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Motoring: Bringing it all together in a drive for the top

With its fingers in many pies, it's the future of the motoring industry. John Simister visits Prodrive
PRODRIVE IS a very Nineties company. Its offices contain few tones other than white, grey and blue. People talk of "best practice", "world class" and "turnkey", and many nouns have become verbs.

This is how the language of business works nowadays. It's a way of thinking which makes it hard to have a fuzzy outlook, however much it grates with lovers of language. Prodrive is clear and focused; when you drive past it on the M40 by Banbury, the buildings seem almost to be surrounded by a crisp halo.

But what is it? A driving school? A maker of high-tech golf clubs? Neither: Prodrive is an automotive and motor-sport engineering and marketing consultancy, a beacon for Britain's hidden motor industry. It designs things for car and motorbike makers, distributes parts for competition cars, designs and builds the competition cars themselves, and invents new ways of doing familiar things. And it runs Subaru's rally team, the most successful of the past decade. This year it will also run Ford's campaign for the British Touring Car Championship.

Last year, Prodrive ran Honda's BTCC team. Previously it has run BMW's and Alfa Romeo's. Why those deals ended tells you a lot about the company that David Richards, a former accountant and world rally championship- winning navigator (he won in 1981, sharing a Ford Escort with Ari Vatanen), set up with commercial director Ian Parry 14 years ago.

"At the beginning of the Nineties, we realised that engineering was the core of what were doing," says Richards. "We'd developed our skills through motor sport, which called for ingenuity and motivational skills within tight budgets and time constraints. If we could apply this to mainstream engineering, we would have a unique operation."

Richards is Dave within motor sport's mateyness; David as a businessman; DR within the company. He took over the running of the Benetton Formula One team a season ago, replacing the mysterious Flavio Briatore, and pledging a new, open management style. "Benetton wouldn't sell, but maybe we could work together and solve the management problems. And part of my own ego wanted to prove I could do something different. When I arrived, Briatore asked how long he should stay for the handover. I said, until lunchtime."

Late last summer, however, Richards and Benetton parted. The Benetton family didn't like Richards' vision of the future, and installed 29-year- old Rocco Benetton as chief executive instead. There's speculation that Richards might return to Formula One, possibly with Ford's backing and a mission to revive the stagnating Stewart-Ford team and run it under the Ford-owned Jaguar banner. Such a deal would tie in well with the Ford Mondeo BTCC effort.

Which brings us back to the split with Honda. Prodrive prefers to run the whole racing operation, developing the cars and "interfacing" with the manufacturer's marketing organisation. Honda and Alfa Romeo were not willing to relinquish control, favouring a piecemeal approach which only came together in the Alfa or Honda headquarters. "This is not the right way to succeed," says Richards. "When you have different people doing different things, there's no accountability."

The integrated approach brought Subaru the World Rally Championship for three years in succession, only for Mitsubishi to break Subaru's grip in last year's Network Q Rally of Great Britain.

Motor sport is just one of the pounds 50m-turnover company's three divisions, the other two being sales and engineering. Trying to understand how it works is puzzling.

The engineering division, with roomfuls of uniformed engineers, is where the most secrets lie. Try to probe, and the PR man will say that he's "struggling with the transparency of our engineering projects". So we talk generalities: a batch of six complete prototype cars, an electric steering rack design, a sequential rally-car transmission, a two-stroke racing engine evaluation, body-styling kits to help spice-up an ageing product, suspension re-designs, innovative transmissions and electronic control systems, and a great deal else.

The work can be done for manufacturers, or for component suppliers, and can be done quickly. "There must be engineering integrity in everything we do," insists Richards. "We've bridged the gap between modern management practices and motor sport, and we've broken the back of engineering credibility." And the future? "We'll either align ourselves with one manufacturer, or develop each area of the business independently. The important thing is to stop it getting too big."

For all his business-speak, though, Dave Richards still loves motor sport. "I'm thinking of building a lightweight Aston Martin DB4 for historic events, not too expensive because I'll probably crash it a lot. And Ari and I borrowed our Escort rally car from the Beaulieu museum for a month in the summer."