it’s not scientific and it’s not technical, but it’s still about leadership. You have to mould some extremely clever and ultra-competitive people into one cohesive unit with one goal, and point them in the right direction. 

“I suppose we were our own worst enemy at BAR, because we delivered on the five-year plan in three years. We came up with a capped annual budget very quickly, and we stuck to it. In the third season we had 11 podiums in 18 races, we finished second to Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship… and the team was successfully sold to Honda. I firmly believe to this day that if we’d been given a free hand to carry on those two extra years, we could have been in the frame to progress even further. I’d have preferred to say to Honda, buy the business and let us finish the job for you. But they bought the team; they had the right to do what they wanted with it.” 

It was said at the time that Honda’s top management viewed Richards as too much of a maverick, and that he wouldn’t have fitted in with their corporate culture. “That may have been true, but you do question why certain cultures succeed in Formula 1 and others don’t. Toyota are world leaders in road car production, yet they’ve found F1 hard. I admire the Japanese culture enormously: it’s succeeded so well in so many commercial arenas. But in a fast-moving environment, where you have to think on your feet, you can’t have consensus management. It doesn’t work. You have to have total accountability. Collective accountability works well in a lot of businesses, but not in motor racing. The culture we happen to be born into will make an enormous difference to our attitudes to life, and that’s why the British are so fantastic at motor sport. They have the ingenuity, the creativity, the adaptability that wins.”

*

David had his share of driver problems at BAR. He inherited Jacques Villeneuve, who became increasingly disillusioned and quit before the final race of 2003. “It was a very testing relationship with Jacques, and it was a source of regret to me that I could never bridge that gap and resolve it. He’s voiced very openly a tainted opinion of me, but he never allowed me the opportunity to prove otherwise. I have no problem with how a driver behaves if at the same time he respects the people around him, and delivers the goods. You can always work with people who deliver.”

Meanwhile Jenson Button had a magnificent 2004, scoring points in 16 of the 18 rounds, including 10 podiums. He finished third in the World Drivers’ Championship behind Ferrari-borne Schumacher and Barrichello. But in August his manager announced that he would be leaving BAR for Williams. No doubt they underestimated the toughness with which Richards, convinced that Button was still under contract, would fight to keep him. The affair that became known as `Buttongate’ was eventually resolved in Richards’ favour by the Contracts Recognition Board. Today, three seasons later, Button is still driving for Honda.

“I was personally disappointed by what happened with Jenson. It’s very difficult for young drivers working their way into F1. They need people around them to advise them, but he was getting bad advice. Clearly I hadn’t allowed him to build up enough confidence in me, but sometimes in life you have to stand up for things. The guys had put their life and soul into getting him the results he’d had that season. It’s about the interests of the team itself, and on those occasions it’s your job to defend your people.”

When Richards left BAR he was asked when he’d be back in F1. He stoutly maintained he wouldn’t, and was quoted as saying: “To have your own F1 team you need either to be a major car manufacturer or a crazed multi-billionaire, and I am neither.” And now David is setting up Prodrive F1, which will operate with customer chassis and engines and is due on the grid for the 2008 Australian GP in seventh months’ time.

“I couldn’t be doing it without a significant change in the F1 rules, which opened the door to customer cars. From 2008 you don’t have to own the intellectual property: you can buy cars from another team, and access all their technology and manufacturing. It changes the business model. This has to be right — not just for us, but also for the sport, for the audience. It will give more entry points into F1, allow more Lewis Hamiltons to come through.

“We have an agreement with a partner team in place” — widely assumed to be McLaren — “but it’s not a signed contract yet. We’ve still got some of the financial details to fill in. One of three companies we’re talking to will be the team title sponsor, and as for the drivers I’ve got one certainty in my mind, the other I’m not sure. It’s all coming together.”

*

At a time when F1 team sizes have grown to dizzy heights, with some of the smaller teams employing over 400 people and Ferrari running on nearly 1000, David’s Prodrive team will be astonishingly small. “We’ll run it with 64 people. That’s the only way the business model works. It’ll be far easier to establish a small team and have a bond with everybody, like things used to be in the early days of Lotus, or Williams, or March.

“Setting up Prodrive in F1 hasn’t been a personal decision, it’s been a business decision. People misunderstand me and think I’m not a motor racing enthusiast, dismiss me as an opportunist. That’s not the case at all. I am a passionate enthusiast. But I know that, above everything else, if it doesn’t work commercially it doesn’t work at all. If you win a race on Sunday and you run out of money on Monday, you’re not racing any more. I put commercial expediency above all else. It’s a discipline we’ve enshrined into our organisation from the word go. That’s why, after 24 years, we’re still here.

