Dick Bennetts: Royal Automobile Club Talk Show


Dick Bennetts, the founder and boss of West Surrey Racing, first came to the UK from New Zealand in 1972 and has worked with Ron Dennis, Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, Mauricio Gugelmin, Mika Häkkinen and Rubens Barrichello.

In 1996 WSR moved from the world of Formula 3 and entered the British Touring Car Championship where it has won 69 races and finished on the podium 231 times. 

We hope you enjoy the hour-long recording. As always, huge thanks to Alan Hyde for the audio and video. 

To download the podcast visit our Soundcloud page here

Full transcript

Ed Foster: Welcome to another Royal Automobile Club Talk Show in association with Motor Sport. I’m Ed Foster and I’m the online editor of Motor Sport Magazine and I’m joined by a very special guest, Dick Bennetts.

Before we get going I’m going to give a little bit of background about how you got to where you are now because you’ve done so much and we’ve got a lot to cover today.

Dick Bennetts is the founder and boss of West Surrey Racing which currently competes in the British Touring Car Championship and the other weekend the team sealed the team’s and manufacture’s championships and its driver, Sam Tordoff, narrowly missed out on the driver’s title to Gordon Shedden. Dick was the man who guided Ayrton Senna to his Formula 3 championship having arrived from New Zealand in 1972, by which time he’d already secured two titles in Formula Pacific with Keke Rosberg. He was then picked up by Ron Dennis to engineer Lauda’s 1979 Procar title. He also engineered Stefan Johansson to the F3 title in 1980 and in ’81 he launched West Surrey Racing as a British F3 race team. Over the next ten years he mentored the likes of Jonathan Palmer, the aforementioned Senna, Mika Häkkinen and Rubens Barrichello.

In ’96 he went to the BTCC and ran the works Mondeos, and since then has finished on the podium 231 times and won 69 races with Ford, Honda, MG and BMW machinery.

I have some stats here: 35 years since it was founded, 20 years in the BTCC. You have a World Touring Car Championship win, 56 British F3 wins, which was a record at the time you left in 1995…

Dick Bennetts: Yes, we were then overtaken by Carlin.

EF: We won’t talk about that

Five British F3 titles and two Macau GP victories. What a CV. I’d love to start back at the beginning, you came over from New Zealand but you were heavily involved in motorsport. How did the bug first bite?

DB: My first job in a motor engineering company. I got interested in cars, fast cars, so I did a lot of fiddling with the engines and that led me into a move to Auckland from Dunedin. I had the opportunity to come to England with David Oxton who was our New Zealand Formula Ford Champion.

I’d only been in Auckland for two years so I felt bad leaving the company who assisted me to work there, but I felt these places and names I’d read about I could go and visit. I left my job at Performance Developments, said “I’d be back in two years” and I haven’t gone back! [Laughs]

David won the NZ FF festival which was a trip to compete in the World Cup at Brands Hatch in ’72 so that’s bought me to the UK.

EF: NZ has such a strong history in motorsport. What is it about NZ that turns out so many great engineers and drivers? Back then there were loads of people coming from there?

DB: There’s two things in NZ: motor sport and rugby. A bit of yachting as well but I don’t take much interest in that. Motor sport is very strong considering it’s a country of four and a quarter million people. They now have eight or nine permanent racetracks, and its spread from the top to the bottom of the country, so there’s always something going on in motor sport. The main time in January when there used to be the Tasman Series. Now they have the TRS series so it’s great for young guys from Europe and the UK while it’s the middle of winter here to do some testing and racing. It’s five weeks, five races so it’s a busy five weeks but it’s great for young lads to get some testing and racing during the winter.

EF: Slightly off topic, have you see the relaunch of Formula 5000?

DB: I get the email updates from Chris Herbert and I know Kenny Smith very well who is still, as of Jan this year, I saw him race at Hampton Downs. He’s 73 now, had a triple heart bypass probably 8-10 years ago and he is still doing lap record times in a Formula 5000. Incredible.

EF: Well there’s hope for me yet then!

I mentioned in the introduction that you arrived and joined up with Ron Dennis and helped Nicki Lauda

DB: Initially I worked for a race engine shop in Twickenham: Race Engine Services. They gave me my first proper job in the UK. I enjoyed it there, then I’d done quite a bit of race engine work in NZ so I was looking for another avenue to expand my career, so I had a friend working at March Engineering, Formula 2, so I got a job there and worked my way up. I got into F2 and that’s when I worked for Fred Opert Racing for two seasons, that’s when we ran Keke in F2 and NZ Formula Pacific series, along with Bobby Rahal and several other names.

Then I got offered a job with Ron. As much as I loved Fred – he passed away earlier this year – he was landing me with two much work. He knew I could do with the money when we travelled around Europe, so I was left with doing the accounting, engine building, then I was engineer on the F2 car but eventually I thought “this is too much”. I was never at home, so I joined Ron in ’78.

EF: What did you learn from Ron? What did he learn from you?

DB: The first year was F2, I looked after Eddie Cheever’s car. The next year we were tasked with building 25 of the BMW M1 Procars. Myself and two other Kiwis and one English guy built those 25 cars in record time. We worked stupid hours. Ron said “one more to build” I thought “no, we’ve had enough!” 18 hour days, ok we were young then but…

So we built one more and he said “were going to run it ourselves and you’ll be very surprised when you know the driver.” We finished the car at 4am, had to get to Silverstone at 9am, loaded it up on the F3 transporter and I said to Ron “maybe the tail lift isn’t man enough for the job”. 4:15am the tail lift burst. So I had the pleasure of calling Ron at 4:15am to tell him our conversation two weeks earlier was true! [Laughs]

We fixed it, we went home, had a shower, got to Silverstone and then a helicopter comes in and out hops Niki Lauda. We ran Niki all year and won the championship.

