Mark Glendenning, Australia
In a year that has been a bit on the slow side as far as good books go, 'Driven Man' was one release that I had really been looking forward to getting my hands on.
Alan Henry's recent track record might have been a bit sketchy, but with this kind of material it is hard to see how you could go wrong. Having come out of a successful career as a rally navigator, David Richards has shaped himself and his companies (Prodrive, ISC) into some of the most influential forces in motorsport today. Add to that the fact that he is an intelligent and eloquent interviewee and has thrown his full co-operation behind the book, and you should be able to safely assume that you are onto a good thing. And topping it off, my last trip to Europe was peppered with learned colleagues insisting that I had to get my hands on a copy.
In light of all that, it literally hadn't occurred to me that I might not think it was any good. Maybe I put too much faith in people's reputations, but Alan, you've let me down again.
Before I embark upon exploring all the different ways that 'Driven Man' disappointed me, I'll start by talking about its good points. Richards is an intriguing personality. I have interviewed him a couple of times, although I wouldn't pretend for a moment that he will remember who I am when our paths cross again. But he is a guy that I always enjoy talking to.
I'm not sure that I'd like to sit down with him without having done some homework first, and indeed Henry mentions quite early in the book that Richards doesn't suffer fools gladly. But provided you go in sufficiently prepared, he is extremely generous with his time (all of my chats with him have run considerably longer than what I had been allocated), and is capable of wheeling out all sorts of revelations on a startlingly broad array of subjects. I don't think I really appreciated just how many different pies he has his fingers in until I listened back to some of our conversations and realised how much ground was covered.
A lot of this has been carried across from his interviews with Henry into this book. I'm a firm believer in stepping back and letting people tell their own stories as much as possible, so it stands to reason that the strongest parts of the book, for me, was the interview material. And not just the words of Richards himself, but from an array of others that have had associations with him over the years.
The story of Prodrive and Richards intersects with a few other important milestones in recent motoring and motorsport history, and it's kind of cool to encounter little sub-plots like Subaru's image reinvention from being a staid, conservative builder of family cars to the producer of one of the modern era's iconic road-going performance vehicles in the WRX. If you've ever wondered why the Rex comes equipped with gold wheels, this is the place to find out.
Now for the downsides. Starting with the generalities, this book is a fluff piece that reads more like a Prodrive PR brochure than a serious biography. It has the same fawning, mindless admiration for its subject as Henry's recent Button release, but with even less justification. To an extent, you can get away with a fairyfloss bio of a driver as popular as Button because you can probably count on a certain amount of his fan base being prepared to buy anything with his face on it, irrespective of whether it is any good or not. (Doesn't mean I won't give it a hammering in this column, though).
But - and this might just be misguided preconceptions on my part - I would have thought that a biography of David Richards would appeal to a slightly different and perhaps more discerning audience. There is a difference between being an admirer and being a fan, but you wouldn't know it by reading 'Driven Man'. Neither the audience nor Richards himself deserves to have the story dumbed down.
More seriously, this book is sloppy and lazy. I don't know whether the manuscript ever passed over the desk of the editor, but it certainly doesn't look like it. On at least two occasions, large chunks of text are repeated almost verbatim within the space of a couple of pages, and there are also a number of spelling mistakes that can be put down to nothing other than sheer carelessness (eg. Guy Frecquelin instead of Guy Frequelin; Glenn Seaton instead of Glenn Seton). Not good enough.
Structurally, the book falls apart towards the end too, with an exploration of Prodrive's relationship with BAR degenerating into an entirely unnecessary Jenson Button season review. I'm fairly sure I remember BAR running two cars last year, but you'd barely know it from this book.
But the section of the book that almost led me to hurl the thing under a passing train related to Prodrive's foray into V8 Supercars. The brevity of the account is bad enough - it gets exactly two paragraphs in a book that dedicates at least a chapter to all of the company's other racing operations. I'll leave it to you to decide whether this is because the series is run on the other side of the world and is therefore 'less relevant', or because Henry wouldn't know a V8 Supercar if it ran him over.
The real problem with this tiny section is that it is inanely simplistic, disturbingly inaccurate and misinformed, and appears to be the product of about 20 seconds worth of research on the Internet. And this immediately makes me wonder how much of the rest of the book I can trust.
