Thursday 1st March 2012


PRODRIVE: ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

Why Prodrive's Mini blip won't stop its quest for motorsport glory


Its chairman is a former World Rally Champion and it's taken no fewer than six World Rally Championships, five British Touring Car Championships, three class wins at Le Mans and over 200 international motorsport events.

The story of British motorsport stalwart Prodrive is well known (for the record, you can check out our timeline below to refresh your memory) but with shaky economic times, even the biggest names can find themselves on unstable ground.

Partnership over but relations still strong
Partnership over but relations still strong
There have been plenty of stories surrounding the World Rally Championship recently. And none more high profile than the 'discussion' between Prodrive - which prepares the Mini Countryman WRC cars - and BMW, the brand's parent group, over the all-important issue of funding.

The outcome of the talks saw Prodrive downgraded from the official factory outfit to a "works-supported private team" for 2012.

With individual WRC events having to secure their own TV rights deals, sponsors are reluctant to dole out the funding needed for a season in top-flight international rallying - and you can see their point when they potentially stand to gain zero coverage. But what does it mean for Prodrive?

It's a small company so it isn't immune to fluctuations, but the firm's flexibility means it's getting on with plans and putting the recent WRC debacle behind it.

WRC Minis will still be developed by Prodrive
WRC Minis will still be developed by Prodrive
According to Technical Director of the Mini WRC team, Dave Wilcox, "BMW relations are still good. It's as honest as it's ever been. We've secured the long-term future of the Countryman in the WRC agreeing with BMW and the FIA that the WRC Team Rally Portugal [the outfit Prodrive now runs] will be the homologation team until 2018.

"That means there's plenty of stability for the team and we can secure confidence in our customers."

This is a big issue for Prodrive. Although the team no longer wears the full-on corporate Mini T-shirt, instead now just a lapel pin hinting at the tie-up with Mini, Prodrive will still construct and support customer vehicles as well as work alongside BMW to develop the car.

Wider issues with WRC impact on Prodrive
Wider issues with WRC impact on Prodrive
"Our business plan is to develop the car until 2018 and we want to return next year with a two-car effort and target all 13 rounds," says Wilcox. "We've also got the customer programme so we'll be continuing to build and develop cars, as well as support existing owners."

The customer side of things is a continuous learning process, too. For your 400,000 (actually just under) you get a Mini Countryman WRC as well as Prodrive's support package consisting of an engineer that goes out to every team, gleaning feedback and knowledge to take back to the Banbury HQ.

And it's here that Prodrive is proving its resilience, while recognising the challenging situation regarding coverage. "Why would any manufacturer want to enter a championship without TV promotion?" asks Wilcox. Competition in the WRC has never been so good, with tenths of seconds covering a sack full of cars over 30km or more. But if the money isn't there from the television coverage then manufacturers are bound to feel unsure about lavishing millions on a season's competition with low exposure in return. However, even though full factory funding has been rescinded, building cars for privateers keeps the cash coming in.

Iconic partnership with Subaru lasted 20 years
Iconic partnership with Subaru lasted 20 years
It's not the first time Prodrive has had to deal with unfavourable circumstances either. When the firm's 20-year relationship with Subaru ceased following the Japanese team's decision to pull out of world rallying in 2008, 300 jobs were cut. But the company adjusted and bounced back, focusing on the future with a new project - the Mini venture - achieving a decent degree of success in its first year of competition.

It's what Prodrive will have to do again. It's no secret funding is thin on the ground, hence the dropping of Kris Meeke for the second car. "BMW is subsidising our championship this year but additional income is needed, hence the second paying driver," states Wilcox. "With our goals for a two-car team next year, we'd love to have Kris back in the car."

LMP1 Aston Martins got off to shaky start
LMP1 Aston Martins got off to shaky start
But with Prodrive's diversity in competition it means the firm is flexible. After its embarrassing showing at the 2011 Le Mans 24 hours - in which both its new LMP1 cars only completed a total of six laps - Prodrive is adapting, through necessity, again.