EF: What was he like to work with? Was he as professional and dedicated as everyone alludes to?

DB: The only way I can compare him is the following year we ran Hans Stuck for half a season, and both years we ran in the Monaco GP support race and chalk and cheese driver attitude out of the car, in the car. Hans was a fun guy, great to work with, always looked after you, took you out for a beer. Niki was very professional, very determined, so they were both fantastic drivers but chalk and cheese the way they treated the racing.

EF: It interesting the way that Niki was focused on the Procar when really he had other things to think about.

DB: Yes he still raced in F1. Ron had done a deal to get him through Phillip Morris and he was very precise with his feedback: “we need this, we need that” but you weren’t allowed to change much on those cars so you could only do it in the parameters of the rules. So we got the car in the best we could. The following year with Stuck we learnt that other teams were possibly going just beyond the rule books so we struggled a bit. Out sponsorship ran out so Ron switched me to look after his F3 team.

EF: Was Ron easier to work for?  Is he fundamentally the same person now, despite all the McLaren success?

DB: I never had a problem with him. I heard these rumours that he was difficult to work with but I never had an issue because I was focused on my work, I wanted to go motor racing and do the best I could. A lot of people criticise him for being too fussy but on presentation and all that I’m fussy as well, so we fitted in well.

Also in 1908 when I took over the F3 team he was focussing on setting up the F1 team so he let us get on with it, the only queries came when I suggested to him that maybe a Ralt, because he had a deal with March, the 803 was not as good as the 793 which had won the championship. I said “you need to look at this Ralt because this Kiwi guy Rob Wilson and it doesn’t look like they’ve got a very good budget and they’re doing well.” So we went down to the Ralt factory near Woking and the two Ron’s – Tauranac and Dennis – went in Ron’s plus office: the portacabin, and came out he said “you’ve got yourself a Ralt, what you wanted” and I said “I didn’t want one, I just suggested it!” [Laughs] We got this Ralt F3 car to be honest we couldn’t get it to go any quicker than the March. We were down at Goodwood two days a week back-to-backing with the March and one day we got fed up of tinkering around the edges. We had Stefan Johansson driving, we made massive changes and suddenly we were on the right track. Each time you go back to the workshop Ron would say: “yes? Are we racing?” and we’d say “we need another test or two” it was costing them quite a lot of money!

Once we understood how this full ground effects car worked we put the March on a corner and we were third in the championship, 37 points behind, 9 points for a win.it was Kenny Acheson, Roberto Guerrerro and us with Stefan. Ron said “can you win the championship?” I said “there’s four races left, we’re 37 points behind – give us a chance.” First race we were on pole and won the race with fastest lap. Tick it in the box. Second race we won and I think got fastest lap, so more points, 10 points. It came to the crunch where we won the championship which we in no way expected, so that helped Ron with his negotiations with Phillip Morris, we were very happy, Stefan was very happy, Ron Tauranac was very happy because his new Ralt had won a prestigious championship.

EF: I have to say I’ve only met Ron a couple of times and both times I’ve been very pleasantly surprised because you hear the stories. I sat next to him at the Moros Sport hall of dam this year, and after a few glasses of wine I thought it was a good idea to tell him I’d made a £10 bet against McLaren finishing on the podium this year in formula 1. To give him credit there was silence for a bit and he turned and said “I’ll make that £1000” which in hindsight I should have taken!

You mentioned Stefan there, he was a very special driver wasn’t he?

DB: Yes, we got on great together because when they were struggling with the March Stefan came to me: “what do you think?” Well I’ve never worked on an F3, it’s a baby F2 car, so I had a look at it and I kept saying to the guys on the car “what’s different to the ’79 car that won the championship?” and they said “the back end is totally the same.”

“What about the front?”

“March have come out with a pressed steel front bulkhead and the ’79 car had a beautifully expensive machined aluminium front bulkhead.

So I thought “It’s got to be that”. We made up a big power bar I call it and bolted on the front of the chassis, did it on both chassis and the front bulkhead on the 803 was flexing. I then said to Stefan “what happens when you hit the brakes?” he said “they’re spongey compared to the 793.”

I said to Ron “why don’t we race the 793?” Common logic. It’s a better car.

“Were not allowed to”

“But it’s your car?”

“No it belongs to March”

I didn’t know March had given him a car so we had to race the 803, but we found the problem that the front bulkhead was flexing and the wishbone pickups came off that as well, so it was all moving around. We switched to the Ralt and that was it I think. Ron Tauranac sold 71 or 72 RT3’s after that. I didn’t get a commission from him! [Laughs]

EF: It might be a bit late now!

DB I’m going to see him in Sydney in November, he’s now 91, 92, so I’m going to visit him in Sydney.

EF: Having won the championship with Stefan you set up West Surrey Racing. What was the thinking behind that?

DB: It was almost perfect timing, RD asked me to be the F1 test team manager to keep an eye on the development. I just had a blanket thing I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to be involved in F1 because I shared a flat with four guys in F1, from Bruce McLaren F1, from Brabham and all I’d hear every night is whinge and moan and I thought “what do I want to do F1 for? All my flatmates do is complain! They have a few laughs with trips to America” but in my mind I didn’t want to do F1.

I was leaving Ron and he kept saying “come on, do this”

I said “I don’t want to do it.”

“What are you doing to do?”

“I don’t know. I might go home.”

