Formula One will welcome a new team next year as Prodrive join the World Championship from 2008 onwards. Although the company is not widely known outside of motorsport they have an enormous racing profile and proudly boast that “no other business is involved in so many top level international motorsport series”.
Prodrive are currently competing in the World Rally Championship along with various Sports Car and Touring Car programmes. In the past they have run teams for Subaru, Aston Martin, Ford, Porsche, Honda, and BMW and have won almost everything they’ve contested. Prodrive have claimed six World Rally titles and five BTCC championships, along with a class victory at Le Mans.
Prodrive is a rather interesting racing team due to the fact they have never built their own car. They simply run customer outfits for other manufacturers. It has clearly been a successful strategy and it is the very philosophy behind their assault on Formula One.
The 2008 F1 regulations have been changed to allow customer cars. Currently all of the teams are required to own the intellectual property of their machinery, but from next year on this no longer applies and they will be free to buy and sell parts off each other.
Prodrive will be taking full advantage of the new rules and will not be manufacturing their own chassis or engines. Instead they will be using another constructor’s technology and will effectively be a junior team. Prodrive boss Dave Richards is comfortable with this approach saying “We are confident that the new regulations will allow Prodrive to be competitive on an affordable budget”.
It is yet to be confirmed exactly who Prodrive will be partnered with although the smart money is linking them to McLaren. BMW and Mercedes are the only manufactures who are not supplying engines to multiple teams at the moment so it makes sense for them to start seeking alliances with smaller outfits. Supplying engines to Prodrive will allow Mercedes to double their development without a substantial increase in cost.
Prodrive’s David Lapworth believes most of the F1 cars are so similar in performance that more significant gains can be found outside chassis design. “Certainly our view is that we would focus our effort on those things that make the biggest difference and not waste time on the stuff that one can buy in”.
Prodrive have proven themselves to be very successful at running customer teams. The company started by operating rally cars for Porsche and BMW before moving into touring car racing as well. It was BMW that gave Prodrive their first major success when they won the BTCC title at only their second attempt. Despite this and other touring car championships Prodrive is best known for competing in rallies where they have won over 100 international events and 6 world titles with Subaru.
Although Prodrive has an impressive history after just 23 years of operation they are not likely to become a serious F1 contender.
Not only will the team struggle to break out of the midfield but at this stage they might be lucky to even make the grid. There are only seven months to go before the 2008 season kicks off and nothing about the new team has been announced. Prodrive have not confirmed who will be supplying their cars, who will be driving them, or who will be sponsoring them, so from the outside you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing has been organised at all.
The mysterious thing is that the team is not silent by choice. In April Dave Richards said “I hope to be in a position by the summer, probably at the British Grand Prix, to make a full announcement. That will include sponsors, and even drivers, by then”.
When the British Grand Prix arrived Richards had nothing to reveal and could only say “It would be nice to have something to announce by now, but the truth of the matter is that we are a few weeks away from sorting a few issues out”.
Six weeks have passed since the Grand Prix at Silverstone but still nothing has been confirmed. It is starting to look like Prodrive could be in for a real struggle to be ready for 2008 and more than a few people are worried, not least of all the drivers linked with the team.
Alexander Wurz is one of them having previously worked with Dave Richards at Benetton. It seems increasingly likely that Williams will drop Wurz next year so Prodrive would be a convenient move for the Austrian, although he doesn’t seem sure it could happen.
“I am a bit sceptical because it is already very late in the season and we have not heard much from them”.
Everyone is waiting for the media release that confirms Prodrive as a McLaren junior team, but perhaps a deal has not yet been finalised. Who knows? Maybe McLaren have pulled out of negotiations leaving Dave Richards in a real mess.
Whatever the story, the lack of preparation means Prodrive will be rushing against time to be on the grid at Melbourne next year. Super Aguri proved it was possible but Dave Richards will not want to emulate their early efforts.
The long term future of Prodrive is just as intriguing as their arrangements for 2008, with plenty of speculation linking them to Aston Martin in the years ahead.
Prodrive have taken Aston Martin to a class win at Le Mans and Dave Richards recently bought the British car company outright off Ford. Richards did so without any involvement from Prodrive and made it quite clear at the time he had no ambitions to take the Aston Martin brand into Formula One. However, it is still a very strong link and if Richards ever decides that Aston Martin could benefit from an involvement in F1 he has the perfect platform to make it happen. An Aston Martin Grand Prix team would be very special and the marketing potential is enormous.
Not only are Prodrive linked to Aston Martin, but Nick Fry could be a part of their long term plans as well. Fry was Managing Director at Prodrive between 2001 and 2005 and may wish to return if things at Honda don’t start improving soon. The Japanese car maker is caught in a downward spiral and their continued decline is making life very difficult for the team principal. If Nick Fry is pushed from Honda, or if he decides to leave on his own terms, he would find a logical home at Prodrive.
That is the least of Dave Richard’s concerns at the moment. He is racing against the clock to be ready, but once underway he will also be battling with history.
The last team to enter Formula One from scratch and win a world title was Williams who started thirty years ago in 1977. No other new team since then has taken championship glory and Williams look like holding onto that record for some time to come.
Just like Prodrive, Williams’ entry into the 1977 season was rushed and the team missed the first four races. Frank Williams had actually started the year as General Manager of Walter Wolf Racing and only formed his own team in January after being sacked.
At short notice Frank created Williams Grand Prix Engineering and bought a customer car from March. The small Didcot team achieved little in their first year with a best result of seventh, but the goal early on was to save money and design their own car for 1978.
Williams did exactly that and they scored their first points that year. They went on to take their first win in 1979 and their first championship in 1980 with Alan Jones. The team’s rise to the top of Formula One was meteoric and Williams stayed there for the best part of twenty years.
Prodrive are also leaving their entry rather late and will be using a customer car. However that’s where the similarities end and they will never go close to matching the rapid ascendancy of Williams.
Prodrive will want to pull it together soon or they will even have trouble equalling the early results of Super Aguri.
No doubt all will be revealed shortly.