Michael Cotton had the opportunity recently for a long and wide-ranging chat with David Price. He tells Michael about the highs and lows of a career that shows no sign of drawing to a close just yet.
The wheel has turned full circle for David Price, one of motor racing’s most experienced team managers. Having spent five years managing cars for Don Panoz, including running no fewer than five at Le Mans in 2000, he has just accepted an invitation to step back in time with the Irish-American and was last seen running the DeltaWing Panoz in the Sebring 12-hours. It was a short outing, as the car was far from ready.
“I was at the Autosport International Show in January and I received a call from Don, he wanted to see me. It turned out he was at the show about a 100 yards away from me. So we met and we talked. “I need you to come back, I miss you pissing me off every day” he told me. “I’m not sure I miss you pissing me off every day” Price responded, but there was an inevitability about their renewed relationship. “He does take a bit of understanding and we’ve had our ups and downs, but we get on fine now.”
It turned out that the main reason Panoz wanted to run the DeltaWing at Sebring was to show off the new coupe, which will race later in the season. Meanwhile, the open car is undergoing a test programme, with Katherine Legge and former Panoz driver Johnny O’Connell, and is scheduled to compete at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on May 11th in the hands of Ms Legge and Andy Meyrick. It’s an adventurous project with an all-new engine, designed and built by Panoz Group’s Elan Motorsports Technology, replacing the Nissan engine which was withdrawn at the end of last season.
“A month before Sebring the engine hadn’t been finished, the installation hadn’t been done and Michelin had pulled out. I didn’t have any equipment and I didn’t have a crew, which isn’t really the way you want to prepare for the first race of the season” says Price. Bridgestone stepped in (“they were amazing, they produced tyres in a month”), he took crew from Krohn Racing which was moving to a new location, rented equipment, and the new team was formed from the ground up. “I was bored” Price reflects, a condition that has marked a few changes of direction in his career, but he seems to be bored no longer.
From school, Dave Price completed a Ford apprenticeship then went to work for Jeff Urens’ Race Proved, building the Cortina Savage for the London to Sydney Marathon, then rebuilding it for the 1970 World Cup Rally in which he was one of the three drivers (and riding mechanic). Riding in the wake of the factory Ford Escorts, he collected spares and Minilite wheels that had been abandoned. “I would have made a few bob if I had a van to fill.” That was the end of his international rally career, but says he would “jump at the chance to compete again.”
With former Willment employee, John Bracey, he formed the Bracey Price Racing partnership in 1975 to prepare and run race cars and subsequently formed David Price Racing to compete in the British Formula 3 Championship. In 1978 they would run the Unipart F3 team, separate from the touring car and rally programmes, with Ian Taylor and Tiff Needell, held back by the uncompetitive Triumph Dolomite engines. In 1979 with Nigel Mansell and Brett Riley, they won the first event of the year at Silverstone, but Nigel ended the season with a huge cartwheeling accident with Andrea de Cesaris, fracturing some vertebrae. Other graduates were Martin Brundle who, in 1982 won two race, took six poles and ended up third in the championship, and Johnny Dumfries, who dominated the British F3 Championship in 1984. DPR also branched out into the French F3 Championship, winning the title with Pierre Petit (1982).
Moving away from single-seaters, Price accepted an invitation to manage Richard Lloyd’s GTi Engineering Porsche team in 1987-88, the highlight of this venture being Jonathan Palmer and Mauro Baldi’s victory in the two-part Norisring World Championship race. It was not a full-time job as Price was busy developing his composites business. Price was at the forefront of making carbon-fibre components and even monocoques for the Sauber Mercedes C11 and 291. After Silverstone in 1988, Sauber team manager Max Welti invited Price to run the team, which succeeded in winning the FIA World Sports-Prototype Championship in 1989, making Jean-Louis Schlesser the driver champion, and more important perhaps, scooped first, second and fifth positions overall at Le Mans.