So it was my task to sell Stefan’s F3 car, so this chap Mike Cox who owned West Surrey Engineering came along with this young lad Jonathan Palmer who were interested in buying the championship winning car. We took them to Goodwood, Stefan did 20 or 30 laps, Jonathan jumped in and straight away was as quick. They bought the car but typical F3 team moving up, does it have the good engine, good bodywork etc. Ron’s doing F1 he just wants to get rid of everything, and trust me I’ve looked after this car everything is as it was when we won the championship. They took it to Goodwood, I ran the car for Jonathan for the day, he went even quicker than he’d been. I thought “this guy’s good” two weeks later I get a phone call “we’ve lost half to three quarters of a second at Goodwood, we don’t know why”

I said “what have you done?”

They said “it was a bit stiff so we’ve softened it”

I said “you don’t soften it. It’s a ground effect car. You need the tunnels, the skirts, to work.” So I re-set it up for them again, gave them a little do or don’t list but they rang up “we’ve lost our way again”

I said to the chap who bought the car for Jonathan “you’re wasting your money unless you run this properly. It’s not a formula Ford.” They’d been running FF1600. I said “It’s got full aero”

He said “what are you doing?”

I said “I don’t know, I’m committed to going home to NZ to help the guy I originally came with” because he had a Formula Pacific car, an old Chevron, and my idea was to help him But I said “I’m not coming back to help you unless you get a Ralt RT4” the big brother of the RT3,

He rang me, said “I’ve just bought a car, only run four races, you’re coming home to help me.”

In between my mind was thinking “ill set up this F3 team with Mike Cox and Jonathan” so I agreed with them I would do it, but they wouldn’t see me till the middle of February, I’m not letting my best mate down. I went home to NZ, we won the NZ championship with the Ralt, came back and there was no mobiles, no iPhones in those days, you couldn’t set up a team by text or email. Faxes, phone calls, so I gave them a list of what we needed to set up a team, a garage a transport, another mechanic, I came back middle of February to a tiny little lock up garage, a ford transport that would just fit the car and would do 47 mph. I said to this chap “this isn’t quite what Id envisioned” [laughs] But the end of the day I knew the car well, Jonathan had impressed me and we went out and won the championship.

EF: You must have thought it was all quite easy at that stage?

DB: This is a doddle! The next year we ran a chap, Enrique Mansilla, an Argentinian, and we finished second once we’d got him to understand oversteer and understeer in a ground effects car. He’d jumped from Formula Ford as well so he found it quite a jump, whereas Senna had jumped Formula Ford, Formula Ford 2000 then F3, so he did the correct stepping stone. It was through running Mansilla that we got Ayrton because Ayrton’s view was that in FF1600 he didn’t rate Mansilla. He said “if you’ve got him to finish second in the championship you must have a good car.” That’s a bit unfair on poor old Enrique! Eddie Jordan was trying to get Ayrton through a different manner, through commercial stuff, I didn’t even think about that sort of thing.

EF: Even by that stage, before he drove an F3 car he was a hot property?

DB: Oh yes, he’d won FF1600, went through a divorce, he wanted to focus on motorsport, he did FF2000, won the championship so everyone was after him but through one of his friends they contacted me, because I’m not the sort of person who goes around pushy and chasing. We had a meeting, discussed it, did a quick test at Snetterton, half a day, straight out the box I thought “this guy’s good”. Feedback was fantastic, lap times were consistent, so we agreed to do the non-championship race at the end of ’82 and he blitzed everyone: pole position, fastest lap and won the race by 13 seconds or something. We shook hands, he said “I’m off back to Brazil, I’ll see you next year.” I thought… alright! He took off home, we had a few phone calls and he arrived back early March, he stayed away a long time.

As normal we bought a new car every year and he said “the other car was good. It was great.”

I said “yes but it’s a year old, we want the latest.”

“But I won the race with that car.”

I said “you’ll win lots of races with this car.” I thought I could have saved myself a lot of money! We’d already sold the other car, which was another story: Gerhard Berger.

We went on and that’s when he won nine out of nine races which was a record then, or maybe still is.

EF: That was an absolutely fantastic season of F3 racing, obviously because it was Senna but with the competition with Brundle. What tipped it that suddenly Senna didn’t get the results and Brundle caught up?

DB: Debates still go on! [Laughs] I was the same engineer, Ayrton was the same driver, we strongly believe that EJ had pulled a swiftie and we had a deal going with an English engine tuner to build the Toyota Nova motor. Eddie took Martin’s engine back to Italy and had some update mod done to it and that’s Ayrton said “they’re quicker down the straight than us now” so we ended up running less rear wing to keep up on the straight but then Martin had the edge in the corners so it was cat and mouse. It wasn’t until we, for the final round, when the championship was coming to a head, that we sent our engine back to Nova motor and had it rebuilt and out it back in the car, went to Snetterton and it was just a different car. Much quicker, so I thought “bloody hell”. I kicked myself for putting us through that stress for those five or six races, but in those days you think “I’ve got a Toyota Nova motor, it’s a good engine” but you learn.

Also to make it even better for us and worse for Martin, Ralt had two modifications ready for the ’84 car and because I’d worked with Ron, helping him out with Ron Dennis, he said “you have first choice Dick: there’s a new underbody shape – venture, or new steering geometry for the front.”

I said to Ron, “what do you think? What would give the best”?

He said “go for the sidepods.”

I said “ok. Well take a pair” went to Snetterton with the new engine for the morning, we were at garage 36, Martin and Eddie were down at garage one, both timing each other with stopwatches, no electronic timing in those days! And already in the morning we were quicker, so I thought “ok, they’re not showing their full hand.”

