David Richards has admitted that everybody was taken by surprise when Subaru announced it was pulling out of the World Rally Championship last month - but he also revealed he is hopeful the manufacturer may one day return.

Subaru and the WRC have been synonymous with one another for almost two decades, and from 1993 to 2008 achieved no fewer than 47 triumphs, three constructors' titles and three drivers' crowns courtesy of Petter Solberg (2003) and the much-missed Richard Burns (2001) and Colin McRae (1995).

Richards' independent Prodrive outfit was the key architect behind that success, running Subaru's rallying efforts from 1989 right up until its withdrawal at the end of the 2008 campaign, the third successive season in which the team had failed to register so much as a single victory. The new Impreza - which finished second on its debut on the Acropolis in the hands of Solberg back in June - was being developed for a concerted championship challenge in 2009.

Whilst some have pointed to that drop-off in performance for the Subaru management electing to pull the plug with immediate effect, Richards says financial concerns amidst the current credit crunch sweeping the globe were of far greater relevance.

"It's one of these companies that has always been there and was assumed would be forever," the former WRC-winning co-driver acknowledged, speaking exclusively to Crash.net Radio, "but as we've seen in so many cases you can never say never in this business. It was a sudden decision - our entry was in for the championship for next year (2009), and testing was taking place right up to the day in Japan when they made the decision.

"What has happened in the automotive industry worldwide is that quarters one, two and three last year were not particularly good, but they were not dramatic either. When you got to October and November, suddenly everything just dropped off the page. That was very much so for Subaru in Japan, and the exchange rate for the Yen didn't help matters.

"At the same time their aerospace business was in problems, so you put all those things together and they suddenly look and say 'is it right, when Honda pull out of motorsport, should we be doing these things, when we're going to have to make people redundant and do lots of other things to the business that are equally unpalatable?'"

That being so, Richards is confident that once the economic downturn has stabilised, Subaru may envisage a return to the championship in a full-time works capacity again - and fight to re-establish itself as rallying's leading force once more.

"I would hope so," the 56-year-old reflected when asked about the likelihood of the Japanese manufacturer coming back in the future, "but given the current environment I would hesitate to say when."

by Russell Atkins