B.B. Your involvement in every aspect of motorsport spans 3 decades. How and why did it all start?
D.R. Where did it all start? Well, I suppose all small boys’ dream is to go motor racing, to play with cars. I was brought up on a farm in Wales – a long way from any racing circuit, but even so car rallies are just as big a thing there as they are in Scandinavia and elsewhere. From the age of sixteen, even before I had my driving licence, I was driving cars around the farm, and then soon after my birthday I was racing cars in car rallies. I was studying to be an accountant, but the racing was far more interesting to me, so before I finished all my accountancy exams I ended up getting a professional contract driving for one of the factory teams, and from there on, as they say, it’s all history.
B.B. Did you finish the accountancy exams?
D.R. I finished the five years of accountancy – and did the five years of articles – but never took the last exam. My father always said, or thought, I would go back to it but I never did. It was a good experience, nevertheless, and helpful in running a business.
B.B. You won the World Rally Championship in 1981 with co-driver Ari Vatanen. Did you at the time consider this to be the pinnacle of your career or did you have a very clear vision of developing your motorsport business interests?
D.R. At the time, winning a world title was a very significant achievement yet I’d always felt that spending your life in a car going round and round in circles was not challenging enough. It was always my intention to do something else immediately after, so it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when, just after we’d won the title, I decided to stop and set up my own business.
I was only thirty years old at the time, so it was a good time to do it. I wouldn’t say I knew where I was going, I think we just had a very competitive instinct; I surrounded myself with very creative people, very demanding about everything we did, and we started doing consultancy work for the large sponsors. Rothmans had been my sponsor while I was competing and I acted as a consultant for them in their sports car racing, their Formula One racing and various other interests. That led to setting up my own teams and the business just diversified over a period of years.
B.B. Is it fair to say that some people have a knack for parleying their interests into a successful business, while the majority just enjoy their interests as a hobby?
D.R. Most people keep their work separate from their private life: they get up in the morning, go to work, get a salary and enjoy their weekend and vacations, their social and sports activities. For me work and leisure merge completely – I can’t imagine trying to drive a distinction between working or having fun. Whether I’m in the office or attending some social function or at a racing meeting, I enjoy it all in the same degree – it’s all seamless for me.
B.B. You sound like the luckiest man alive.
D.R. I am very lucky, I appreciate that.
B.B. You created a new rally series in the Middle East very early on in your career. Why and how the Middle East? It is not an obvious or easy part of the world to make a breakthrough unless you are indigenous to the area.
D.R. The Middle East has played a very pivotal part throughout my life and career. After competing in rallies I was invited by Rothmans to organise rallies in the region. They had been my sponsors originally with my own racing, and they wanted to do promotions in the Middle East in the seventies. They asked me to help organise events so I ended up doing exactly that – I organised the first car rally in the whole region, first in Kuwait, and from there in Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, through Oman, up to Jordan and other countries in that part of the world.
I made an enormous number of friends and have great relationships with a lot of people there to this day, and I think that’s helped me in other areas in later life. I believe things go round in big circles, as has been proven of late with my involvement in Aston Martin.
B.B. Do you speak Arabic?
D.R. No, but I am quite good at picking up on languages, I get the gist of what somebody’s saying… I don’t understand them precisely but you get a feeling of what’s going on. Arabic is quite a challenging language but I do pick up bits and pieces.
B.B. How do you identify a rally driver with great potential? What, apart from driving skills, does it take to be a great rally driver as opposed to a good one? Is it a particular set of mind?
D.R. I think there are three main attributes for a great racing driver or a rally driver (they are the same in certain situations). Obviously there is a certain amount of natural talent: you can’t do this unless you have natural balance, a natural gift, and that competitive spirit. Secondly, there’s an enormous work ethic required. In any form of motor sport there is far more practising, and far more training, than actual racing. So to get the right results you have to put an enormous amount of work in. And the third element is to get the team around you to work with you. People look at a racing driver on the track and think that it is a very lonely, one person existence – whether it’s a F1 driver or a world class rally driver. But the reality is the only way they can be successful is if they have the entire team supporting them and working in the right direction with them.
You see the way Schumacker built the Ferrari team around him in Formula One and you see the same in Sebastien Loebwho is the current rally world champion. If the team builds around you and supports you wholeheartedly, it gives you another little edge over everyone else.
B.B. How do you personally identify great potential? Is it a gut feeling?
D.R. It’s quite difficult. There’s bit of science behind it, because clearly there’s a track record. Each day we look for new drivers to join our next year team: we look and we analyse who these drivers might be and where we might get them from. We’ve looked at the records of dozens of drivers over the last five or ten years now: looking at their results, how they compare, how reliable they are…
Clearly that is a major part, but sometimes you find under-performing drivers who have not achieved their potential for different reasons: they might have been put in the wrong set of circumstances or perhaps they’re in the shadow of an older driver who’s more experienced and who’s got the team working with him… Although they are team partners, these drivers are almost outside of the team and don’t get the results they should. If you can take these people out of the existing environment and put them into another where they are really happy, they can blossom and you get great results.