“Motor racing, and I suppose sport generally, has a lot of big egos. It has to. Anyone who believes they can be No 1 in the world at anything has to be single-minded and focused, and may well be dismissive of those who work to support them. But for me there are three elements to a great driver. The first, obviously, is innate talent. The second is the ability and the desire to work very hard. And the third is the capacity to build a team around you. When you combine all three — which is rare — you become exceptional. Michael Schumacher had all three.

“Have I got a big ego? Of course I have. I try to hide it but I can’t get away from it. It takes the form of wanting to be a winner, not a loser. A lot of my drive comes from the fear of losing. The sports psychology books tell you that the real tipping point is getting the balance right between the fear of failure, where you play safe, and the confidence to push for success, where you take risks.

“But I never wanted to call Prodrive something like David Richards Ltd. Personality cults have no place in corporate organisations. If a company is just about an individual, it will be limited by the capabilities of that individual, and it’s very hard to evolve and move on to the next stage. It’s impossible for someone to grow a business by thinking he can do it all himself. I’ve always had a far broader view of how I wanted the business and its culture to evolve.”

*

People working at Prodrive have said there’s a palpable difference in atmosphere in the place between when Richards is there and when he is not. “If that’s true, then I clearly haven’t delegated well enough, or explained things to people well enough. It’s a skill I will keep learning better and better. The only thing you can do is become better at handing over responsibilities, better at giving people the freedom to develop themselves. With the F1 team I won’t be sitting on the pit-wall. I won’t even go to all the grands prix. I’d seek to avoid that. If you’ve got the right team in place, I just don’t see that it would be necessary for me to be there all the time.”

Yet F1 teams, I point out, seem to operate best with one charismatic leader — McLaren’s Ron Dennis, Williams’ Frank, Renault’s Flav. I admit that Ferrari is perhaps the exception. “Then your argument is defeated. Look at the way Luca de Montezemolo runs Ferrari. Why can’t that be the model for our own team?

“But I do think the top people in F1 are just extraordinary. Look what Bernie’s achieved with the whole circus. What an extraordinary politician Max Mosley is. How Ron has built that empire from nothing. Look at Flavio’s skills in selling and showmanship. Look at Frank and the problems he’s overcome.”

Last year Ford let it be known that it would consider selling its entire Aston Martin operation. Richards saw this as another opportunity. Having raised £479 million from Kuwaiti and American investors, his consortium completed the deal in March of this year. Ulrich Bez, Aston’s CEO since 2000, continues in the role. David is chairman: so did he invest any of his own money?

“We agreed not to divulge the details of how the deal was structured, but suffice it to say I have a significant shareholding in the business. My job is to ensure that the shareholders are well-informed, Uli gets the support and investment he needs, and we present a united face to the world. Provided the profits are there, the other directors should be happy to let Uli and me get on with it. Aston Martin is a strong brand, and in the future we will move on from just building cars and develop other ideas. It’s still evolving, and I don’t want to give you my personal view until we’ve got the consensus of the board, but let’s make an analogy with the Virgin brand. When I was a teenager I bought records from Richard Branson’s retail stores. A decade later I was buying air tickets from him. Now, if I want to, I can buy a pension fund from him. If you stand for something that’s sound and sensible, people will extend their loyalty to you.

“We couldn’t do that with Prodrive, because it’s not a public brand. It’s a business-to-business company, working with Subaru, Ford (we run their touring car team in Australia), Mazda. We have a Toyota factory in Australia, too. We can walk into the boardroom of most car companies around the world and they will know us: we’ve worked for many of them, and I hope we’ll work for a lot more in the future. But I doubt if anyone in this restaurant has heard of Prodrive. The intention is that Prodrive F1 should change that.”

In all the deals over the past 20 years or more, which are the ones that with 20/20 hindsight he would rather not have done? David’s answer is typically unspecific and good-humoured: “You know, I’m very fortunate in my ability to forget quickly. When anything has gone wrong, I can honestly say I’ve taken more out of it in experience gained than I’ve lost. In everything, I’m a total optimist. I only remember the sunny days.”

*

With that, David Richards takes his umbrella and goes out into the torrential July rain looking, as always, like a man at ease with himself and his frenetic world. His laid-back style of management is rare in the autocratic milieux of motor sport, but in rallying, in touring cars, in GT racing, in production car development, it has succeeded. Now his F1 deal has to be finalised. The modern era’s first customer team will add another facet to the sport, and another strand to his complex life. He’s confident it will bring more sunny days, and few forgettable wet ones.

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