“When Max approached me at Silverstone it did Richard a favour as he was short of money. Max worried about the organisation while I ran the pitlane for them, as the team was expanding rapidly. I ran the Schlesser-Baldi car in 1988 while Leo (Ress) ran the other car for Jochen Mass, then in 1989 the Baldi-Acheson Sauber Mercedes.” The two Swiss cars were in contention for the World Championship right to the final round in Mexico City.
The Sauber Mercedes team was withdrawn from Le Mans after qualifying in 1988 following an explosive tyre failure (“they had so much downforce!”) but made amends with a sweeping victory in 1989 with Jochen Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens taking the honours ahead of Acheson, Baldi and Gianfranco Brancatelli (who was, as we heard from Acheson recently, just too slow). “Those Saubers were lovely cars, proper cars. They had loads of power from their V8 twin-turbo engines and were easy on the fuel. It was a great team to work with. When Jochen Neerpasch came, he changed the setup for 1990” [he started the ‘young driver’ scheme with Schumacher, Frentzen and Wendlinger].
Price was then invited to manage Nissan’s World Championship team in 1990, taking Acheson and engineer Bob Bell with him, but it was not a happy time for any of them. “Too many people had vested interests” is all Price wants to say about that. He was then invited to manage the Brabham Formula One team in 1991, working with the Brundle-Blundell duo. After that he took a three-year sabbatical to further the burgeoning composites business.
Apart from all the motorsports work, DPS Composites was at the forefront in making ultra-light bicycles, and he spent a couple of happy years running a mountain bike team. “They were expensive, cost a couple of grand even in those days” he recalls. “Flavio Briatore bought one and had it nicked from his garage in Belgravia in less than a week… I don’t think he ever rode it!”
In 1995 John Nielsen was instrumental in introducing Price to Thomas Bscher, the German banker who was active in historic racing and fancied a switch to the new BPR Global Endurance Series with the McLaren F1 GTR. “I knew John from Formula 3 days. He and Thomas were making plans to compete in BPR and he asked me if I’d be interested in running their team. He called me at the right time: I was bored. Then Moody Fayed came along and we ended up running two cars.” Bscher had backing from the West cigarette company, while Fayed was a scion of the Harrods-owning family, and the two DPR run McLarens presented top class opposition to the Gulf sponsored team’s two lead drivers, Ray Bellm and Lindsay Owen-Jones.
“We spent quite a lot of money developing the car, particularly the wheel retention and fuel filling systems to speed up our pit stops as the Goodyear tyres we were using had to be changed every stop, unlike the Michelins of the Gulf cars which could double stint. We won the World Championship in the first season – I still call it the World Championship! – and we finished third at Le Mans after leading for 21 hours.”
In the West McLaren, Bscher and Nielsen scored outright wins at Monza and Donington Park, and were on the podium at Le Castellet, Jarama, the Nürburgring, Anderstorp, Nogaro and Zhuhai. The results were ample to give Bscher and Nielsen the BPR title, to the chagrin of Ray Bellm who won four of the first five races and another later in the season, but was still out-scored. “Thomas was a good driver, better than I expected” Price admits. “He and John were fast and consistent” but their bid to win Le Mans failed as the Dane crashed the McLaren on cold tyres after a long pit stop.
The Harrods McLaren joined the contest at Monza, the third round of the series, with lead driver Andy Wallace partnered by Justin Bell. The yellow and green car looked a picture, and the debut was accompanied by a posse of glamour girls with teddy bears (the stuffed variety!). This was Bscher’s first win, while Wallace and Bell finished fourth, just off the podium. Bellm and Maurizio Sala won at the Nürburgring, Bscher and Nielsen were third, Wallace and Bell fifth, and the result really stunned the German fans as McLarens claimed all five top positions. German pride was restored only by the knowledge that the McLarens were powered by bespoke BMW V12 engines, beautiful power units designed to last an entire season without a rebuild.