I put the sidepods on just before the lunchbreak and Ayrton went out, came back after four or five laps and said “this is mega.”

I said “you haven’t gone quicker”

“I’m not even trying” he said. We had lunch, came back out, on old tyres, got the car running again, made a tiny adjustment to the front wing to suit the new sidepods, out he went on the new tyres and blitzed the time wed already done, so I thought “were looking good for Thruxton, all we’ve got to do is give him a reliable car” and that’s what we did. So engine and sidepods gave us that advantage,

EF: At the time you were not that new to F3 but you were quite new. Did you realise how good Senna was? From you talking there you obviously did.

DB: His focus just working with other drivers, his ability to recall a test day was incredible. No computers in those days, no data logging on the dash. He could keep it all up in his head, so that was very impressive.

He’d ring you two or three days after a test and say “I’ve been thinking about that test at Snetterton and maybe we should look at this because I don’t think we went down that road far enough” because sometimes you’d try an avenue, stop and go back. He was incredible like that, so the next test wed put it on a try it. He was very focused and he was a bad loser, he didn’t want to lose because when we started having the problems, accidents, I sat him down and say “look, you’re 36 points ahead, if we’re careful you can finish second and we will win the championship easy.”

“I don’t want to finish second.”

“Ok, so what do we do?” We had a few dramas, we went through two or three chassis, but at the end of the day it all came out the way I think it should have.

EF: You mentioned stopwatches there, and I’ve been told you still use stopwatches today and you’ll be seen wandering around the BTCC paddock with two stopwatches around your neck.

DB: Not since Knockhill this year, my good old stopwatch has gone missing, I’m very upset about it,

My little black stopwatches I had for years and years has disappeared. We’ve been through both of our transporters, my office and we cannot find it.

EF: So why did you still use them when there’s timing screen everywhere.

DB: That’s what happened at Silverstone this year which I brought up at the team meeting yesterday. The pit perch computers all went down and all the ones in the garage. So if you’ve got a good old handheld stopwatch you can time your car and record it, because we lost everything – the sectors, the overall laps. The whole system crashed. I also used it for the starts, the lights – red light to off, because the regulations are it mustn’t be under 1.6 seconds and occasionally they do so I go and flag it up then, it’s supposed to be 1.6 to five seconds. Five seconds is far too long to hold a car on the grid so I used that to make a note and see if there’s a pattern forming, if the same guy is doing the starts can you risk…

EF: Are you sure you should be saying all this? [Laughter} all these trade secrets!

DB: As it turned out yesterday in the teams meeting, they monitor the start. We monitor our three cars 0-100 km/h and TOCA do it as well because the chief scrutineer Mr Richies said “Rob Collard’s the fastest” but we’ve known it for years. Rob Collard has got some knack getting off the start line 0-100 km/h Colin Turkington, Any Prilaux, Sam Tordoff couldn’t beat him. Rob has come through the stock cars when he was young – four lap races. So its reaction time but he is fantastic off the start line.

So they penalised us because of one good starter.

EF: My father used to do a bit of historic racing and with the cars that he owned, more recently in the 90s he wasn’t really up at the front.  He had a Simca-Gordini: a 1948 grand prix car. On anything that wasn’t a twisty circuit he didn’t have the power to trouble anyone else. I always remember the starts he said “honestly when you’re starting mid-grid no one’s looking” so quite often he would go before the lights are out. He said “You can make up lots of places no one would ever get!”

DB: Well these days they do have startline marshals watching but there are only ever about four for 30 cars. It’s a tricky one, we got penalised two years ago, front row of the grid Nick Foster got a drive through penalty. He didn’t jump the start he just stopped a little over the line. If you are on the front row they have a person standing there and the guy was standing beyond the white line so Nick just moved up to the guy and of course he started so he got a drive though. He didn’t jump the start, he was18 inches over the line. But we’ve watched this year and seen a certain car over the line and nothing was done about it, and he’s a front running guy who could win the championship.

When we did A1GP they had cameras set up off the start line, linked into the lights so when the lights when they took photographs. You could easily say then “you’ve got photographic evidence. You’re good, you’re bad.”

EF: Why don’t more championships do that?

DB: I don’t know to be honest.

EF: We’ve got loads of reader’s questions. Going back to F3, who do you think was faster in an F3 car: Senna or Häkkinen?

DB: Oh dear that’s a tricky one. Technical feedback Ayrton would win. Pure, not aggressive, but pure raw talent I would say Mika. He could drive a car with three wheels on it and still get it going quick. His technical feedback in his early days was not that brilliant, but once you learnt to understand what he was explaining – again there was no data logging, there was a very basic dash system. These days it’s quite easy, you plug in your computer, you see all the data, you can see if you’ve got understeer, oversteer, what gear you were in in corners so it’s quite easy these days, easier than those days.

Mika was incredible with his pure, raw talent. Ayrton was more of a thinker, more tense than Mika as well. Both fantastic drivers, but slightly different way they approached it.

EF: Before I forget, Gerhard Berger you mentioned. There’s a story there?

DB: That was the Mansilla car. It has been bought and was, I forget the exact date, it must have been around the middle of February. We’d rebuilt it looking absolutely mint. It was paid for and bought for Gerhard by Helmuth Marko, so he paid us already, Gerhard arrived with his tow vehicle and an open trailer in the middle of winter and this car looked brand new, we’d rebuilt it, everything looked mint.

I wouldn’t let him take it away! And he got the hump with me! He said “but we’ve bought it”

I said “yes you have paid for it, well you haven’t but your boss Helmuth has, but we have pride in our work and if I let you put it on that open deck trailer to Austria and the snow and the salt on the roads it’ll be a mess.”

