by Russell Atkins
Prodrive chairman David Richards is the man charged with turning around Subaru's poor form in the 2006 World Rally Championship, but he is convinced brighter times lie ahead, both for the Banbury-based squad and the sport in general.
In charge of the WRC's television and commercial rights package since 2000, Richards has a busy job on his hands as he bids to safeguard the future of a sport that in recent years has come in for much criticism for its dwindling number of manufacturer entries, while at the same time leading Subaru back to the top step of the rostrum once again. Here he explains what he sees ahead over the forthcoming campaign…
David, what kind of shape is the World Rally Championship looking in as we head into 2007?
Citroen are back in the championship and still running cars in private hands with the Kronos team, we've got Mitsubishi out again and Subaru are clearly back in the fray too. Everyone says there are only a few manufacturers, but the reality is there's a lot of depth in the private teams and a big shift towards that. Just look at the strength of the Ford team under Malcolm Wilson now – I've lost count of how many cars he's fielding! There are new young drivers coming in too, and they don't come through as quickly in rallying as they do in circuit racing. In rallying you need years of experience, but the chances that are being given to the likes of Matthew Wilson for example and some of the other young drivers coming along is encouraging.
You mentioned the recent criticism of the WRC, but there's potentially a great fight to look forward to in 2007 between Marcus Gronholm, a back-to-full-fitness Sebastien Loeb and obviously Petter Solberg as well at Subaru. How do you see that all shaking out?
The facts of the matter are that Sebastien has shown the rest a clean pair of heels on most events, on most surfaces and under most conditions, so he is a bit of a star turn. But Marcus has proved on his day he is equally as quick, and when Petter is on-form and has the right car underneath him he can challenge as well. Those have to be the three leading lights as we go into this season, and I would hope there will be some new young talent coming to the fore too.
You say when Petter has the right car underneath him, but obviously 2006 was rather a struggle for Subaru. How disappointing was that for you?
It was a very frustrating season, the worst one we have had in a decade. We didn't get a single win last year, and that's extraordinary given that in other years we have won numerous events and world championships, but these things happen even to the best of teams. We've seen it in other forms of motorsport – we've seen Ferrari in the doldrums in Formula One and look what happened shortly after that.
What we have got to do now is regroup. We have had a careful look at the car. We understand what the principal issues are and have really gone back to basics and started all over again, and as a result of that we believe we will make sensible progress this year. In the early part of the year we will be using the old car. There are still some inherent issues to resolve, then March sees the introduction of an updated model and 2008 will see a brand new car.
So how long do you think it will take Subaru to return fully to its winning ways again?
The first three events are always a bit of a lottery, but Petter has always been extremely good on the snow rallies in Scandinavia and obviously he wants to do well on his home event in Norway. Then when we get the updated car in Mexico I think we will see a significant step forward. We have resolved a number of issues with the new car, so by the middle of the year I would expect to see us winning again.