Wallace and Justin were joined by five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell for the 24-hours and theirs was a valiant effort, leading for much of the distance in constantly changing weather conditions. In the night, JJ Lehto was catching the Harrods McLaren by as much as 12 seconds per lap in the Ueno Clinic-sponsored McLaren (“he was absolutely fantastic in the rain, in the night” admires Price), but the Harrods effort was ultimately undone by a clutch failure three hours from the end, steadily losing ground to finish two scant laps behind the Ueno Clinic McLaren.
Moody Fayed might have been disappointed by the result, but the next three BPR races cheered him up no end. Olivier Grouillard replaced Justin Bell, and he and Wallace dominated three of the next four events at Silverstone, Nogaro and Zhuhai. What a way to finish the season! The only let-down was a retirement in the hot, humid Suzuka 4-hours when a wheel fell off the Harrods McLaren, inexplicably, while third driver Karl Wendlinger was driving. “Andy was mighty in the McLaren, and although Grouillard was a bit wild he did get results, so all in all it was a very good season.”
The pendulum swung to the Gulf McLaren team managed by Michael Cane in 1996. Bellm and James Weaver won four races outright, enough to take the BPR title. Bscher won two events, at Monza with Nielsen and at the Nürburgring with Peter Kox, while various incidents befell the Harrods McLaren, Wallace and Grouillard winning only at Silverstone. Wallace will never forget the race at Anderstorp, the airfield circuit in southern Sweden, when a huge ball of rubber was thrown up and smashed the windscreen right in front of his face, showering the interior with fragments of glass, some of which went into his eyes. Wallace steered the car back to the pits, a new screen was fitted in double-quick time and the yellow McLaren still managed to finish in fourth place overall.
Finishing fourth and sixth at Le Mans in 1996 was more satisfying than finishing third the year before. “We were so disappointed to be third in ’95 after leading for so much of the time” says Price. “In ’96 there was a much stronger field and at midnight we were so far behind, about 22nd, we were nowhere. But we kept at it and in the end the West car was fourth [Bscher, Nielsen and Kox] and the Harrods car was sixth” [Wallace, Grouillard and Derek Bell]. Under increasing family pressure, Moody Fayed then withdrew the Harrods McLaren from the series (“his uncle reckoned it was more expensive than bank-rolling Dodi’s efforts as a film producer”).
The debut of the Porsche factory’s GT1-96 at Brands Hatch in September had the effect of a hand grenade tossed into the paddock. The BPR series was framed for gentlemen drivers, effectively, in privately run team cars, and the GT1-96, which duly won the Kentish four-hour race at a canter, was hugely controversial. Ray Bellm formed a protest movement which took root at Suzuka, but their protests fizzled out when the FIA, fronted by Max and Bernie, announced that the controlling body would run the FIA GT Championship in 1997, and further, that it would be run by Stéphane Ratel, the ‘R’ in BPR. Game, set and match to the FIA. Bscher switched his car to the Gulf camp, with support from BMW, and it was time for David Price Racing to move on.
Boredom? Not a bit of it. DPS were supplying monocoques and other components to Adrian Reynard, who designed and built the Panoz Esperante GT cars for Dr. Donald Panoz. “Don said he would like me to run a couple in the World Championship. I said ‘talk to me about it’ because I thought he wanted me to buy them, but it turned out that he would own them and I would run them and Jean-Paul (Driot) would run one. Trying to set up a front-engine car was not easy and we had a lot of problems with the engines, horrendous, but we got them sorted to quite a good level though they’d never compete with the McLarens and the Mercedes.”
David Brabham and Perry McCarthy drove one car; Andy Wallace and James Weaver the other, and they climbed steadily up the results sheets as the Roush Ford V8 engines were improved. Towards the end of the season Brabham and McCarthy mounted the podium at Sebring, third overall in the first American round. To Don Panoz, and Price, it felt like winning.
Panoz Motorsports settled at Road Atlanta in 1998 under the direction of Tony Dowe, while Driot’s DAMS organisation ran a respectable team in Europe, including David Brabham and Eric Bernard on the driver lineup. David Price Racing was put in charge of an exciting new project, preparing the Zytek hybrid assisted Panoz Q9, famously dubbed ‘Sparky’.
