The early days of Prodrive
A short write up of Prodrive's early history that set the foundation for future success.
Early in his career David Richards was the co driver of Ari Vatanen, together they won the 1981 World Rally Championship for the semi private Rothmans Rally Team, which was run by David Sutton Cars. After this success Richards decided to hang up his helmet and founded David Richards Autosport together with motorsport marketing expert Ian Perry. Originally a motorsport consultancy company for Rothmans and others, it evolved into a rally team in 1984 and was renamed Prodrive in 1985. The company would go on to be one of the biggest players in motorsport, running the BAR F1 team, Aston Martin LMP and GT programs, BMW/Mini WRC program and perhaps most famously the Subaru World Rally Team.
David Richards and Ari Vatanen posing with their Ford Escort RS1800 at the 1981 Acropolis Rally. (http://motorcanalsbalil.no-ip.info/displayimage.php?album=66&pid=52822)
Thanks to his close ties with Rothmans, Richards managed to convinced them to enter as a title sponsor for his new rally team in 1984. With a healthy cigarette budget and some support from Porsche, Prodrive was running the Rothmans Porsche Rally Team in both the European Rally Championship (ERC) and the newly formed Middle East Rally Championship (MERC). The original aim was to run the Porsche 959 within Group B but it was still early days for the 959, so the Porsche 911 SC/RS was conceived as a stopgap. Strictly speaking the 911 SC/RS wasn't a proper Group B car, but a rehomologated 911 SC Group 4 car. As Group B regulations allowed for a batch of 20 evolution models per homologation, Porsche built 20 911 SC/RS “evolution” models based on the faux Group B 911 SC for Prodrive.
Toivonen/Grindrod won the 1984 24h of Ypres Rally with the Porsche 911 SC/RS Group B. (https://twitter.com/rainernyberg1/status/926927151034716161)
In the ERC Henri Toivonen/Ian Grindrod were entered and finished second in the 1984 championship after winning three rallies, while Saeed Al-Hajri/John Spiller competed in the inaugural MERC and won three rallies and the championship. In 1985 Prodrive won the MERC again under the Rothmans banner with Al-Hajri/Spiller. Until 1986 the team entered a few WRC events, the highlight of those entries was a third place finish for Bernard Béguin/Jean-Jacques Lenne on the 1985 Tour de Corse (TdC). In the end, the planned WRC program with the 959 never came to be and Porsches commitment didn't go beyond supplying Prodrive with six 911 SC/RS. However Prodrive did use the 959 very rarely, in 1985 Al-Hajri/Spiller won the Rallye des Pharaons cross country rally with the 959. Interestingly Al-Hajri was the only driver to “compete” with the 959 against Group B cars when he participated in the 1986 Bettega Memorial show event held in remembrance of deceased rally driver Attilio Bettega. In 1986 Prodrive moved from Silverstone to their Banbury facilities were the company is situated to this day.
Al-Hajri participated with the Porsche 959 at the inaugural Bettega Memorial in 1986. (https://rallygroupbshrine.org/the-group-b-cars/group-b-prototypes/porsche-959/#jp-carousel-1547)
After the team ran a MG Metro 6R4 with Jimmy McRae/Grindrod in the 1986 British Rally Championship, Richards wanted to get closer ties with a car manufacturer. Following the ban of Group B cars, he saw a chance to use BMW M3 in rallies. Prodrive adapted the touring car homologation special for rallying and won the 1987 TdC with Béguin/Lenne. Simultaneously the company started to get involved in circuit racing via the BTCC were Fank Sytner managed to win the title in 1988 with a Prodrive built BMW. In this period the company developed a close relationship with BMW and enjoyed success with the RWD M3 in the tarmac focused Belgian and French Rally Championships until 1990. Patrick Snijers/Dany Colebunders won the Belgian Championship in 1988 as did Marc Duez/Alain Lopes in 1989, while François Chatriot/Michel Perin won both the 1989 and 1990 French Championship. But on WRC level the M3 didn't reach the same heights, as a naturally aspirated RWD car it couldn't hope to compete with cars like the Lancia Delta or Toyota Celica.
Béguin/Lenne at the 1987 Tour de Corse, the french round of the WRC. (https://twitter.com/prodrive/status/857147026915700736)
When then-president of Subaru Tecnica International, Ryuichiro Kuze contacted Prodrive in 1989 to inquire about a potential racing or rally program, it turned out to be the right opportunity at the right time. The two entities quickly found an agreement and Prodrive was running the official Subaru World Rally Team from 1990 onwards. Over the years Prodrive and Subaru experienced success and failure alike but that is a story that would blast the length of this article.