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Q & A with David Richards

David Richards and his Prodrive team should currently be finalising their plans to become a fully-fledged Formula One team for 2008

But despite having secured their entry and agreed a deal with McLaren for a supply of cars, Richards has been forced to abandon his efforts on the back of uncertainty about the legality of customer machines in Formula One.

It has been a frustrating time for Richards, but not enough to deter him completely from trying to make it into F1 at some point. With this week's Autosport analyzing Prodrive's situation, Richards spoke at length about what has happened and how he sees the future for his team.

David Richards: The most disappointing aspect of the whole scenario we're in today is that the facts haven't changed at all since the FIA proposed a solution by allowing customer cars into the championship almost two years ago.

The reality is, there is a problem in F1 and let's not get away from the basic issues at stake. There's an enormous disparity between the haves and the have-nots in F1. At the back of the grid, we have teams who are way below the performance of the leading teams, scratching around to make a living and changing hands regularly as they run out of funds.

That is not healthy for the sport as a whole. It doesn't help the spectacle on the track and it actually undermines the value of the other teams. If there are teams constantly on the verge of insolvency and scraping around to make a living, then that doesn't help the top teams either.

I've always believed it is far stronger if you have a more balanced approach and allow the smaller teams to have access to competitive equipment and a more sensible distribution of the funds that allows them to perform to a certain level. The solution whereby you allow the leading teams to sell their cars in their entirety to the smaller teams is an obvious way of going about it.

Sure, there are other solutions - and I've heard the arguments for all sides - but the system we have today clearly doesn't work. We don't have a full grid of competitive cars, and we have teams that are not financially viable at the back of the grid. It is a problem, and how do you go about solving that?

The FIA's solution was very sensible and logical. There are the purists who say they don't believe that's the right solution, and I acknowledge and respect their views on that. But I don't hear from them any alternative solution - we can try and drive costs down in other ways, but that's a long-term process and, to date, it hasn't been successful either.

For me, the only logical way for us to enter F1 is on this basis. And it's no great surprise that, prior to these change of rules, Prodrive showed no interest.

It was not feasible - I had two very clear criteria. Firstly, I only wanted to come into F1 if we could be competitive, not meaning we should expect to be on the podium from day one, but I would expect to be fighting in the middle of the grid - not lapped within the first 10 laps. And I would expect to be able to put competent drivers into our cars and have them perform respectably.

Secondly, it had to be financially viable - you cannot embark on this with the hope and the dream that you will land a massive sponsor or do something that makes you solvent and keeps you from going to the wall.

You can't employ a lot of people and make commitments unless you have a clear vision of how you will perform financially over the next five years - it's an irresponsible way of going about it.

The rules laid out by the FIA for 2008, to my mind, provide an opportunity for a new team to come in and solve a number of the problems for the existing teams. If you're prepared to sacrifice a little bit of your independence and accept you have to partner with other teams. This is not something very common in Formula One.

Q. Do you believe this could happen for 2009?

DR: Let's clear up some confusion: there are two completely separate issues here. There are the FIA technical regulations and there is the commercial agreement managed by Bernie Ecclestone.

Sitting here today, you can enter what's known as a customer car in the 2008 world championship - there is nothing stopping you today. The rules allow you to run, there's no question. Ask the FIA, can you run a car under those terms - and there is nothing to stop you from doing that.

But the next question is, it's only for one year. For us, it was only for 2008 and to make it viable, you have to be a party to the Concorde Agreement. But commercially, Bernie and the teams are now coming to the conclusion that this is not what they want: they do want each team to be a manufacturer and, as such, to be a signatory to the Concorde Agreement, you would have to agree to that.

From Prodrive's perspective, we could enter next year. We could buy a car, there's no great secret that was all arranged and we had the contracts in place to do that, and we could turn up and race. We would not receive any income from the commercial rights holder for that and we would only have an entry for one year. And until we agreed to meet the terms of the Concorde Agreement, nor would we ever expect to see any income from that.

So clearly it's not financially viable - you need a long-term five-year plan and an agreement that works. The current proposal that Super Aguri and Toro Rosso are given a dispensation for two years and would then have to comply with full constructor status.

If you're a team which employs 500 people and have enormous capital investment and infrastructure around you and wants to remain independent, a team like Prodrive coming in, acquiring a car from a competitive car from a team like McLaren would be an enormous threat. The facts that the economics would be shared between us and McLaren is neither here nor there - it's just a competitive threat.

Q. But the Concorde Agreement will never support 12 teams...

DR: That's a separate issue, but it is a flaw. I believe every team should have a certain sum of money for turning up and racing. There should of course be a bias towards performance and the bigger rewards should go to the teams who are successful. In my view, it's not healthy to always have people falling off the bottom of the page - it doesn't create a healthy environment for the sport.

Q. It's a closed shop, isn't it?

DR: But it's always better to address these problems when a sport is relatively healthy rather than when it's facing problems. And it will only take one or two manufacturers to pull out and then it will have to address those problems.

So to pre-empt that was the right thing to do, and the solution the FIA came up was a very sensible and straightforward one. And it takes a few people to address it - Toro Rosso and Aguri and a couple of others who would have benefited significantly from that opportunity if they had accepted this was the new way of running in Formula One.

Q. Is Prodrive a victim of this sea change? Do you feel squeezed out?

DR: Of course, and that will always be the case. But you have to consider who your best partner is in motorsport. Is it a company who is committed in participating in motorsport because it's their business? Or is it a car manufacturer who might choose to switch its whole emphasis to environmental matters next week and forget motorsport forever?