This year it will be launching a full factory effort on the newly formed World Endurance Championship with a brace of Aston Martin Vantage GTEs. "It relates directly to the road cars better than the prototypes, which is highly important in terms of funding," according to Aston Martin Racing's Operations Director, Paul Diggins.

"We've got customer programmes from GTE to GT3 and GT4 with the Vantage," he says. Again, it's this that keeps the team in rubber and fuel for the season and is a savvy move in pushing the business on.

Vantage GTE at the heart of track plans
Vantage GTE at the heart of track plans
It means that despite many other external factors effecting different areas of the sport, Prodrive is hardy, buoyant, resilient, robust - whatever you want to call it.

It knows how to win. Although a hobby for many, motorsport is Prodrive's business and fans have to remember that. It's galling to see Meeke sidelined, but Prodrive has stood by him, retaining him as test driver and showing faith.

Given the firm's success in the past, a few recent blips in rallying and circuit racing isn't about to derail the Prodrive train. The BMW-Mini issue looks to have resolved itself - for the time being, at least - with Prodrive in a much more stable position now things have been confirmed.

Its GT racing campaign looks positive, too. There's plenty of interest from gentlemen racers and professionals alike with the GT4 and GT3 series, and the new Vantage GTE has been developed from the old GT2 car - taking on board lessons learnt through the highly successful DBR9 GT1 programme.

Even with the murmurings of budget issues, there's a massive air of optimism about the Banbury factory for the season ahead. And rightly so.


Prodrive's racing history lives on
Prodrive's racing history lives on
Prodrive timeline:

1984
Prodrive is founded by David Richards and Ian Parry, wins on its debut with the Rothmans Porsche 911 SC RS
1986
Dips its toe in the water of Group B rallying with Metro 6R4, starts association with McRae senior (Jimmy)
1987
Begins partnership with BMW in rallying and touring cars; wins first WRC and BTCC events with E30 M3 rally and touring cars respectively
1988-1989
Wins British Touring Car Championship in first full year of competition, retains BTCC crown a year later
1990
Begins now legendary alliance with Subaru, debuting new Legacy RS rally car
1991-1992
Colin McRae wins British Rally title, repeats feat the year after graduating to WRC
1993
Prodrive-prepared Subaru Impreza makes WRC debut, Richard Burns makes Prodrive debut in Legacy RS
1995
McRae wins Driver's and Subaru the Manufacturer's World Rally Championships in Prodrive Impreza
2000
Prodrive wins fifth BTCC title with Ford Mondeo, one-two for Alain Menu and Anthony Reid
2001
Richard Burns becomes first Englishman to win WRC driver's title
2003
Prodrive takes sixth WRC title with Petter Solberg; Prodrive Ferrari 550 GTS wins GTS class at Le Mans
2004
McRae turns his hand to endurance racing competing at Le Mans in a Ferrari 550 GTS
2007
Aston Martin DBR9 wins GT1 class at Le Mans
2008
Aston Martin DBR9 wins GT1 class at Le Mans again, Subaru pulls out of WRC ending 20-year relationship with Prodrive
2009
Prodrive-developed Aston Martin LMP1 finishes fourth overall - the highest placed petrol car - at Le Mans in Prodrive's 25th anniversary year; wins Drivers' and Manufacturers' LMS titles; work starts on development of Mini Countryman WRC car
2010
New Aston Martin AMR-One LMP1 car announced
2011
Mini returns to WRC with Dani Sordo and Kris Meeke - Sordo achieves a third place finish, the first podium for the team in the Mini's debut year; Aston Martin AMR-One hits heavy technical problems - both cars complete a total of only six laps at Le Mans.
2012
Prodrive downgraded to factory-supported works Mini team but confirms two-car factory effort for Le Mans with V8 GTE

Author: carse