Behind-the-scenes Kiwi propels international stars
There is a lot of motorsport on TV these days. From Formula 1 to powerboats, MotoGP to speedway, there is a constant flow of machinery being flung around land and water tracks at all hours of the day and night.
It is no exaggeration to say that in all of these types of racing you will find a Kiwi — either driving the things, engineering them, designing them or working in the pit lane.
One is Dick Bennetts. He has been instrumental in many famous drivers’ careers.
Formula 1 world champions Ayrton Senna, Keke Rosberg, Niki Lauda and Mika Hakkinen have one thing in common: a racing team called WSR, short for West Surrey Racing.
Born in Dunedin, Bennetts got his grounding in motorsport with Performance Developments, an Auckland company run by Kiwi race driver Dennis Marwood.
With the help of Marwood and others, including journalist Allan Dick, Bennetts developed an interest in race car engineering and in 1972 moved to the UK to help David Oxton, the NZ Formula Ford Champion, in his quest to win the FF World Cup.
“I was thinking of doing the big OE and the chance to do that with a good friend and go motor racing was too good to miss.”
He found a home at the March Racing Formula 2 team, then, in 1976, moved to the Fred Opert Racing team with drivers such as Keke Rosberg, father of Mercedes F1 driver Nico, and Bobby Rahal, father of IndyCar driver Graham.
Bennetts successfully engineered Rosberg to consecutive NZ Formula Pacific series wins.
Perhaps one of the best talent spotters in motorsport, for personnel as well as drivers, was current McLaren boss Ron Dennis. In 1978 he recruited Bennetts to run the BMW M1 Procar team, racing Formula 1 GPs with Lauda and German driver Hans Stuck.
Under Bennetts’ control, Lauda won the championship in 1979.
When Dennis took on the McLaren Formula 1 project in 1980 he immediately targeted Bennetts to run his then-struggling Formula 3 team.
With his Midas touch for engineering, the team immediately found success and Stefan Johansson won the F3 championship.
With his credentials as one of the best team managers/engineers in the business well established, Dennis offered Bennetts a senior position in the McLaren F1 operation.
But the ambitious Kiwi declined the offer in favour of the more risky business of setting up his own team. WSR was born.
In 1983 a young Ayrton Senna joined the team and proceeded to win the first nine races of the season, a feat never emulated. In later years Senna attributed much of his success to Bennetts.
WSR won the British F3 title with drivers Mauricio Gugelmin, Mika Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello. With business partner Mike Ewan, another Kiwi expat, Bennetts decided to take on the competitive British Touring Car Championship, winning championship titles in 2004, ’07, ’08, ’09 and 2014.
WSR competes in the championship with BMW cars and multiple world touring car champion Andy Priaulx as one driver, as well as consulting for track designers and operating a thriving engineering business.
Bennetts is one Kiwi who has made a difference to motorsport. “ I still have a lot to achieve in racing and although the UK is my current home and where my business is based, my heart is still in New Zealand.”