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Prodrive purchase makes Lotus challenge possible

Prodrive chairman David Richards, a former world title-winning rally co-driver and navigator, was renowned for making rapid decisions on winding forest tracks. Now he applies corresponding nerve and meticulous preparation to negotiate the concealed curves of business life.

He has driven Prodrive – which recently bought the former Aston Martin subsidiary Tickford – in the business of motorsport and the wider world of automotive technology.

Mr Richards' company has transformed Subaru's ill-defined brand through winning three world rally championships. By grasping Tickford, Prodrive has become a global player in the arena of automotive design and engineering consultancy, simultaneously moving into the area of car production.

Mr Richards said: “We have been looking at potential acquisitions in both the motorsport and automotive industries for the past 18 months, but none were as good a fit as Tickford.”

Prodrive's annual turnover has climbed above £100m and the combined headcount totals nearly 900 people.

This puts it on a commercial scale close to Group Lotus which is owned by Proton of Malaysia and is undergoing major surgery.

Lotus could become the next part of Ford's premium brand portfolio, although Proton denies the division is for sale.

Mr Richards and new group managing director Nick Fry continue to scan the horizon for additional “suitable acquisitions” as they move towards floating Prodrive within three years.

Mr Fry, who joined Prodrive in January as head of the automotive technology division, was previously managing director of Aston Martin.

Tickford opens doors to Prodrive in Australia, North America and the Asia Pacific region. While motorsport contracts may keep the enlarged group's profile high, Tickford contributes in more fundamental areas like catalyst and gas-powered technology.

Inevitable parallels are drawn between Prodrive, based in Banbury, and another Oxfordshire engineering consultancy, Tom Walkinshaw's TWR.

Both generate major amounts of revenue from publicly or confidentially developing future vehicles and technologies.

TWR has long been involved in performance variants and, close to Tickford's operation in Melbourne, Australia, it produces more than 3,000 high performance GM Holdens a year.

Tickford has also been on the acquisition trail, buying Daewoo's UK research and development centre at Worthing, West Sussex, for a reputed bargain £5m.

But senior TWR management, who recently cut 30 Oxfordshire jobs in a “pruning operation”, point to a more diverse spread of projects than Prodrive's.

These range from building Renault Sport Clio V6s in Uddevalla, Sweden, to buses and taxis in the nearby Omninova plant. And toilet modules at the company's Derby rail division.

Tom Walkinshaw runs the Arrows Formula 1 team and recently brokered what should be Russia's first Grand Prix. He still finds time to run the £300m turnover TWR and oversee a staff of 1,800 in Europe, Australia and the US.

Tickford might well have offered TWR a similar “perfect fit” to that described by Mr Richards, whose ISC media firm also has the TV rights for the world rallying series.

Neither Mr Richards nor Mr Walkinshaw (a former European touring car racing champion) have time or energy to waste on real or perceived missed opportunities.

TWR is already linked with Audi's possible F1 entry while Mr Richards is short-odds favourite to take Aston Martin back to the Le Mans endurance racing classic.

Neither man is short of nerve as they race to build their groups at a time when many carmakers are relying on outside specialists.

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