“We’ll clean it”

“No, you’re not taking it.”

EF: I can see why you got on so well with Ron now!

DB: He stays overnight, we got some tarpaulins, tie wraps, bungee cords and we wrapped the hole car up in any way we could to protect it and then I let him take it away, so he lost a day. We still spoke about it a couple of years ago, we had a laugh.

EF: You ran some of the best ever drivers in F3, you must have been delighted to be seen as a defacto team to run with in the 80s. Why did you leave F3?

DB: Another good question. I guess because we’d done it for some number of years and were always finishing in the top three in the championship. Myself and the team were getting bigger as a company and looking for a new challenge. I can blame or thank Paul Radisich for it, for moving into Super Touring. He opened the door for us with Ford Motor Company, that’s how we got into Super Touring. But we were straight in from running a production F3 Dallara car which is fantastic to buy out of the box it can be a winner, whereas when you had a Ralt or a Reynard you had to find the hidden little problem with it, so I lost a bit of interest because you could get a Dallara from Italy and within24 hours be on track and be a winner. So the challenge of engineering it had gone away a little bit. In Super Touring it was the opposite.

EF: What a fantastic era of BTCC, the Super Tourers. Did it feel like that when you were competing in it? As a fan it was a bit like the Group B Rally era in just how fantastic the cars were. I hate the word iconic but it was an iconic era. Did it feel like that or because you’d just arrived was it so different to F3?

DB: Halfway through ’96 I was about to give up and go back to F3. We were landed in the deep end because we weren’t going to build a car, we were just going to engage in running it and help develop it. Somewhere down the line between Ford and Reynard the deal didn’t come together to build the new cars. Reynard said its loo late a date so we were left with no cars. We then had to go to Germany to Shubel Engineering and get this Mondeo, two of them that had been running as 4wd and convert them to 2wd.That was all done by Schubel, they had a couple of English engineers there. We were up against time and every time we ran the car with all the power going through the front axel things were breaking, things were cracking. I thought “this is not the way I want to go racing” so I found it hard the first year and I seriously thought “what am I doing this for?” I’m not afraid of work but you’re supposed to enjoy what you’re doing, but none of us were enjoying at 3am looking at another crack in the chassis, how can we fix it? We are out testing in 48 hours. But we got our head around it, the ’97 car was built by Reynard, still had some issues because they’d never built a Super Tourer so we were helping them out with what we’d learnt.

’98 car again was built within the regulation. We were then learning the grey areas of Super Touring. It was a fantastic engineering exercise but the problem was the budgets were going through the roof. We thought in the final year we had a budget, or between the people who built the Honda and us running it was £5.5 million. We thought “this is a lot of money.” The team that won it [Ford Team Mondeo with Alain Menu] had a budget of £9.5 million and you can’t compete with that.

When Super Touring finished I got to know the guy who ran Nissan Motorsport and I said to him “can you tell me how much you spent when you won it the year before [’99 with Laurent Aiello]?”

He said “over £9 million” so we were shaking our heads saying “we can’t compete with this.”

It was a fantastic engineering formula but it had to finish.

EF: It was a victim of its own success.

DB: A British National Championship costing £10m. Drivers were loving it because they were getting paid £300-400,000 each! There were nine manufactures involved but it had to come to an end and it did, so there’s a couple of years where it went through a transition period.

EF: You’ve reached high levels of success in single-seaters and BTCC, which category do you look back on – of course you’re still involved in BTCC – which period do you look back on most fondly?

DB: F3 enjoyment-wise was great particularly with Mika in 1990. Phillip Morris Marlboro tasked us with going to Europe to do three races because they had internal budgetary debates going on “why are you giving this money to the UK when you’re not allowed to carry the word Marlboro?” We had to cover up.

So the chap in charge, Graham, said “we believe British F3 is a top championship and WSR is a top team” so they have us money to do three European rounds to see how we compared.

We did Imola, Hockenheim and were supposed to do one in France. We did Imola first, we had to switch from our Avon tyres to Michelins. We were only allowed ten tyres for the whole weekend so we used them very carefully, we worked out a strategy. We were against 42 cars, 40 of them were Dallaras. Mainly with Alfa engines. We arrived with a Mugen-Honda so we were the odd ones out. Mika and I and the other engineer drove round in our hire car, did a few laps, what sort of downforce, where do we start? We could compare it to Snetterton, Silverstone GP track. We got into qualifying, we qualified first only using one set of tyres. Then the Italians panicked because we were in P1. They were all running no downforce, but qualifying you don’t, you want to be quick round the corners. They all start cranking wing on because they saw our car. Schiattarella, I think it was, Mika panicked a bit, I said “don’t worry. They’re now using their second set of tyres in second qualifying, we are only going to go out. We are going to sit here, sit tight and we won’t use our second set, we’ll save them for Sunday’s race.”

We went out scrubbed them, came in and took them off. Sat there with no wheels on the car in the pit lane, we still had our spare pair left and he stayed P1 and right at the end of Q2 we got put to P2 on the grid. Ok we are on the front row, no problem. Sunday morning we put on our other pair of new tyres and we blitzed everyone in the warm up so they got even more panicky. If you work out the strategy we had a new set just scrubbed for the race, the Italians didn’t. And we put on our spare pair on the left or right side, I can’t remember and blitzed them in the warm up. They were shaking their head, “how can this team come to a new track, this Ralt car with a Honda engine – we’ve all got Dallara-Aflas!” So then they picked on us in scrutineering: your seatbets are not legal, your fire bottle is not legal. They had our car pulled apart for three or four hours and luckily the Italian Ralt agent was there and he came and helped us out with the translation. Eventually they conceded it was legal, they were just trying to find something.

