A New Desert Dueller

A New Desert Dueller

Motorsport guru David Richards is driving into the desert with a new Dakar contender that could eventually become a road car.

The Prodrive boss has done almost everything in motorsport, from Supercars to Formula One, and says he wants to talk one last Everest before he stops “sitting on a pit wall every weekend”.

Richards is teaming up with his long-time racing companion, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, to build a bespoke car for January’s 8000-kilometre Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia.

There will be a pair of T1-category vehicles, to be entered as the Bahrain Raid Xtreme team, before ramping up manufacturing of the lightweight dune bashers to sell to private competitors.

The project is a joint venture between Prodrive and the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Bahrain and could eventually see road versions of the performance off-roader being sold under the Bahraini flag.

“Prodrive is delivering a complete turn-key, ground-up car for Bahrain called the BRX T1. We are doing everything from designing and manufacturing it to running it in next year’s Dakar as well as the World Cross Country championships and then selling them to private competitors with full back-up and support,” Richards tells Race News.

For Bahrain, it marks a strengthened commitment to the Dakar after the Kingdom’s Mumtalakat Holding Company sponsored the winning John Cooper Works X-Raid Mini buggy driven by Carlos Sainz to his third victory at the start of this year.

Prodrive’s plan is to follow the business model it used with Aston Martin which has resulted in it building more than 200 customer GT race cars which compete across the world every weekend backed by Prodrive engineering crews.

“A competitor will be able to buy a BRX T1 and run it in off-road rallying events such as the UAE Desert Challenge or the Finke Rally (in Australia) and we will have derivatives from the competition car in other areas yet to be announced. This is just the start of a complete new brand of performance four-wheel drive,” says Richards.

He has a long history with Middle East rallying having set up Prodrive to run Porsche’s 959 and 911 SC RS Rothmans programs, winning the 1985 Pharaohs Rally with Qatar’s Saeed Al Hajri and UAE-based Brit, John Spiller.

Prodrive won the 1984 and 1985 Middle East Rally Championships for Porsche with Al Hajri and Spiller which laid the foundations for its International assault with Subaru, netting British Championships for Colin McRae and Richard Burns, two Asia-Pacific titles for Kiwi, Possum Bourne and five WRCs with McRae, Burns and Petter Solberg.

“We’ve always had Dakar on the horizon and my good pal Ari Vatanen has always joked that it was about time we did it, but there has never been the right opportunity until now.”

Catching up with long-time friend, fellow racing enthusiast and major shareholder of the McLaren Group, His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commandeer and First Deputy Prime Minister of Bahrain at last year’s grand prix saw the pair study the new Dakar regulations which focus on four-wheel drive and turbo-petrol engines and a deal was struck.

“I’ve always believed the best time to enter an event is when the rules are new, so the Crown Prince and I spent six months just looking at what we could do with Dakar and how we’d go about it,” he says.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What would the car look like if we designed it exactly to these rules?’

“So we started with the optimum and worked back and every time we made a compromise, we had to think about it very carefully. We chose an engine but it only works with a limited number of transmissions, so we had to compromise on that, but every compromise has been a considered decision.”

Smaller than its rivals, the BRX T1 is powered by a 3.5-litre, twin-turbocharged V6 running through a conventional four-wheel drive system.

“The suspension, chassis, manifolds, ECUs, electronics, wiring looms, lubrication and carbon fibre body is all designed and manufactured by us.”

Without the shackles of a manufacturer’s design philosophies, Prodrive has been free to build the T1 from the ground up to suit Dakar’s new regs, with everything from bodywork and cockpit layout to engine placement, coming from a clean sheet of paper.

“It’s been the greatest opportunity. While we’re still guided by the FIA rules, we’re not restricted by road legalities so long as we meet the regulations. When people see it, they’ll find it’s a lot smaller and it will be considerably lighter.”

With more than 500 people working in the background, there are a few familiar names involved in the project including David Lapworth, who was instrumental in Prodrive’s Subaru WRC and BAR F1 days, and Paul Howarth, who most recently has guided the success of its Aston Martin GT program.

“Dakar might be new to us in terms of the car and regs but the skillsets are the same and we have key guys who have worked with us for almost 40 years, so it’s really a matter of steering them in a slightly different area. Go back to the Subaru days, we learnt a lot from those four-wheel drive systems, so every day we are learning something from the experience we gained in other areas and can apply to Dakar,” says Richards.

While it’s fair to assume with this level of resources and backing that the team’s aim is nothing short of outright victory, but Richards remains level-headed when it comes to their chances of success.

“One thing you must never be is complacent because other competitors have tonnes of experience and you must always be wary of the local challenger. That is something I learnt the hard way in Australia.

“Back in 1980, co-driving a Ford Escort with Ari Vatanen, we lost the Castrol Rally in Canberra to local driver Greg Carr. We made a mistake and should have won but he whooped us until we made a mistake. So full credit to him that I have never under-estimated a local competitor on their home turf since that day.

“Equally, I always enter an event with the expectation that we have a chance of winning and I think that’s the key. We build a team not with the expectation of finishing second but we make mistakes and when we do, we correct them and move forward.”

After Dakar, Richards signalled that he could call time on his illustrious career, from the front line anyway, as Prodrive is working not only with Bahrain on the Dakar but also with skipper Ben Ainslie to design the America’s Cup yachting challenger, Ineos Team UK, to compete in Auckland next year, as well as some detailed hydrogen fuel plans for 2024 and a Formula E race program.

“Prodrive is exceptionally busy but I’m taking more of a back seat role now. I stood back from the Aston Martin team which runs very well and the same for our Rally Cross program. There comes a point when you ask yourself, do I really want to be sitting on another pit wall every weekend and do I need to be thrashing about the desert at my age?

“I don’t see myself spending the next five to 10 years thrashing around deserts but I still have the passion and enthusiasm and I like to drive the team hard, so I will be leading the Bahrain Raid Xtreme from the front on this occasion because my reputation is at stake and I’m determined to show that we can still prove ourselves to be highly competitive.”