The man seeking to bring a touch of street cred to Bernie's wacky races

The David Richards interview: Master of the nitty-gritty rally world is joining the exotic creatures of Formula One. Andrew Longmore speaks to him
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The Independent Online

There was a time when Bernie Ecclestone was the swiftest hat-changer in motor racing. You wanted Formula One marketing, the door was marked BE. Administration, ditto. Formula One Constructors, here he is again. Team owner, Bernie too. Ecclestone owned the circus, sold the tickets, hawked the programmes and was the catcher in the highwire act.

David Richards laughs at the analogy, not just because he has heard it before, but because he has not quite worked out whether being compared to Formula One's god- father is a compliment or an insult. "I don't think I could behave in the way Bernie behaves," he says. "It's not in my nature. Nor do I think Bernie could behave the way I behave or intend to behave in the future."

Richards could never be so cautious in his rallying days, when a seat next to the mercurial Ari Vatanen came with its own ejector button. Together, in 1981, Vatanen, the flying Finn, and Richards, the son of a Welsh farmer, won the World Rally Championship via the bottom of a river in the French Alps. Vatanen is now a European MP; Richards is Mr Rallying, owner of Prodrive, the company which took both Colin McRae and Richard Burns to world titles for Subaru, and chairman of International Sportsworld Communicators who now own the worldwide commercial and television rights for the FIA World Rally Championship.

Just to fill his spare time, since 18 December, Rich-ards has taken over the running of the BAR team, his second tilt at Formula One after an abortive season at Benetton in 1998. And this, as his wife, Karen, reminds him on a near-daily basis, was supposed to be a gentle year when Richards took a three-month mid-summer sabbatical to celebrate his 50th birthday and qualify for his advanced helicopter pilot's licence.

Richards apologises for the state of his desk, in the attic of a smart mews office off Sloane Street. He has just returned from holiday in Barbados, and a couple of stray Christmas presents have been left in the corner. They are swiftly tidied, along with an errant pile of paper, barely big enough to constitute an in-tray. "There's usually not a piece of paper out of place here," he says. Five years of chartered accountancy and a sporting life as a navigator have trained a meticulous mind.

For mid-evening, the offices of ISC are impressively well-staffed. But then this is a big week for the company and for the sport, the week when rallying claims a regular slot on UK national terrestrial television for the first time. On Thursday, the cars will roll down the ramps in front of the Casino in Monte Carlo for the traditional season-opener; on Thursday night, Channel 4 will begin their coverage of the 2002 season with a preview of the championship, following up with a series of nightly highlights programmes at the end of every day of all 14 rounds of the championship. This is pretty much solely Richards' work, with a little help from two eminently promotable British world champions in McRae and Burns, who, just to help the televisual mix, do not really see eye to eye.

"It would have been a hard sell 10 years ago when we had no British drivers and the championship was dominated by foreign drivers with unpronounceable names," explains Richards. "I still believe rallying is like Formula One 20 years ago in terms of its evolution, but we've quietly been making changes over a number of years now. Ten years ago, some events began on a Monday, some on a Thursday, some ran for three days, some for four days, the timing systems, the results systems, were all different. Now, we've got a very compact and standardised sport. Thursday evening, there will be a ceremonial start to introduce the cars and the drivers. Then a very early start Friday morning, back late afternoon, same again Saturday and finish, bang, 4pm Sunday afternoon."

In the old days, like Formula One in its infancy, rallying was run largely to suit the participants, a collection of wealthy privateers who paid to have fun. It was Eccle-stone who lassoed the team owners, cornered the television market and presented the sport with a profitable and comprehensible vision of its future. Richards, with considerable support from the major works teams, has packaged rallying in much the same way, lifting a sport of bobble hats and anoraks into the realms of high finance and heavy investment. Ford's budget for a rallying season would now reach £50 million, roughly half that of a mid-grid F1 team, a long way from the era of Richards himself, when the majority of teams lurched penniless from one race to the next.

For most of the Eighties at least, rallying was not so much the poor relation of Formula One as motor sport's ragged urchin. "Comparing the two is like comparing cricket and football, quite frankly," says Richards. "If we try to ape F1 we will always be second. We have to create a unique identity. Formula One is this wonderful, surreal and untouchable world, so we want to make ourselves down to earth, very real. The cars look like cars from the local showroom, you can go to Greece on your holidays and drive the same roads as Colin McRae. There is an enormous diver-sity of terrain and country, starting with the Alps this week, the wastelands of Sweden, the Rift Valley in Africa, then off to Australia and New Zealand, then back to Europe. It's not just a series of circuits, it's about real people, real places and real motor cars."

The trick will be to create a marketable sport without forfeiting the values which so appealed to the impressionable 13-year-old who once rode his bike into the forests of North Wales to watch Timo Makinen and Paddy Hopkirk on the RAC Rally nearly 37 years ago. That glimpse of gravel and smoke was enough inspiration. As soon as he was old enough, Richards borrowed his mother's car and his younger brother's limited navigational skills to compete in local rallies and, though close inspection of the top drivers quickly persuaded him to change seats, he turned to rallying full-time after the completion of his accountancy studies. At 22, he won a contract with British Leyland to navigate the infamous TR7 before teaming up with Vatanen to win the title in a Ford. On the road, steering wheel in hand, red mist falling, the Finn took no prisoners.