We went into the race, Mika won it comfortably, but they kept on putting a red flag: Mika came round in the lead, red flag. I said to Mika “what’s the problem?” He said “It’s just a car spun, it shouldn’t be a red flag.”

“Okay, maybe come round in second place and they won’t red flag!”

Restart and he comes round leading and another red flag. I said “what’s happened this time?”

He said “there’s another car spun off.”

Third time lucky we got going and he won the race comfortably, so a tick in the box from Phillip Morris. We went to Hockenheim, Michael Schumacher, we’d never been there before. We had some advice from a team what gear ratios, they tucked us up big time. Gear ratios are miles out, we had to change gears, the car was far too stiff in the chicanes, had a misfire on the engine as well, so we were panicking. Friday night we were about P22 out of 28 cars.

Some German journalist came down “you British champions are supposed to be good.”

I said “we’re ok, we have a few problems to sort out.”  I was on the phone back to Neil in England because we couldn’t afford to have an engine guy there. We had a spare car there, the Leyton House car, we took every electrical component off it we could think of. Everything was changed, we’ve got to fix this misfire. We changed the springs, dampers, ratios, went out on Saturday morning with old tyres, he came round thumbs up, misfire fixed, Schumacher is sitting there arms folded because he is on pole but second qualifying still has about 20 mins to go.

Mika said “it’s much better over the chicanes, gearing is better, give me the new tyres” bang, pole. Schumacher then went out and couldn’t get near us.

We won the race again, the Marlboro man was there again, he said I want you to come across the start line before Schumacher comes out the stadium.” I said “tall order Graham but we’ll do our best” and Mika did it, we crossed the line about five seconds ahead of Schumacher,

We won that one, so this was winning the internal Phillip Morris battle about budgets and then, I think it was Magny-Cours but Phillip Morris said “you’ve proved enough” and that was it so we were very happy with F3. That was a good, fun exercise.

The Touring Cars are more challenging engineering-wise because you have to do a lot more, now we are into designing and building our own cars. I live the technical challenge there, even though the rules are much tighter than those with Super Touring there

EF: So there’s still scope for innovation?

DB: Not as much but you can play with certain areas. I enjoyed F3 in that sort of circumstance, I enjoyed going to Macau with Senna in ’83, we beat everyone else. That was a very happy late Sunday night finishing.

EF: You also did the World Touring Car Championship. Am I right in thinking it took the championship three rounds before they changed the regulations about it being an independent team. I’ve been given a heads up here that I should ask you about a blue dot disappearing from a timing screen.

DB: Brno. We did Portimao, we struggled a bit there, it was incredibly hot, it was 40C. I’d never been to the track, very challenging technical track, we struggled, and qualified tenth or something not where we should be.

Next round was Brands GP, we knew the track well so independent wins there comfortable, fastest lap comfortable. We got to the next round a Brno, got through Qualifying and Marcello Lotti the boss man called is for a meeting. I thought “he’s going to congratulate us for doing a job well.” No.

“As of now you are no longer an independent.”

“Pardon? We are independent.”

“No, as of now you are not.”

“But Marcello, we are not works.”

“No you are not works”

“Well what are we? Were in no man’s land”

We thought it was a wind-up but when I pushed him hard he said “all the other teams are against you?”

“Why? We are running the car to your regulations, it’s a BMW FIA Super 2000 320si we bought as a kit, we’ve made one or two changes within the regs, we’ve developed it, we’ve got the Yokohamas working well, so if the car is running to your rules and FIA regs what’s the problem?”

“They all say you are too fast”

“We’ve got a very good driver, good engineers and the car is legal, what’s the problem?”

“They all want to pull out. If you don’t go out of independent they’ll all pull out.”

I thought it was a joke, Sunday morning warm up 8:15am, the blue dot had gone off the timing screen. We’re not independent anymore. So straight after the warm up I got Colin’s dad Trevor, we went back to see Lotti, he was in a meeting, I broke into the meeting and said “we need to talk seriously about this. I thought you were joking.”

“No I told you.”

“We had a deal and an agreement before we did this. Now you’ve broken that agreement.”

“All the people will leave me.”

“They won’t leave you Marcello. They must have contracts with sponsors and drivers, teams.”

“I can’t do anything.”

EF: It’s odd you didn’t do more WTCC!

DB: We didn’t do the following year. I saw him this year at the British GP, shook hands, we were having a chat. “We really need you in TCR Dick. A good top team.”

I said “You’ll never get me in. Count my fingers, I’ve still got them all, I don’t trust you anymore. You really mucked up our plan.” I know you shouldn’t count on prize money and the prize money was very good then. We would come away with €19,000 which helped our budget, because we had factored in we would win 50%. Brave call, and we lost everything. We didn’t get a penny.

But then we had the pleasure of going to Japan and winning outright, finishing second on the road and a certain team was excluded with irregularity with their car.

EF: I did want to touch on the fact that in 2002 in the BTCC you were a team sponsored by a pop group – Atomic Kitten. How on earth did that happen?

DB: Long story! It was an involvement through MG Rover, MG Sport and Racing. They liked the idea of getting more publicity so we had the two works full liveried MGs, Warren Hughes and Anthony Reid and the marketing division at MG said “Can you run two more?”

The first cars were built by Lola, that was a problem between MG Rover and Lola so we had to build new cars for ’02, they were works cars. We had the two cars left from the year before. Marketing people don’t understand the work involved gearing up for running four cars. I said “we can look at it.”

