The unsurprising return of David Richards 05 May 2006
Last week's announcement that Prodrive will be running Formula One's 12th team next season came as no surprise to most in the paddock.
Prodrive have a very impressive track record when it comes to motorsport, both on the race track and the rally stage. But more relevantly, the organisation's chairman, David Richards, has always been regarded as somebody destined to return to the sport after his stint running BAR. Ever since he was moved aside from that role by Honda at the end of the 2004 season, speculation has been rife that he would return to Formula One management in some capacity.
Richards' track record proves his credentials as a driven man. In his early 20s he was already a professional rally co-driver, competing most famously alongside Ari Vatanen, with whom he won the rallying world championship in 1981. At the ripe old age of 29 he retired from participation in front-line motorsport and moved behind the scenes, with the Prodrive organisation he founded quickly becoming involved in running rally cars for teams including Porsche and Subaru. Diversification into racing saw Prodrive run both touring car and GT-class race teams. Richards - or DR as he's inevitably known by those who work with him - has proved himself one of the consummate motorsport managers.
Five years ago he took on what looked like his toughest challenge to date - taking effective control of the then infamously unsuccessful BAR Formula One team. Changes that had already been made to the team's structure before Richards arrived certainly played a part in the dramatic improvement in results that followed - but Richards' charismatic leadership and ability to see potential deserves much of the credit. The team he inherited was fighting at the back of the pack. By the time he left at the end of 2004, BAR had just taken second place in the constructors' championship, costs were under control and the team was being led on-track by the resurgent talent of Jenson Button.
Richards' ability to get the best out of people is likely to be one of the key attributes of his new team, and he has a strong history of helping to realise potential. In Formula One racing the greatest example of this is Button, whose flagging career was, some feel, saved by Richards' belief in him. Before his move to BAR, Button was languishing at Renault where he was off the pace and lacking confidence. Now Button is one of the fastest and most consistent men on the grid, Richards having seen his potential to prove himself as a number one driver. Their relationship certainly wasn't all smooth - but without Richards' faith in him, Button might well not be driving for a front-line team, let alone be marked down as one of the outstanding talents of the future.
Turning to the future, Prodrive's prospects in the sport look very strong for a new team. Although they lack the technical might of rival Formula One teams at the moment, their depth of engineering experience means that they should be in a very good position to scale up to the new challenge. Richards' charisma and leadership skills should also help to attract engineering and driving talent to the team - providing the cash can be found to pay for it all, of course. But most important to the prospects of the new team is the fact that Richards already has three seasons of experience of the so-called Piranha Club of team principals. His biggest problem may be managing people's expectations of success after the results he achieved with BAR.