A good example of the above is the British driver Richard Burns, whom we took out of another team, brought him into our team and suddenly he just excelled and became world champion.
So you can’t always rely on the results as they appear in front of you – you have to look at the bigger picture. I actually think that intellect has got a lot to do with it as well. If you look at most of the top sportsmen, they are quite intelligent people, they know how to apply themselves, and I like to meet these people and talk with them. These days of course, promotional skills and the actual ability to communicate are critical factors for us in marketing and in our relationships with car manufacturers or sponsors.
Ideally drivers would be personable, or be prepared to work on it. But I’ve yet to meet the perfect driver!
B.B. What I find interesting about you as a businessman is that you identified and commercially exploited the concept of co-branding (Rothmans and Porsche, followed by other successful partnerships) before co-branding was the buzzword that it is now. Was this an intuitive or a carefully planned, strategic approach at the time?
D.R. I think it was just an obvious relationship. Motorsports are a good example of an activity that requires very significant investment – there’s no question that the wealthier the team, the more successful it is. Normally when teams [outside of motorsports] become successful they get wealthy; with motorsports you need the finance to get the team going faster – it’s just a fact of life.
A term commonly used in motorsports is ‘speed costs money, and how fast would you like to go?’ In the early days when I set up my teams, it was very clear to me that the only way we were going to be successful was to persuade partners to join us, to get investment into the team, to find good business relationships, long term relationships with people that would give us stability and are instrumental to success. We approach those relationships from the sponsor’s point of view. We know sponsors are not necessarily interested in motor racing but in promoting their business, so we measure ourselves by what our partners’ have achieved through joining us rather than just by how many championships we’ve won.
B.B. It sounds a lot like ‘ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’
D.R. That’s right, that’s a very good analysis!
B.B. Who are the most active sponsors in motorsport in general and of individual drivers in particular?
D.R. Historically motorsports has had a lot of investment from cigarette companies, but that stopped about six or seven years ago, when legislation regulating tobacco advertising changed. The void left by tobacco sponsorship is increasingly being filled energy drink brands such as Red Bull, computer and telecommunication companies, such as Vodafone in Formula One, or their competitors in other arenas. The industry itself has gone back a little to its roots: the car manufacturers and their technical partners – the oil partners and the petroleum partners – that had been previously priced out by the sponsors’ excesses are now coming back into the sport.
B.B. Is Prodrive going to place an entry again for the 2011 F1 World Championship? Which rally, F1 or the WRC is more demanding in terms of driving skills?
D.R. We’ve had a close association with the world Formula One title now for many years. We’ve also looked at putting our team in on a couple of occasions, but I’m firmly of the belief that the only way to do that is if you meet two fundamental criteria. The first one is that you need to be relatively competitive. I’m not a great advocate of going in the back of the woods and sort of fighting our way up. Now, no-one ever expects to go in winning the Grand Prix but there are ways of going into Formula One where we would expect to arrive at the middle of the group, in my view. Secondly it’s got to be commercially viable. There are so many people who go into Formula One with their eyes closed, they don’t realise what they’re letting themselves into, they don’t realise what they’re letting themselves into, they don’t have the right financial resources or the ability to access them, and they’re inevitably going to remain at the back of the grid forever. And so if we could meet both of those criteria we would still consider it. I don’t believe the environment is right for that though, and given all the other things we’ve got going on at the moment it’s not my number one priority.
B.B. Which of the two rallies is more challenging: Formula One or the World Rally Championship?
D.R. The difference between a driver in Formula One and in the WRC is very pronounced – they are completely different skill sets. It would be like asking ‘who is the better runner, the one who can run the marathon or the one who can run the one hundred meters in nine and a half seconds, or whatever the time is these days’ . They are that different skill sets. It was interesting to watch this year Kimi Raikkonen who has moved from the Formula One to the WRC – while he’s very fast for short amounts of time (he’s obviously a very talented driver and a Formula One champion), he’s had lots of accidents and hasn’t had the results everyone expected of him. Conversely Sebastien Loeb, who is by far the best rally champion out there, has had a go at sports car racing and tested in a Formula One car, and while he would be very good at it, he still wouldn’t be able to get in amongst the top drivers. It’s very specialised, just as anyathletic programme or anything else. Could the top football players be good rugby players, could the top rugby player be a good footballer?
The basic skills are probably common, just as they might be on a motorcycle. For instance Valentino Rossi has tried the WRC and is competent. But there’s competent and that last one or two percent that makes you superb, and that takes you many, many years of training. There’s a sort of truism in sport as there is in many of walks of life: that you need ten thousand hours and ten years to be competent at a particular activity, and there aren’t any shortcuts.
B.B. Prodrive has been, in fact, and continues to be associated with some of the most powerful symbols of speed, excellence, wealth – Ferrari, Aston Martin, Le Mans, Formula 1… is there a more sober aspect of the business and what is your typical day – apart from driving some of the most desirable cars in the world?