They said “we’ll show you a couple of graphics of the car.”

“Wow. Atomic Kitten. Yep we’ll do this.”

So we got Colin Turkington and Gareth Howell and it was a hard year because we had engine problems and so on, but that was not done by us that was done by MG Sport and Racing. Marketing department thought it would be easy “just another two cars!”

EF: When Senna was in F3 did he exhibit the single-minded ruthlessness that marked his latter years?

DB: I had to sit him down a couple of times and I thought “I shouldn’t have to do this, he’s an intelligent young lad.” But he believed in himself so much that he was the best, and “why am I being beaten?”

I said “second is better than third Ayrton.”

“No. I’ve got to win!”

It came to a head because we were losing points after points. I said “if you finish second and get fastest lap you get seven points. Martin’s getting nine. He’s only closing the gap by two points. We can still finish comfortably.” But no he wouldn’t have it.

So we had accident after accident and it cost us a lot because he wasn’t a crasher in his previous formula. I thought “the budget will do that” but when we got to our third new chassis this is not turning out as planned! When he wrote it off in qualifying at Cadwell Park, 9:25am, he came and said “the car is good but Ive got a whisker of understeer, I can go much quicker.”

I said “we’ve only got about four minutes left” so I cranked half-a-degree of wing on and apparently someone timing him half-a-lap away from me he was three tenths quicker. He’s already on pole by half a tenth over Martin and I think the next guy Davy Jones or Mario Hytten was three or four tenths away, so it was only the two of them in it. He was in pole but said he could go quicker, the wing helped him until he got two thirds of the way round. We worked out later what had happened because he was a bit puzzled. The edge of the track, the concrete just dropped from cars going over it. We reckon he dropped his right rear over there and when he went to turn to go up the hill there was no load on the left front tyre but he believed in it so much he kept his foot in full throttle, cranked on the lock and nothing happened and he went into a concrete wall, a marshal’s post. A marshal jumped off in a panic and broke his leg and we’ve got one written off car at 9:30am. His girlfriend said “can we fix it for the race?”

I said “You obviously don’t understand aluminium because the chassis is about a foot shorter than it should be!”

So we packed up and I was back in my local pub in Shepperton at 2pm. My mates “you’re supposed to be in Cadwell racing?”

“We were, until 9:30 this morning!”

EF: Did you ever work with Mike Thackwell?

DB: No, I knew him and met him when he was driving for the Ralt works F2 team.

EF: He’s quite a character. I always think a great lost talent.

DB: Even Ron Taraunac admitted he was a talented lad.

EF: How did you rate Bertrand Fabi with other drivers you ran in F3?

DB: I thought he was fantastic, really sad what happened to him at such an early life. I got on great with him, I’d only known him a short time. I’d just had mirco surgery on my knee in hospital and we were testing in Goodwood. He came and picked me up from hospital and drove me in my little GTi Golf because I was supposed to keep my leg straight. We got on great and he had very good potential but the trouble was that year everywhere was shut for testing and we had pretty much a new car, two cars, one for Damon Hill as well. The only circuit open was Goodwood and he’d done a great job, he was not far off Dave Scott who was testing the new Reynard but Dave was on his third or fourth year of F3 so he knew what it was all about, whereas Bertrand was brand new and at 4:45pm we gave him a new set of tyres and set “go out, do three or four laps and come in” so he did that, we checked the pressures, checked the wheel nuts and he went out again and I think it was his second lap he had his accident.

We believe just pushing too hard wanting to do a time on new tyres. The trouble was it was such a cold day the temperature wasn’t there and when we went back and studied that corner it’s still the same, it’s got that dip in the middle at turn one and we got the police there to do a report and they reckoned you could see tyre marks crossing, that he’d lost it but tried to hang on to it. If he’d let it spin to the infield he’d have been alright but he corrected it because you could see the tyre marks crossing, then he went to the outfield and it was solid earth frozen so he had no chance. I was thinking in those days “we’ll give up racing.” But we then had a real problem because me again I was going to take the profit from running Bertrand to run Damon and that then fell apart so I then rigged up for Damon to go to Murray Taylor Racing.

EF: What impression did you get with Damon? I’ve just finished his book Watching The Wheels. It’s a good read. What was he like? He mentioned going from bike racing to car racing was hard but by the time he got to you and tested was he a bit more competent?

DB: Unfortunately we didn’t get to run him much because of Bertrand’s accident which was in early February. But I actually went back and helped them because we finished up doing F3000 with our ’85 champion Mauricio Gugelmin. There wasn’t so many races and I went to a test at Snetterton with Murray’s guys, they weren’t quite up to speed on the engineering as I’d hoped. Murray put on a great show, we’re still best of friends. Every time I go home to NZ I stay with him and catch up with him. I helped him on the test day but it’s quite a big learning curve if you haven’t had much single-seater experience, so I never saw his true potential in those days.

EF: There are a few stories about Bertrand Gachot out of the car: throwing torque wrenches and the infamous Cabbie incident which gave Schumacher his first race. What was he like in and out of the car? Did he have the talent for a long career?

