Q & A with David Richards

Prodrive boss David Richards has not been out of the headlines in recent weeks, following stories linking him with a takeover of Honda Racing, plus the withdrawal of Subaru from the World Rally Championship

Q & A with David Richards

His arrival on the main stage at the Autosport International on the first day of this year's show was therefore greeted with great interest.

Autosport.com was there to hear what he had to say about sportscars, rallying and the WRC.

Q. A very interesting 2008 for Prodrive - with wonderful success with Aston Martin at Le Mans, but tinged with the loss of Subaru from the World Rally Championship. So were there mixed emotions when you look back at 2008?

David Richards: Yes. I guess that is very similar for most people in business in the last few months actually, with the highs and lows. We have certainly felt it with the success of Aston Martin and the sadness at losing Subaru from the World Rally Championship.

Q. Did you anticipate Subaru's withdrawal from the WRC?

DR: We knew that the whole programme was under review because of the longer term, with the change of regulations and a whole raft of issues around Subaru's involvement - after all, they have been there for 20 years and people don't tend to stay in motorsport programmes for that long anyway without reconsidering things. Their product range was changing at the same time.

But the thing that really brought things about was the dramatic downturn in their sales, plus other problems in their aerospace division as well. That put them under enormous financial pressures.

Q. Is there something to be said for conservatism in the Japanese economy? We lost Subaru from rallying, we lost Honda from F1 and we lost Kawasaki from MotoGP. Is there a link there?

DR: Well unfortunately, if I am brutally honest about it, I think often Japanese companies wait for one of their peer group to take the big decision first and then everyone follows. I think that is probably why many people went into motorsport in the first place, and that is possibly one of the reasons why many of them might exit now given that Honda made the bold decision to pull out.

Q. One of Prodrive's greatest skills in recent years has been to entice manufacturers into a programme, and to make it successful very quickly. Is that the philosophy that you still hold?

DR: You say move on to something else, but that is not quite the case. Certainly Subaru defies that one. We have been working with them for 20 years and we have got relationships with Ford in Australia now for a number of years, and with Aston Martin for a good period of time.

Our philosophy is to build up long-standing business relationships. I have got no illusion about it - that Subaru did not want to come into motorsport to win rallies, and Aston Martin don't do motorsport to win races. They do it to sell motor cars. So our partnership is about a business partnership. It is about working with them to build their businesses. And whatever their objective, whether it is a car manufacturer or a technical sponsor or a commercial sponsor, they are in it for a specific business purpose. Our job is to deliver that. Part of that process might be to win races, but on occasion you don't need to win to deliver the benefits. It is a real partnership.

Q. Can you see Subaru returning to the sport, perhaps when the new regulations have established themselves and the sport grows again?

DR: I am uncertain about that at the moment, and it is certainly far too early to say that. There is an extraordinary heritage that to me would be rather wasteful to let go. They have built up such good will there, and to most people in following rallying or those who have a passing interest - the blue Subarus are like the red Ferraris are to F1.

So there is a lot of investment in that that would be wasted if it was left too long to go back to. But you do research on F1 and people still say that John Player Lotus are competing - so there is a latent benefit for many years to come.

Q. Aston Martin for 2009. The DBR9 in the wonderful Gulf colours talking a memorable class win at Le Mans - are you back for more in June?

DR: Yes, we will definitely be back at Le Mans. We are working on a whole range of programmes and anyone who has been on our stand knows we are working on the GT2 regulations where the future will likely as not be in the world championship - as Stephane (Ratel) is trying to set up for 2010.

So we are really starting to plan for the future. It is obviously a difficult period of time, with a transition in technical regulations and the commercial environment we are having to work in.

Q. Prodrive has a very important customer-build setup. You have taken Aston Martin and won internationally in the big blue riband sportscar races, but you build cars for customers as well...

DR: Yes, you can buy exactly the same car. We have many, many customers. Our role more and more is to step out from participation ourselves and make sure the product is right for the customers to run it...Around the world we have got many, many customers and that is one of the strengths of our organisation - we do not just sell them the car but we will provide the technical and parts support after that.

We carry a stockholding down at Banbury of about £11 million worth of stock sitting in the warehouse there on 24 hours turnaround. There are people working 24/7. You can order over the internet and the parts are with you in Australia, New Zealand, America, wherever you want them, the next day.

Q. You have a technical relationship with Alfa Romeo, another iconic brand, with the Brera S. Is that something that could develop?

DR: We have developed a very good relationship with Alfa Romeo through this Brera S project. I very much hope that that can develop over the next few years in other areas. I suppose it hides the fact for many that we work with a lot of manufacturers in a range of areas - many of whom never see the light of day in that you don't see the Prodrive relationship out front.

Alfa chose to promote that relationship and work with us on how we have marketed that car, and it has been very successful. But I am sure you will see a wide range of products from not just Alfa Romeo but many other people in the future coming from the Prodrive stable.

Q. Let's talk about F1. People are dying to know that post-Honda pullout - where do you stand with that now? You are on the shortlist, and you are an interested party - potentially getting back involved after being at BAR a few years ago?

DR: All I can say is that I have made it very clear that the only terms I would ever consider a return or an involvement was if I felt we could be competitive - and nobody expects to win in their first year of Formula One. It has also got to be financially viable. You expect to (have to) invest but you also expect it to work. I just personally feel that the current environment is too unsettled.

The cost-cutting process that has been put in place has not yet seen its full benefit, and I don't think it will be until 2010 that you will see those issues roll out properly. The teams have still got a burden of overhead that is unsustainable. So consequently, the window of time for entry, I just question whether it is right at the moment.

Q. Last time you were in F1, with BAR, it was a very successful operation with many podiums in 2004. Do you have a personal desire to go back into F1 and enjoy the good times again?

DR: We were runner up that year behind Ferrari, and everyone assumes I would be motivated to go back for the last push. That is not what motivates me at all. It will be a business decision, it will be a hard-headed business decision not an emotive one, when I make it.

Q. Has F1 woken up to itself in the last few months?

DR: I think there are still many people in F1 (for whom) reality has not yet sunk in about just how bad the situation is out there in the world - in business, commerce and everyone's way of life at the moment. If Formula One does not reconnect itself with its fan base and with the man in the street, and bring itself down to earth, I fear for its future. I know some people at the top end of the sport are addressing that and are well aware of that...It is a bitter medicine that is required at the moment but it has to be done.

Q. Do you like what you see so far - the big technical changes of the car and a ban on in-season testing. They are making big inroads, aren't they?

DR: I would regard those as modest inroads if I am honest with you. When you make changes to thing, and you have to make a radical shift to get back to a sustainable level, you make that one-hit, one cut very quickly to get it done and then move forward from that point. You don't do it by a series of 1000 cuts. If I was involved I would be pushed hard for a lot deeper cuts a lot quicker.

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