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My Life & Cars – David Richards, Chairman, Prodrive

From co-driving for Ari Vatanen to his decades of motorsport campaigns with Prodrive, David Richards talks about his past, present and future in the world of cars

'Lockdown wasn't the best of times for anyone, but at least I had time to clear the cupboards out and dig through my old press cuttings. I’ve been meaning to do it for years!’ So says World Rally Champion co-driver, founder and chairman of Prodrive, chairman of Motorsport UK (British Motorsport’s governing body), former chairman of Aston Martin and all-round force of nature David Richards CBE.

The thought of ‘DR’ doing some housework and admin is one of the less likely Covid-related scenarios, but for a man who has spent the last four decades at full throttle, his enforced hiatus has led him to rediscover some rare treasures in the dusty depths of the Richards archives.

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‘I found the original sponsorship presentation I made for Rothmans back in 1979,’ he reveals. ‘I basically went to them saying, “I’ve found this young Finn who can win the World Rally Championship.” They were obviously impressed because they gave us the sponsorship. £1million was quite a lot of money in those days. Ari [Vatanen] and I did three years, from ’79 till ’81, when we delivered on my promise and won the World Championship.’

Having spent a very happy morning drooling over some of the pristine gems in the Prodrive collection – iconic Rothmans Escort RS1800 amongst them – it occurs to me that Richards has been at the centre of so many moments that have come to define my love of cars and motorsport in general. It’s not unusual for those who enjoyed success as competitors to go on to enjoy further success in managerial roles, but few, if any, can boast a career as rich, varied and successful as Richards, who celebrates his 70th birthday in June.

Prodrive’s impressive HQ is the epitome of a modern motorsport facility, but thanks to the array of cars on display it’s a building packed with history. You might think someone who has managed several lifetimes’ worth of achievements would reserve little headspace for sentimentality, but you’d be wrong.

‘Yes. Yes I am sentimental,’ says Richards. ‘I’m not a great mover of things. I don’t like to sell things. For instance, one of my favourite cars is my DB6 Volante, which I’ve had for the best part of 30 years. The nature of racing and rallying is you don’t tend to hang on to that many cars when they’ve served their purpose. We could never afford to at the time. We would finish a programme, and we needed to cash in as quickly as we could to keep going to the next one. So inevitably, we flogged them off. Then quietly over the years we’ve bought a few back and slowly worked our way through restoring them. This is my latest…’

Richards is pointing towards the aforementioned RS1800 and, it must be said, beaming that trademark smile. And who can blame him, for freshly restored and resplendent with hand-painted stripes and logos it’s an absolute peach of a machine.

‘Ari doesn’t know I’ve got this, even though I bought it three years ago. I knew where it was all the time. There were four of them that year. One of them was destroyed, another one’s in the National Motor Museum, and then the two others were in private hands. This one came up for sale, and I managed to get my hands on it. I sent it down to Phil Mills because John O’Connor, who built it originally, was working for Phil. John’s now approaching 70, so he didn’t want to rebuild this himself, but he was invaluable for getting it absolutely perfect in every detail. It took a month to build it the first time in 1981, but it took two years this time around!’

Richards has been at the centre of so much its hard to believe one of motorsport’s most dynamic movers and shakers is the same bloke was sat alongside Ari Vatanen winning the World Rally Championship 40 years ago this year.

‘It’s another era altogether,’ he says, still looking wistfully at the Escort. ‘I reckon my life is split into four eras. The first was my education and teenage years. Then I had the competition years with Ari. Then I had the years of building the business, running our teams and things like that. Now I’m about to go into the next era, which I’m still trying to define for myself at the moment.’

Still very much at the heart of things, Richards clearly relishes his role as Prodrive chairman. At the time of our visit he’s buzzing about Dakar, which Prodrive entered for the first time this year with its all-new BRX Hunter T1. ‘Dakar is the Everest of motorsport,’ says Richards. ‘Ari wanted me to do it many times years ago, but I never really fancied it, if I’m honest with you. It looked pretty dodgy to me! That said, I’ve long wanted to do it properly as a business, so it’s great to have the opportunity to build a great car and tackle the event with Seb [Loeb] and Nani [Roma]. We wouldn’t normally celebrate a fifth place, but Dakar is different. No new team has ever achieved such a high result at its first attempt.’

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So where did Richards’ love of cars originate? ‘I was brought up on a farm in north Wales, so we were driving cars up and down the lanes there when we were kids. Cars, tractors, motorbikes and things around the place. Mending motorbikes on the kitchen table. That sort of thing. When I was 16, I found a Frogeye Sprite in a farmer’s barn, and I remember buying it for about 75 quid. It was in pretty poor condition, but we had a big garage in the farmyard so I put it in there and stripped it all down. I must’ve borrowed a compressor, because I painted it myself, in a colour that was very fashionable at the time called Bahama Yellow. I thought it was the bee’s knees. Within a month I drove it to a local young farmer’s dance and met a girl there, who is now my wife of 46 years. I’m afraid the car didn’t last that long!’

