Motorsport: Rydell's flower power success

A quiet man with tulips painted on his crash helmet was tough enough to land a tense British Touring Car Championship.
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The Independent Online
RICKARD RYDELL took the British Touring Car Championship crown in a tense season in which he won five races, led the points' table almost throughout, picked up a hefty fine and a severe reprimand for assaulting his closest rival, and emphatically answered those who questioned his toughness under pressure.

However the Swede, who turned 31 yesterday, is far from the crass petrolhead you might take him for on those bare facts. His boss is Roger Silman of TWR Racing, the British firm which runs the Volvo BTCC programme as well as the Arrows Grand Prix team. Silman says: "If you get an intelligent driver with natural ability, then you've got something exceptional. Rickard's very intelligent and that always makes the difference in the end."

The assault in question was in effect just a bit of grabbing, backed by angry words, but even that was out of character for Rydell, who is one of the quieter souls in the championship, and even has a couple of tulips painted on his crash helmet.

The tulips are a clue to the very different occupation he almost went into full-time on leaving school - accountant in a flower business in his native Stockholm. The business is the family firm AB Rydell, which grows tulips and hyacinths and distributes them along with other imported blooms around Stockholm. Right through his increasingly successful driving career, Rickard has returned to help with the number-crunching in the firm in quiet moments. Those are now few and far between and Rydell also has his own growing family - he and wife Ulrika have three children.

Rydell had been a very successful kart racer in Sweden in his teens, but had no plans to move into car racing until his career was taken in hand by Picko Troberg, a key figure in Swedish motorsport. Troberg ran Rydell in Formula 3 in Sweden and then arranged for him to drive in the far more competitive F3 championship in Britain. He had some success, but never found the big breaks and soon was off to Japan to race in that country's professional F3 series. Again he was very successful, winning plenty of races including, in 1992, the prestigious Macau Grand Prix, which is held on a very difficult and dangerous street circuit. The drivers he beat then included his team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, and David Coulthard.

While Villeneuve and Coulthard moved up to Formula One, Rydell's career took a different path and he moved into the BTCC with Volvo in 1994, to drive the eccentric 850 estate. After that initial learning year for both team and driver in '94, Rydell became one of the men to beat in the series. He has finished in the top four in the points' table at the end of each of the last three seasons.

Now he has won the BTCC and, although he's pleased, characteristically he is too logical to be getting worked up. He puts this season's success down to practical improvements on the Volvo S40 he drives and in the team itself.

He has not approached this season any differently to any other, and he does not even believe that he has been driving any better. "I think I am the same driver I was 10 years ago," he says. "I don't really change much. Of course, with a bit more experience in the team, everyone works better together. It works quite well now between the designer, my engineer and myself. I think we're working more efficiently than we did a year or two years ago."

Rydell is well respected by his rivals. Tim Harvey, the 1992 champion, who was Rydell's team-mate at Volvo in 1995 says: "Rickard is as quick as anyone I've ever come across." He also admires the way that Rydell works within the team to make sure it is centred round him - another essential skill for any ambitious racing driver.

Characteristically, among Rydell's first thoughts after winning the title were about winning it again in 1999. He's aware that back-to-back wins are rare but thinks that he, TWR and Volvo can buck the trend. "Recently the winners have been easily the best at the end of the season. We know that we have got one of the best cars now, but not the best, so we know that we will have to work very hard over the winter. I think we can do it."