It was the first-ever hybrid car to compete at Le Mans and was finished only just in time for pre-qualifying, and failed to make the cut for the 24-Hours. James Weaver was 16 seconds off the pace of the top GT cars, handicapped by the Q9 carrying 160 kg of extra weight with the batteries and electric motor, but more work was carried out before the inaugural Petit Le Mans in October. Nielsen was recruited to drive with Christophe Tinseau and Doc Bundy. ‘Sparky’ qualified 12th and had a steady run, delayed by a broken suspension to finish 12th. Living up to its nickname, the Q9 was seen shooting sparks into the cockpit as darkness fell on the Atlanta track. “John asked me what he should do. I told him ‘just don’t touch it’ and he kept going, and finished second in the GT1 category.”
Price took time off from Panoz to run two BMW V12 LM prototypes owned by Thomas Bscher and Kasumichi Goh in key events in 1999 with Steve Soper, now the team’s professional driver. The season started badly, very badly in fact, as Soper crashed the precious BMW out of the last turn at Sebring. “Be careful Steve, there’s an accident in the last turn.” “I know, Dave, it’s me!” This exchange has passed into folklore, but it’s still worth repeating. Bscher was seriously angry, not so much that Soper had crashed, but that the Englishman refused point blank to offer an apology. “I am a professional driver and I do not apologise” Steve told me. “The entrant takes that risk.” That’s as may be, but a little ‘sorry’ would have calmed things down no end with the ‘gentleman owner’.
Amends were made, handsomely, at Le Mans. Bscher, Soper and Bill Auberlen raced to fifth place overall, thanks in large part to Soper driving the maximum permitted 14 hours, a sterling performance which earned him fulsome praise from Bscher. “I’ve never driven so much in all my life” Soper told Price. “I’ll never drive for you again!” Nor did he, but they are still firm friends.
Price was back running the Panoz sports car programme in 2000, a season that included a five-car onslaught at Le Mans, including a couple of privately owned Esperantes. Mario Andretti joined the stellar line-up and against expectations all five reached the finish, “not all in one piece, we had a couple of engine problems and lots of punctures, but they were there at the end and Don seemed pleased.”
That same year Panoz achieved a rare victory in Europe, when David Brabham and Jan Magnussen won the 3-hour race at the Nürburgring, one of two European events within the American Le Mans Series. “We got a bit lucky as there was some rain early on and we kept David out, on slicks, while the others changed tyres. The track dried quickly and we got a handy lead which we kept to the end.”
Price continued with Panoz into 2001, introducing the new and troubled LMP07 prototypes which suffered at Le Mans from electronic troubles and engine vibration. It was the first time that neither car finished the race and after Le Mans, Price received a call from Panoz saying he wasn’t needed anymore. Panoz continued to run the LMP cars for another couple of years before switching to the GT category with an Esperante.
In 2003 Price gave John Nielsen, his then son-in-law, a hand running a Zytek prototype in the FIA Sportscar Championship, then took a break from racing to concentrate once more on building up his composites business, which had expanded into facilities in America and Wales. Missing racing again, he got involved in the Formula Renault V6 Eurocup series in 2004, running amongst others, current McLaren GT factory driver Rob Bell, then was granted one of the much coveted GP2 franchises and ran GP2 with Ryan Sharp and Olivier Pla in 2005, winning two races.
David Price Racing also managed the A1 Team USA in the A1 Grand Prix series in 2005-06, but after four seasons back at the sharp end of single-seater racing, Price sold his team (“I got out at the right time”). Proving that you can’t keep a good man down, he reappeared back in sportscars/GT racing in 2011 running the Gulf Racing Middle East team, with Aston Martins the first year and – turning full circle – with McLaren’s new MP4-12C GT3 the following year.
Apart from the driver management he already does, he says he would like to do some TV punditry. “Just to give an opinion, I think I know a bit by now.” I don’t want to retire, I’d get bored!” There’s the b-word again. Working with Don Panoz, though, is guaranteed to keep boredom at bay for a bit longer yet.