Motor Racing: No looking back for Richards

Ford looking for fresh success as the British Touring Car Championship gets under way
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THESE ARE heady days for Ford Motorsport. The new Focus, cajoled by Colin McRae, has made a spectacular impact on the World Rally Championship and the Stewart Grand Prix car, powered by Ford Cosworth's latest engine, has surprised most observers with its competitive start to the Formula One season.

The pressure is now on the man entrusted with command of the third major prong in the company's attack, the British Touring Car Championship campaign, which begins at Donington Park on Sunday.

David Richards, the head of the Prodrive team running the Mondeo, has enjoyed considerable success across the motor sport spectrum, and ironically lost McRae to Ford after moulding the Scot into a world champion at Subaru.

However, Richard's ultimate objective is to prove himself in Formula One and last autumn he abandoned his much-trumpeted association with Benetton over differences of opinion with the Italian family.

He acknowledges that if he is to be given another opportunity at the highest level of the sport, let alone achieve fulfilment, he must guide Ford to the forefront of the notoriously ruthless touring car battleground.

"I'm conscious people will be re-assessing me, and in that regard it's a bit like running a football team," Richards said. "I guess football managers have the same sort of pressures on them every time their teams step onto the field.

"You're only as good as your last result, and people soon forget if you have a few bad results and you go downhill. People don't remember the good times, they remember only the bad times.

"I'm convinced an opportunity to back will arise. But I want to go back to Formula One in the right circumstances to win, with the wherewithal to do the job properly, not by dint of needing to be there out of ego, out of financial reasons or any other."

Richards maintains his year at Benetton had its positive spin-off, which he believes will enhance his prospects with the Ford touring car venture.

"I'm not a person for looking back, dwelling on errors of judgment, mistakes or whatever," he said. "I frankly came out of last year a lot stronger, a lot better for it. It was a learning year.

"My approach to the way we are doing the Ford touring car programme - the general way we've gone about things, and the focus we put on things - I've taken with me from last year."

The sense of renewal embraces the entire operation, including the recruitment of the drivers, the former champion, Alain Menu, of Switzerland, from Renault, and the runner-up in last season's championship, Britain's Anthony Reid, from Nissan.

Richards said: "Ford have taken quite a big step, a brave step, as I believe they are doing in rallying and Formula One.

"I think we've got a great pair of drivers. Alain was with me in our BMW days and joined us because he wanted another crack at the championship. Anthony also saw that opportunity. Last year he came of age.

"They're both really fired up. They come to the team as arch rivals and they're challenging each other, pushing the whole team forward."

Menu's pedigree has long been respected, but Reid had to establish himself against a backdrop of prejudice and resentment. John Cleland, a fellow Scot and the senior driver in the championship, famously dubbed Reid: "Mad Anthony."

Reid, whose accent would be more familiar in his present hometown, Oxford, than his native Glasgow, dismisses such jibes as "part of the initiation process".

He said: "I'd come back to the UK from Japan and people didn't really know me. A lot of them tried it on with me and I realised I had to earn their respect the hard way. It's tough racing and you have to look after yourself.

"The sport needs heroes but not lunatics and I think people now know I'm no lunatic. Most of the lunatics have been weeded out and only a couple of the old school are left. We now have a new wave of quality drivers."

Richards is convinced his drivers fit perfectly the combative and technical requirements of the modern BTCC, which in turn has struck a competitive balance after lurching perilously close to the frontiers of junk sport.

"All the best drivers are going to get involved in a few scrapes," Richards said. "You have to be aggressive in there. The faint-hearted aren't going to win and that's a fact of life.

"The public come to watch it and the bump-and-bang is an accepted part of the tradition of the championship. But it's not stock car racing and it must not be stock car racing."

Richards expects that, if anything, the racing will be closer still this season. Despite the withdrawal of Audi and Peugeot, there remain five manufacturers between Ford and their ambitions: Honda, Nissan, Renault, Vauxhall and Volvo, with whom Sweden's Rickard Rydell defends his title.

Little wonder, therefore, that Richards' team were perplexed when they discovered part of the Mondeo's bodywork was to be painted yellow, which has a considerably heavier lead content than most pigments. To their relief, they were assured it would be applied to the front of the car, which should aid performance.

Testing suggests Honda have timed their preparation perfectly and that Nissan, winners of the manufacturer and team awards last season, will again be among the front runners. However, the factory drivers David Leslie and Laurent Aiello are in danger of being upstaged, initially at least, by the independent driver Matt Neal, at the wheel of last season's Primera.

Neal, a 32-year-old company director from Stourbridge, has the short- term incentive of pocketing pounds 250,000 should he win a race this year, and the long-term objective of earning a works drive.

"I had to prick myself after finishing fastest in testing the other day," Neal said. "You get used to struggling after six years of it. I don't think I've embarrassed Nissan. I'm the stick prodding their works' drivers.

"I've got such a good car and I'm hitting the ground running. The factory team will get much stronger as the season progresses, so now is the time for me to strike."

Leslie, the Scotsman who ended last season supporting his countryman's challenge, acknowledges he has to assert himself from the off this time if he is not to be assigned similar duties for the benefit of the Frenchman, Aiello.

"This is my big chance," Leslie said. "I need a good start. Laurent doesn't know many of the circuits yet but he will be very quick.

"All the teams will get stronger and the quality is improving all the time. Ford have done poorly over the last few seasons, but they could surprise people this year."

Richards' prospects of a return to Formula One could depend on it. The rumour mill has linked him with a possible future in the Ford Grand Prix organisation, but if the BTCC alliance fails, that route may be blocked.

"Every time we go out we are under the spotlight," Richards said. "We have to perform. If we get a few good results it will stand me in good stead.

"The way we've approached it is with little compromise. At the end of the day, the buck stops with me."

TOURING CARS 1999 SCHEDULE

4-5 April Donington Park

17-18 April Silverstone

2-3 May Thruxton

15-16 May Brands Hatch

30-31 May Oulton Park

19-20 June Donington Park

3-4 July Croft

17 July Snetterton

31 July-1 August Thruxton

14-15 August Knockhill

29-30 August Brands Hatch

11-12 September Oulton Park

18-19 September Silverstone

Comments