D.R. I guess when most people look at ProDrive they just think of the fast cars; they think we all spend our lives at the race track enjoying ourselves and spraying champagne. But the reality is that we’re very a methodical organisation behind the scenes, and we wouldn’t have survived for twenty-five years in what is an extraordinarily competitive industry, with its fair share of failures, if we weren’t behaving in a very methodical, business-like way.
My day normally starts very early in the morning, about half-past five. I have an office at each of our houses, whether it’s here in London or out in the country, so I just wander into my study and have a quiet few hours on my own catching up on emails. I don’t normally go into the main office until about half-past nine. The first hours of the morning are a good time to catch up, because once I’m in the office, it’s just non-stop telephone calls or meetings. The day ends, almost inevitably, going out to dinner with people or doing something that’s related to the company.
Behind the scenes the company’s diversified: we started off with motor racing, and I always regard that as our core, the roots that have created the culture of the business and a very competitive organisation that lends its hand to anything. We have an engineering department that’s working on future technologies and hybrid development projects – we have some very special technology in that area and are looking to move into the auto motoring industry in the next few years. We work on special edition road cars for people, not necessarily all the types of famous road cars but specialist road cars that we apply our engineering skills to.
We have joint ventures with Ford in Australia where we do production cars for Ford. We have a range of other, more mundane activities – a merchandising and licensing division which handles a lot of the race merchandising for teams like McLaren, Williams in Formula One, and Aston Martin ourselves.
Business never stands still: most racing teams stick to their core business and only that. I think that creates vulnerability because you inevitably have poor years and difficult times. We have diversified and have a range of different activities – every year, out of a dozen or so business streams that we have there will be two or three that are enormously successful and two or three that are not performing as they should do, and the rest will be about average, so it all balances out.
As a company, we are self-contained in that we try to create new opportunities for people who have outlived their racing potential. We re-locate these people to different projects in the company where they can use their skills sets in a different context. Out of the 14 people who started ProDrive with me, I believe 9 are still with us. Stability of relationships is one of the features of our company and something I believe in.
We do recruit an awful lot of people inside the company. There is a tendency in racing to poach people from other teams but my view of that is that it doesn’t create a strong culture in your own organisation – it just creates a group of nomads. We recruit a lot of apprentices from local schools and universities. The person who is going to lead the Mini world rally team next year is a young guy, who started with us as an apprentice, went away to college to do his HMD course, came back to us and our rally team originally, married, had three children, went back to university to do a mechanical engineering degree at the age of thirty two, returned to the Aston Martin racing team, and now heads the Mini team as well.
B.B. The Mini is another powerful symbol, but vastly different from the Ferraris and Aston Martins in terms of perception. Quite apart from its technical capabilities, have you selected it for the World Rally Championship because it is a more fitting symbol for the new austerity age?
D.R. Not at all. There are two fundamental reasons why we chose to work with Mini: the first reason is that technically the product suited the purpose ideally. The car that we are going to use is a completely new product – it’s not the Mini you see today, it’s the Mini Countryman which has just been launched. It is a four-wheel drive and has small turbo-charged engines. It’s a completely new car for Mini and quite a different Mini from the one we’ve grown to love over the last ten years. In addition to that, and equally important, is the fact that Mini, by anyone’s standard, is an iconic brand. In global terms it must be one of the most recognisable car brands anywhere, so finding commercial partners to work with us and developing that whole activity, while not easy, has been made easier because of the brand recognition. I personally feel great affinity with it because you couldn’t think of two more iconic British car brands than Aston Martin or Mini. For me, it’s like a dream come true.
B.B. Tell us more about the plans to build a small city car under the Aston Martin brand?
D.R. It’s built at Aston Martin’s headquarters in Warwickshire as a result of discussions with our customers who tend to use their sports cars for weekends and holidays, rather than routinely or in Central London. With everyone being very aware of environmental issues these days, the idea was to meet demand from people who live in large capital cities and to create an everyday car with the same luxury attributes as the large sports cars we produce. The Cignet will be available from the beginning of next year, and in fact there’s been one on display in Harrods this week.
The car has a very efficient, small gasoline engine and will be priced at around the £30000 mark.
B.B. What is Aston Martin’s most active market at the moment?
D.R. The interesting thing about Aston Martin is that historically it’s been a very British-centric brand. If you turn the clock back ten years, obviously the volumes of cars we sold then were a lot lower, but you’d find that maybe fifty percent were sold in the UK. Of late about twenty-five percent are sold in the UK, twenty-five percent in America, twenty-five percent in Europe and the balance in the rest of the world. The thing is that we haven’t had dealerships on a global basis until the last few years. Now we’ve rolled out new dealerships from Chile, Santiago which is open this year, to Buenos Ares, San Paulo, and we’re expanding into China and the Far East, and even nearer home, where we never had a dealer before – Greece.
But remember that we produce a relatively small number of cars, about five thousand or thereabout, so it’s only a matter of a handful or cars in each of these countries. Aston Martin is still an extraordinarily exclusive product.