Q. But superficially, manufacturers are attractive...

DR: We need a balance between the two, but you cannot have an over-reliance on car manufacturers in any category of motorsport. They are there for their own short-term but valid marketing reasons.

Q. Why do you feel there is a barrier to your entry?

DR: Because people have suddenly woken up to the threat it represents. If you do not adopt our business model, which would be dramatically reduced operating costs and partnership with an existing team, you will inevitably be uncompetitive on the track and financially. So we are a threat to them. It just rather surprises me it took people so long to realise what will happen.

Q. What are your next steps?

DR: We need to see what a new Concorde Agreement is going to say. I still believe F1 is the right place for Prodrive to be, clearly the premise on which we put our entry in, those circumstances have changed dramatically now and everybody acknowledges that situation. If we cannot enter on that basis then so be it, but we need to know what a new CA will say.

If, for instance, it determines you need to be a constructor then we need to understand what the definition of a constructor is: how many common components are going to be allowed in the future because what resource will we need to achieve that? I don't rule that out as being viable - it's a possibility and we will look at that. But we need to get to that position first, look at the new set of circumstances before making that decision.

Q. What dialogue are you getting from the FIA?

DR: Things change on a weekly basis. The FIA is very fixed in its position - its rules are rules. The commercial viability of it is the critical thing - and it would be irresponsible to say we're going to do this, employ a lot of people and then find the circumstances have changed.

I could have announced it six months ago, employed all the people and then be sitting here now going: 'it's not financially viable and we'd be putting people out on the streets by the middle of next season.' That's not what we or Formula One needs to be doing.

We've been pragmatic and said, if the rules and circumstances have changed, we'll sit on the sidelines until everyone sits down again and we'll see what the new circumstances are.

It doesn't change our ambition at all. It doesn't change our goal - but just tell us what the new set of circumstances are and we'll make a decision.

Q. So what happens for 2009?

DR: I don't know. But anyone looking at this on a fair basis would say the criteria on which the entry was accepted 18 months is now not valid because circumstances have changed.

I was told at the time that if circumstances changed, this is how it would be viewed. They would say, we understand your position, let's see what settles out of the new agreement - and it's tripartite, FIA, FOA and the teams - let's see how that falls into place, and you have to assume that will be in place by the start of next season, give us due time to look at that and tell us whether on those new terms, Prodrive is prepared to put an entry in.

Q. So is 2008 definitely no longer viable for you?

DR: It's no longer a viability in a stand-alone state. There's no way you can enter - 18 months ago, any rational person would have assumed a Concorde Agreement would have been sorted out well before now and we would have been in a position to know where we are. That's not the case.

Q. Will the deal with McLaren ever happen?

DR: If the rules allow it, our preferred and realistic choice is to work with McLaren.

And the purists in the sport question the whole notion of customer cars - and it's interesting to note that Ron Dennis is one of those. And I respect his opinion for that. But he also says if the rules allow it, we will take advantage of the rules. And that's a view I think is correct.

Q. Are you still talking to other teams, to Max or Bernie?

DR: Obviously, I'm in regular communication with the key people - but the key factor is, until there's a new Concorde Agreement for us to consider and determined by all the participants, there's nothing there to base a future plan on.

Q. What is the latest situation regarding Williams and the threat of legal action?

DR: The critical time for us came on September 13, when we along with various other people - including McLaren - received a letter from Williams - a letter before action, telling us they were intending to take legal action against all parties if we were allowed to take part in the 2008 world championship as a non-constructor.

At that point, we sought a more definitive ruling, hence the referral to the ICA - that was the highest judicial body of the FIA. However, when Williams decided the Court of Appeal had no jurisdiction over them and would pursue the matter through other means - whether it be civil courts or arbitration - then it became clear it wasn't going to give us the definitive answer we needed and we were still going to be left in limbo. The letter still stands presumably - if we turn up next year they will seek to stop us. All the Court of Appeal would do is ratify the FIA position on that.

Q. Are you optimistic that you can get a new Concorde Agreement under your belt?

DR: It's certainly going against the idea of a non-constructor teams in the manner originally intended. That was the only rationale for us to enter. The last discussions were taken to give special dispensation to those two teams and not to any new team joining.

Q. But everyone has known you've been joining since 2006?

DR: Our hands are completely tied by it. We've behaved in good faith and have been very open and transparent about what we're doing. We've done everything we said we would do and got an agreement with McLaren and the sponsors, but clearly under these circumstances, it's not viable.

The FIA has behaved correctly -their rules haven't changed, albeit the overall circumstances have changed. I'm sure everyone can see that.

Unless Frank changes the business model for his team, there's no logic to him changing his mind. I've got my own views as to how I, in those circumstances, maximise that.

The agreement we reached with McLaren was as open, transparent and fair as you would ever get in terms of independence. Total autonomy. The view they took was, if we can't beat you with all our resources, then we shouldn't be here doing it anyway - and that was the best way of doing it. Absolute freedom on driver choice.

When was the heyday of Formula 1? To my mind, one of the greatest eras of F1 was when everyone used the (Ford Cosworth) DFV (engine) - and they stayed constant for nearly 20 years and it was a fantastic time. It didn't stop innovation and development of the cars, it didn't stop great drivers coming to the fore and it didn't in any way suppress the image of Formula One as being a technologically advanced form of motor racing.

We have an entry for next year and I am in discussions with the FIA about the status for that but it really comes down to the nature of the new Concorde Agreement and whether we can commit to that.

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