It's short enough that I can reproduce it for you in full (with a few formatting mistakes from the book corrected).
"In 2003 Prodrive expanded its operations to become involved in Ford Performance Racing, the major Ford V8 Supercar team competing in the Australian V8 Supercar Championship. It was undoubtedly the most important category in Australia's motor racing infrastructure and widely regarded by many within the sport as the most spectacular breed of touring cars on earth.
"Harnessing the driving talent of triple V8 Supercar Champion Craig Lowndes, double Champion Glenn Seton and rising star David Besnard, the team saw Lowndes post his first victory for the team at Phillip Island. That turned out to be the first step to gradually take the blue oval all the way to the top of the most competitive touring car category in the world." (p. 124).
My day job sees me traipsing around Australia covering the V8 Supercar series, so I am probably in as good a position as anyone to clarify things a little.
The first two years of Prodrive's foray into V8 Supercars has been an embarrassing disaster - bad enough that Richards admitted to me recently that he rather wishes that the last couple of seasons had not happened. Prodrive-owned Ford Performance Racing (FPR) - the factory Ford team - was a standout example of just how appallingly a team could be managed, and it is only this year, with a complete change of management structure, that it has ceased being seen as an expensive joke and started to look like it is moving in the right direction.
(Although genuine, consistent success still looks to be some way off). A sublime driver and massively popular (and marketable) personality, Lowndes was arguably the team's biggest asset, and it was the crowning point of the team's managerial incompetence last year that they managed to lose him - ironically, to a team run by fellow UK imports Triple 8.
None of the three drivers mentioned in the book are still with the team. Indeed, FPR is not even a three-car team any more, having been sensibly pared down to a two-car operation at the start of 2004. As far as 'taking the blue oval all the way to the top', well, actually Alan, it is already there. Privateer Ford team Stone Brothers Racing has won the last two V8 Supercar Championships with driver Marcos Ambrose, and barring some kind of major disaster, it looks set to take a hat-trick this year.
Oh, and for the record, the Supercar the Lowndes is pictured driving amongst the spread of photographs is a Ford Falcon BA, not a Ford Falcon GT (as it is captioned).
I don't ever want to reach a point where I have to assume that every motor racing book I pick up is going to be bad and then cross my fingers hoping to be pleasantly surprised. But 'Driven Man' was probably more eagerly anticipated in my corner of the Autosport-Atlas chateau than anything else over the past 12 months, and in the end I was sorely disappointed. If you want to learn something about how Richards developed into one of the sport's biggest movers and shakers, then there is enough in this book to fill some of the gaps. But more than anything else, it reeks of wasted potential.
Before signing off, I have been a bit slack in keeping those of you in the northern hemisphere informed about good racing books being produced in this part of the world. So to make up for it, here are two that are worth seeking out. Australian TV personality Bill Woods has cranked out a nice fat book titled 'Legends of Speed' in which he interviews an amazing collection of drivers that have had an impact on the racing scene here.
He covers both touring cars and open-wheelers, calling in on such luminaries as Mark Webber, Jack Brabham, Peter Brock, Larry Perkins, Norm Beechey, Frank Matich, Dick Johnson and numerous others. It is carefully researched, intelligently written, and a great portrait of Australia's racing history as seen by those who made it happen. The interview material is brilliant - if only more F1 books were done as well as this.
Also worthy of note is 'Through My Eyes', a collection of photographs by well-known Australian motorsport lensman Dirk Klynsmith. It covers Dirk's work over the last decade or so, and is as much a pictorial history of Australian racing as it is a tribute to Klynsmith's shots. As well as some nice artistic stuff, there are also a lot of historically significant images including some of a certain M. Webber racing around in a Formula Ford against a bunch of kids who would grow up to become some of the world's best touring car drivers.
I am not sure whether Woods's book has been released outside Australia, but given the exchange rate between the puny Australian dollar and most other major currencies, it shouldn't prove too expensive for those of you in the UK, Europe and the US to order one from here if there are no other alternatives.
The Klynsmith book might be a little harder to track down, and your best bet is probably to contact Dirk via this link.