"Every red-blooded male believes he can drive a motor car, but it's not until you sit next to an Ari Vatanen or a Colin McRae that you realise how little you know," Richards says. "I realised pretty early that I could not beat these guys, so I became a navigator. How much did Ari scare me? Every minute of every day. The year we won the title we began in Monte Carlo, came round a bend, spun and hurtled down a 30-foot drop into a river. Not an event went by that we didn't have some hairy experience. I had a young family and I wanted to live to see another day, so at the end of the year I retired." He set up a motor-sport consultancy in a lock-up garage at Silverstone, where his neighbour was Eddie Jordan. Prodrive now employ 1,000 staff in their offices near Banbury – heading north, look to the left after junction 11 of the M40 – and have a turnover of £110m, which suggests that if his heart gave out his business brain remained intact.

Only Formula One has resisted Richards' magic touch. His one season at the head of Benetton in 1998 ended in disappointment. Though Jean Todt has managed a successful transfer from rallying to Formula One, Richards lost his compass along the way. While rallying was his backyard, the pit lane and its ferocious politics seemed like another country.

"It was a very intimidating environment," he says. "The Piranha Club. It's an apt name. You have to have enormous self-confidence to be successful in Formula One, and a good range of experience. I just felt very lonely. I'm someone who works well in teams and I was on my own. I went into Formula One watching, listening and learning for too long. I actually didn't believe enough in my own instinct. That's what we need to do, now let's go and do it.

"I suppose it was a bit like putting Alex Ferguson in charge of the England cricket team. The principles of management are the same, but the technical skills are very different. I would sit in meetings opposite Ron Dennis and Frank Williams, alongside some of the most competitive people on the planet, and I can remember trying to understand what the real issues were between the teams at the front of the grid and the rest."

He came away with a checklist of essential qualities and two vows. To return, but not unless every one of those criteria had been fulfilled. Only privately will Richards admit to a sense of unfinished business. When BAR came calling for a second time for Richards to take over the running of the team, the timing – apart from that promise of a quiet year and the fact that news of the coup overshadowed the launch of the new car – seemed almost perfect.

"First, we have the basis of a good team, 400 pretty competent people, who've had three years' experience. Second, in Honda we have got a committed engine partner. Third, the sponsors have committed five years of financial support and, fourth, I'm not doing it on my own, but as Prodrive, so I'll have a team of people around me who I know and who know me. Suddenly, you have almost all the right ingredients. All you need then is the final stardust that makes it all work."

Richards' first task is to persuade Jacques Villeneuve, who has not spoken to anyone at BAR since his friend and manager, Craig Pollock, was ousted as team principal, that his future lies with the team. "Jacques is contracted to the team for this year. He is a professional racing driver and he wants to win. Our job is to make sure we produce the best car that will give him that opportunity. That's all we can do. His motivation is to win motor races."

There will be more gossip before the season begins, Richards knows that well now. Villeneuve for Jenson Button, two plus two, the rumour mill has already ground out its creative calculations. But results in the early races, beginning in Melbourne on 3 March, will determine the volume of the whispers. BAR desperately need Ville-neuve's unfettered commitment. By Wednesday night, the end of the first testing session, the signs looked more favourable.

"Jacques tested the car and was very encouraged," Richards says. "He went away from the test in a positive frame of mind, feeling that as far as he was concerned we had made major steps forward. I will be talking to Jacques, but you pick your moments, you don't just rush in, you wait until the dust settles.

"We have to be realistic. Part of the issue at BAR has been setting unachievable goals. We have to work out how realistic it is to challenge the might of Ferrari, McLaren and Williams, and how long it is going to take us to get there. We must see an improvement this season, be on the podium in 2003, and then perhaps we will be in a challenging position for the title in 2004."

Richards himself will divide his time between the World Rally Championship, in which Prodrive's Subaru team finished fourth last year, and Formula One. The sabbatical will just have to wait for another year.

Biography: David Richards

Born: 3 June 1952, Portsmouth.

Lives: Radway, Warwickshire.

Family: Married to Karen. Three children, Lara 22, James 19, Harry 8.

Current position: Chairman, Prodrive Ltd; chairman, ISC Ltd.

Professional career: 1974-1980: joined Leyland as a co-driver, before moving to Nissan, Opel and Ford. 1981: won world championship with Ari Vatanen in a Ford. 1984: set up Prodrive, a motorsport consultancy. 1990: formed partnership with Subaru. Also formed partnerships with Honda, Alfa Romeo and Ford.1998: became chief executive of Benetton F1 team. 2000: acquired television and commercial rights for FIA WSC with purchase of ISC. 2001: became team principal of BAR.