DB: He was quick for sure. Quite difficult to work with! [Laughs] Might be an understatement. Good guy sociably, but I think expected a little bit too much. We finished second in the championship but it was a hell of a lot of work because we started the season with a mechanically injected mechanical ignition VW-Judd engine, good engine, we’d won the championship with Gugelmin. Came back to F3 with Bertand with Phillip Morris money, the deal was we became the Phillip Morris junior team to run young drivers so that was appealing to us.

| think from memory Bert finished second in his first ever race, I thought “this is a good go.” No, he wasn’t happy. Johnny Herbert’s got an electronically controlled Spiess-VW so it had electronic ignition, we had good old mechanical. It’s the only difference because Judd’s engine was good, the hp was true. Bert “No I’m not having this, we’ve got to have a better engine.” Good old EJ did an exclusive, no one can have the engine. Back to England, thinking cap on, Nova Motor in Italy, off we go to Italy, Nova Motor, Alfa engined, fantastic on the dyno. Our Judd-VW on Judd’s dyno had 161 hp, Pedrazzani’s Nova Motor engine 175 hp. I thought “we’re looking good here, bolt that in and we’re going to win the championship. Ive learned since that English and European hp are a different calculation, so we lost 5 hp straight away! Then I learnt the Italian horses are ponies. 175 hp was not as good as Judd’s 161!

To be fair the biggest problem was the Alfa didn’t have any torque. Top end power was good but you had to get there. I worked with Pedrazzani we did inlet manifolds, cam shafts, I said “its great top end, but we haven’t got an eight-speed gearbox to get to it! It may be good for the European fast tracks, but for the UK tracks…also the engine was heavier at the top so having a beautifully handing car turned into rubbish because of the weight of the engine up high. We had to work hard on the chassis and managed to claw back to finish second in the championship but if we’d stuck with the Judd-VW we’d have won it. But Bertrand “No! The engine is sh**t. We need a better engine.”

“We’ve only done one race Bert, give us a chance! Give yourself a chance!”

Thruxton we learnt then was a unique set up. We didn’t get to be top dog there until ’89, which then we’d finished one-two, one-two.

EF: Why is it such a specific circuit?

DB: It’s the long sweeping right-handers. You need a chassis that can keep your foot on the throttle and you can’t run a conventional set up from other tracks. It really bugged me we could be quicker at all the other tracks than Thruxton. We went to a test day and threw everything at it with Allan McNish and right at the end of the day we cottoned on to it. He went out and came back and said “that’s it, we’ve got it.”

Went to the race qualified one / two, Derek Higgins in the Benetton car and squishy in the Marlboro car, we walked away with the race, first, second, fastest lap. Mika in the car next year just walked away. If we had have had that set up on the car with Bert, I think with the Judd engine we’d still have won. It was more the chassis for Thruxton not the engine, but Bert got his way, cost us a fortune but I thought “the Phillip Morris contract was good for another six years,” so…

EF: Which era of BTCC racing did you prefer? Super Touring or the more recent regulations?

DB: The Super Touring was a fantastic engineering formula, so as my background is in engineering I enjoyed it but it was hard to win because of the financial backing you had. There was so many grey areas in Super Touring it was who was the bravest to get to the dark grey. We were in the dark grey permanently, thought we were doing well, then learnt they were doing that and thought “how are they getting away with that?”

Since it finished the stories that came out what people were up to…

EF: What were the top three things?

DB: The problems were the geometry pickup points. The rules were 20mm from your road car. We learnt from one car theirs was about 70mm out and they got round that if a car has a ball-joint its about 20-25mm diameter, so you could move it to the edge of that. This particular team put in a Bosch bearing which is massively long and they said “the end of the Bosch bearing is where the end of the original pick up point is” which was true, but they’d gone way beyond the 20mm but the original point was still adhered to, but they took the mickey from the rules.

We couldn’t understand how that car was so good handling when we’d run it two years before and we couldn’t get the results. But the pleasing thing was their first year with it they didn’t win a race, and the second year they totally rebuilt the cars and that’s when we found out all these stories.

EF: They’re now being raced again. Have you seen them?

DB: We were at Silverstone. I didn’t get to the Classic this year but we were up there on the media day with an old Steve Soper BMW for a PR exercise, there’s one of our old Honda’s there, beautifully rebuilt. It must cost them a fortune because the trouble is in those days the development was going on every race weekend. New uprights, new wings, new this. It was ongoing development. Anyone that bought one of those – if you bought an NGTC car there’s loads of spares because most of them are built by one company. But in those days everything was changing, there’s no rules. Now the policing of it is much tighter which is better, it’s cost-effective now. The current championship you can race two cars probably comfortably on a budget of about £1 million, whereas in those days unless you had £5-8 million you wouldn’t win.

EF: A million is, in my mind, still quite a lot of money! But compared to the Super Touring era it is.

DB: The problem is if you do three races in a day you need a lot of people to turn the car around, you’ve got to have a lot of spares sitting there. If they’re not pre-fitted you can miss a race, there’s only an hour-and-a-half between races, so it’s quite tight. Every car has the same package, but the cost this year was quite a lot of money adapting to the new update package. Getting good people on board isn’t cheap.

EF: You’re obviously still enjoying it.

DB: I’ve got over losing the championship by two points!

EF: I’m sorry to bring that up in the first paragraph!

DB: I’ve got over it, its 2017 now. That’s the challenge.

EF: In your long career what’s been the highlight and why?

DB: Oh dear me. There’s been lots of highlights.

Winning the Macau F3 with Senna when no one had been there was fantastic. Winning our first BTCC championship with Colin Turkington in ’09 was a fantastic achievement. There’s been a lot. I couldn’t single out one, the races in Imola and Hockenheim were really pleasing because we were up against the cream of the Germans and Italians, we didn’t get to do the French race. Winning the championship again in ’14, winning the independents, the drivers, four out of four, but that was a team effort. Running the touring cars at a race meeting we have 25 people, so it’s a team effort.

EF: I’m sure there’s many more to come.

DB: I hope so! We’ve started spending a lot of money already for 2017!

EF: Its so kind of you spending so much time, best of luck with it.

You may also like