When car fanatics read Prodrive, the first image they usually recall is the 555-liveried blue Subaru Impreza Group A rally car, popping through a Welsh forest or screeching along a Catalan mountain pass at 100mph.
And rightly so. For the Oxfordshire-based company in Banbury was responsible for no less than six World Rally Championship titles with the Japanese car maker.
It all began when David Richards, fresh from co-driving Ari Vatanen to the 1981 World Rally Championship, devoted time to developing his business interests. This led to the formation of a rally team and the creation of Prodrive in 1984.
That year, the company entered a Porsche 911 SC RS piloted by Saeed Al Hajri in the Qatar International Rally, the first round of the inaugural FIA Middle East Rally Championship, and won on its debut outing.
Richards recalls that event: “We entered a fairly standard Porsche 911 in our first rally in Qatar and survived numerous problems, as the car was far more suited to the race track than desert roads. The Porsche came straight from the factory in Germany and it was to be the first of numerous successes we enjoyed with Saeed Al Hajri, but winning our first event was particularly memorable.”
The company first competed in the WRC in 1984 at the Acropolis Rally and would win its first WRC event in a privately entered BMW E30 M3 driven by Bernard Beguin at the Tour de Corse in 1987.
The Prodrive chairman believes to single out just one of the successes and the particular people involved would be unfair, because over the last 30 years various employees have had their fair share of success and disappointment.
“For me, there are a series of highlights rather than one outstanding success. Obviously Colin [McRae] winning the World Rally Championship was a very special day for everyone here and British motorsport in general. Taking Aston Martin back to Le Mans was something very special and winning the British Touring Car titles with the Ford Mondeo and Alain Menu.”
In 2002, Prodrive expanded further, taking the plunge into the ultra-expensive world of Formula One when British American Tobacco head-hunted Prodrive to manage the (at that time) unsuccessful constructor BAR-Honda. David Richards was immediately made team principal and within two years BAR-Honda had finished second in the constructor’s championship – only to Ferrari. The following year British American Tobacco sold the team to Honda and Prodrive’s contract with the team immediately ended.
So how did Prodrive find the transition from British touring cars, WRC and Le Mans to when Formula One was at its peak in terms of spiralling costs and outright speed?
“The numbers (of people and costs) were bigger and the skill sets were slightly different in the way you apply them, but the management of the teams and application of resources are very similar. At the end of the day, you’re trying to get a motor car around a circuit faster than anybody else.
“And the fact the detail required on a Formula One car and the technologies are radically different from those that you use a rally car to win the Monte Carlo rally, but it’s still the same philosophy behind it all. It’s all about people at the end of the day, and getting the people right and getting the whole organisation working effectively,” Richards says with an endearing passion.
With the increase in resources and technical sophistication comes an increase in total costs. But as Richards explains, the differences are not just about total costs.