Everywhere you look in West Surrey Racing’s Sunbury-on-Thames base, there are trophies. While many are nicely displayed surrounding a 1981 Formula 3 car in a welcome room, there are some in reception. In a cabinet on the staircase. In meeting rooms. In corridors. Balanced along the wall supports of the main workshop. Yes, there are a lot of trophies.
Dick Bennetts, the engineering ace who founded WSR in 1981, is proud of his team’s trophy collection – although he quips, semi-jokingly, that he’d rather the British Touring Car Championship hand out prize money instead. Still, all this silverware represents his team’s remarkable 39-year history, as a dominant force in British F3 and now as the multi-title-winning standard-bearer in the BTCC.
Arriving in Britain from New Zealand in 1972 to spanner his friend David Oxton’s Formula Ford car, Bennetts worked his way up through the engineering ranks to briefly work for McLaren in Formula 1 before switching to run Ron Dennis’s British F3 team in 1980, helping Stefan Johansson secure the crown.
Dennis shuttered his F3 team the following year to focus on F1, with the title-winning Ralt chassis sold to businessman Mike Cox, who backed rising star Jonathan Palmer. But with the young Brit struggling in testing, Bennetts was called in to help in a test. He fiddled with the settings, Palmer lapped faster than Johansson ever did and Bennetts found himself setting up a team of his own. Despite a tiny budget (“If JP knew the lengths we went to repair things on a shoestring…”), Palmer won the title.
WSR has barely stopped winning since then. It ran Ayrton Senna to the championship in 1983, before further titles with future F1 stars Maurício Gugelmin (1985), Mika Häkkinen (1990) and Rubens Barrichello (1991).
WSR took a major change of direction in 1996, when Ford was looking for a new team to run its works BTCC team, and driver Paul Radisich helped persuade his fellow Kiwi to take it on. “After 15 years in F3, I just wanted a change,” says Bennetts. It was a tough start at the height of the Super Touring era. Ford’s plans to have a new car built fell through, leaving WSR to source Mondeos from Germany, which had to be converted from four-wheel drive to front-wheel drive. “They were unreliable and uncompetitive,” says Bennetts. “I thought about going back to F3. But we stuck with it.”
It took until 1998 for Will Hoy to score WSR’s first BTCC win, but such perseverance paid off. Two successful years running the works Honda team followed in 1999 and 2000 (the last for the Super Touring class), before a stint as the works MG team in the early years of the short-lived BTC class. In one of motorsport’s oddest endorsement deals, WSR also ran the short-lived Team Atomic Kitten operation in 2002, with a line-up including then BTCC rookie Colin Turkington.
WSR lost its MG backing for 2004 but continued to run a privateer ZS team, eventually securing title sponsorship from RAC. “At the end of 2006, RAC’s marketing director asked us why we were racing a car you couldn’t buy,” Bennetts recalls, “and we explained that it was all we could afford.” In response, RAC helped the team buy a pair of E90-generation BMW 320Si tin-tops. “I thought about buying some ex-works Vauxhalls, but you can never compete against the team that builds them,” he says. “We took a gamble and flew to Germany. The BMW brand name sounded great, especially with what they had done in the past. It was a gamble to switch from front- to rear-wheel drive, but BMW Motorsport came and helped us with an early test and we’ve never looked back.”