On the fast track to success

Jeff Heselwood

Motor-racing and research group Prodrive has engineered grand results on both the rally and commercial circuits. By combining good technology and generous international sponsorships, the team is speeding ahead of its rivals.

British automotive-engineering and research group Prodrive has pulled off a neat trick. They've taken British engineering, Japanese innovation, British sponsorship and Italian rubber technology, and built one of the fastest rally cars in the world: the Subaru Impreza WRC.

For the 555 Subaru World Rally Team, which is managed by Prodrive, the results have indeed been impressive. Every year there are rallies in 15 countries held in a variety of conditions and over differing surfaces. The Impreza, driven by 1995 world champion Colin McRae, Italian Piero Liatti and former Asia-Pacific rally champion, Sweden's Kenneth Erikson, has notched up many victories. Overall, Prodrive-managed rally teams have contested more than 245 events since 1984, winning more than 87 - an impressive strike rate of almost 36%.

There is no overlooking the fact, though, that Prodrive, based in Banbury in central England, has had an embarrassment of riches with which to work. British-American Tobacco's (BAT) sponsorship of the Subaru team gives Prodrive access to some of the world's most advanced engineering technology. Prodrive budgets around 21 million (about US$35 million) for the year, in addition to its free supply of tyres from Pirelli, worth between 2 million to 3 million to the team (Also box story). While BAT will not confirm numbers, it is understood that most of the cash comes from that multinational group, while Subaru, part of Fuji Heavy Industries, supplies the hardware, including a large supply of engines.

That figure of 21 million is about the same budget required by mid-field Grand Prix teams such as Prost or Sauber, and considerably more than teams like Minardi or Tyrrell. Prodrive expects to build between 12 and 15 rally cars this year, depending on how many are destroyed in accidents. A small number will also be built for sale to well-heeled customers.

Prodrive's chairman is David Richards, a former rally co-driver. In 1981, he partnered the legendary Finnish driver Ari Vatanen to the world championship. When Richards' competitive career came to an end in 1984, he formed Prodrive to run the Rothmans rally team for the talented young Finn, Henri Toivonen. Toivonen put Richards and Prodrive on the map with his exciting drives in the Rothmans Porsche, but was later tragically killed during the Corsican rally in 1986.

By then Richards had realised he wanted more than simply to develop a rally car. He set out to establish a specialist engineering company to compete against Lotus Engineering and Tom Walkinshaw's TWR Group.

Prodrive is expected to post a turnover of 40 million for 1997, up from 29.5 million in 1996, when pre-tax profit was 1.6 million.

The company is divided into three divisions: engineering, sales and motor sport, all of which are profitable. The motor sport division is, of course, the most visible. The highly successful Subaru World Rally Team operates all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, China and Europe.

The Honda Accord touring car team, also a client of Prodrive, has recently begun winning races in the extremely competitive British Touring Car Championship (BTCC).

Honda's drivers include young Briton James Thompson and 1994 BTCC champion and one-time Formula One driver, Gabriele Tarquini.

In 1995, the Subaru team won both the drivers' and manufacturers' world rally championships, with Scotland's McRae, 27, becoming the youngest-ever World Rally Champion. McRae is still driving the Subaru to good effect, winning this year's gruelling Safari rally in Kenya and the high-speed Rally de France, held on the picturesque Mediterranean island of Corsica.

McRae's co-driver this year is popular Welshman Nicky Grist, 35, a veteran of the right-hand seat, having partnered Finland's Juha Kankkunen to numerous victories in recent years.

Prodrive's engineering division carries out research and development for a number of major motor manufacturers and automotive component suppliers.

Its engineering services include design, prototype machining and fabrication, engine and transmission development, electronics and vehicle testing. Last year, the engineering division accounted for 20% of turnover.

Prodrive's main source of revenue comes from its motor sports division, which last year accounted for 47% of its total income, while the sales division brought in 33%.

While Prodrive's sales division sells second-hand rally cars that have been used by their racing team - such models have great cachet - it also markets brand new specialist high-performance vehicles built by the company.

A new rally car costs an average 200,000. The required spare parts cost as much while the price of an engine rebuild ranges from 15,000 to 25,000.

Richards says the company's future lies in engineering consultancy. But he has not ruled out the possibility of diversifying into other areas of motor sports.

'Anything we do must, first of all, be complementary to the existing programme - we have a rolling contract with Subaru in rallying and a three-year plan with Honda in touring cars - and it must be commercially viable,' he says. 'It must also take the form of a long-term contract.' Having said that, Richards says his engineering division would consider one-off projects if, again, they are 'commercially viable'.