So there was always a drop or two of petrol in Richards’ blood, but where did the love affair with motorsport begin? A true Welshman, it could only be road rallying: ‘I think everyone wants to drive, but some of us realise at an early stage we’re not good enough to be at a top level. I did a number of rallies at the local motor club, but I couldn’t really afford to do it so the car was always breaking. Eventually people said, “Do you want to come navigate for me?” And it turned out I was quite good at that, so I carried that on. It was in the era of road rallying. Where we lived, in the middle of north Wales, it was absolute rally central. There’d be a road rally somewhere within a 50-mile radius every weekend. Middle of the night, all night long, concentrating, doing the navigation. It was a great experience that led on to bigger things…

‘I was studying as an accountant in Liverpool, and a couple of things happened. The first one was that I got invited to co-drive for a guy called Tony Drummond in the Welsh Rally. It was quite a tough event in those days. Three days long, not much sleep, and my accountancy exams were starting on the Monday morning. Anyway, I told my parents I was off to stay with a friend in mid-Wales, did the rally and was completely destroyed afterwards. I don’t think I actually fell asleep in the exam, but I certainly didn’t pass it. I thought I got away with the escapade until the second thing happened, when the local newspaper wrote an article: “Local boy makes good”. I think we finished sixth or seventh, something like that, which was newsworthy in those days.’

The rest really is history, with Richards setting up his own motorsport consultancy, co-driving with Tony Pond in the factory British Leyland team, running Fiat’s rally efforts in the UK, securing that sponsorship for Ari Vatanen and winning the World Championship. Come the mid-’80s Richards was instrumental in a deal that introduced Rothmans to Porsche, the offshoot of the Group C programme being the Porsche Rothmans Rally Team running the unicorn 911 SC RS for drivers such as Henri Toivonen. It was upon this programme that the Prodrive organisation was founded. 

Though he was focused on building the Prodrive empire, Richards never lost his love of interesting road cars and leveraged his various affiliations to run some very cool daily drivers over the years, as he explains: ‘I had a Mini for quite a while. I couldn’t afford a Cooper or Cooper S, so it was a regular Mini. Then, when I went to Opel, who let me have a Commodore. That was a fancy car for a 25-year-old. Then I had a TR7. We had a rally version for our wedding day! I remember I had a Lancia Monte Carlo during that period too, when I was co-driving for Billy Coleman in his Stratos. I had all sorts of cars actually, from a Mercedes SEL, which made me feel like a mafia man, to a string of Porsche 928s I had as company cars when we ran the SC RSs. They were so futuristic and had a fantastic V8 engine. I loved them.’

During the ’90s Prodrive began its adventure with Subaru, which meant Richards had his pick from all manner of Impreza and Legacy models. Come the noughties he was also running Aston Martin Racing and its efforts in the World Sportscar Championship, with the DBR9 scoring early wins at Sebring and Le Mans. There was also his foray into F1 running the BAR team (another extension of that Rothmans connection), which saw the team finish second in the 2004 F1 World Championship. ‘When we came back after 2004, having finished second to Ferrari, I was disappointed, because I wanted another year to see if we could go one better. But the team was sold on, and that was the end of the job. That was what we were paid to do. I came back here thinking, “How are we going to evolve this business going forward?” We’re too dependent on motorsport, too dependent on racing. That was the first shift we made into doing alternative activities. Today we have work with aerospace, marine, with EV and alternative fuels, e-bikes, and we’re building ten Covid testing machines.’

Though he is no longer Aston Martin Lagonda chairman, DR is very much an Aston man at heart. His parking space is currently filled with a DB11. The passion for the marque is genuine, as ownership of a string of classic Astons over the years will attest. Aside from leading to tidy cupboards, Lockdown also reconnected Richards to his love of driving: ‘Most business trips, race circuits and weekends, I still tend to fly myself in a helicopter. But as it happens, about two weeks ago I had a series of meetings, and I thought to myself, “Why don’t I go for a drive?” And I just got in the DB11 Volante and drove across country to a meeting, then I had to drive into London, which wasn’t much fun, and then back out again. It was a day in the car on my own, which I rather enjoyed.’

So what of the future? ‘Of course I have great affection for the exciting, noisy road and race cars as we’ve known them, but we’ve got to think differently. I would not wish my grandchildren to reflect on my accomplishments in anything other than a positive way, and I think currently there’s a likelihood that they will reflect, as we do now on the cigarette era, in a negative way. They’ll look back and say, “How could our grandfather have done all those things with fossil fuels and not done anything about the environment that he’s left behind?” So the awareness is there, the desire is there to do something about it. Now we have to find ways in which we can make a constructive difference. 

‘Obviously we’ve still got to make a living here, so we’re not going to stop doing what we do at this particular time, but there’s nothing stopping us developing EV technology or sustainable fuels, for example. When you look at the number of internal combustion engines around the world it is naïve in the first order to think that by 2030 they’re going to be banned completely. We’ve got to set the agenda and we’ve got to work towards it, but we’ve got to do it in a realistic way that’s achievable. Whether it’s electric and the electric infrastructure we require, or whether it’s hydrogen and new technologies that we’ve got to sort out. There’s a whole new world out there and we’re going to play our part.’

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