David Sutton cars are infamous in the world of rallying, a privateer team who went on to win the 1981 FIA WRC for Drivers with – Champions Ari Vatanen / David Richards in their iconic Rothmans For Escorts.

Recognisable by his cars carrying the identity (David Sutton (Cars) Ltd.), his rally teams have provided cars to 7 World Rally Champions:- Hannu Mikkola;  Ari Vatanen;  Bjorn Waldegard;  Stig Blomqvist;  Walter Rohrl;  Gabriel Pozzo (PWRC) and Martin Rowe (PWRC).

His cars also have been driven over the years by other rally legends such as  Markku Alen;  Pentti Airikkala;  Michele Mouton, Timo Makinen, Rauno Aaltonen. As well as UK national champions: Roger Clark;  David Llewellin and Malcolm Wilson.

His lengthy career and success has some roots in the Snowman Rally of 1976.

His teams' victory with Pentti Arikkola and John Davenport using standard tyres brought notable success, and the attention of Ford whom he went on to successfully work with – and the rest is history!

David shares his Snowman story, and some personal photos from his memories of a wonderful career

Your often thought about as the pioneering private rally team world champion, but you also had a driving career yourself – what were the highlights of that part of your career?

I was an enthusiastic member of Dukeries Motor Club, had a Mk1 Cortina GT, bought a Boreham Cortina Lotus Mk2 and did become AEMCC Champion.  But these were nowhere near on the same scale as the achievements I had as a Team Owner and Manager.  I continued to enjoy occasional outings right up to the 1990s, all good fun, but never a challenge to the day job.

You competed as team manager of Pentti Arikkola on the 1976 Snowman when the event was also part of the BRC, what was your overriding memory of the rally as an event, the long travel to get to it, and the stages that form the rally?

I am struggling to remember much of the details of this event – it was a long time ago.  One of the problems of having done literally hundreds of rallies, is that they often merge together in the memories.  Often it was the ones that gave the most pain, physical or financial, that one remembers best.

In 1976 your victory created a bit of a stir – partly as the winning car was using winter road tyres – something AVON tyres were very proud to publicise?

 It was a wonderful result for Avon Tyres, particularly given the strength of the opposition and the years of rally experience of their tyre suppliers.  Avon naturally publicised the result far and wide and it did my business no harm at all.

(Note: John Davenport recalls it was David's Birthday so there would for sure be a late night celebration)

How important was your victory for David Sutton cars and your relationship with the works Ford team?

It was always good for us when we put one over on the factory team.  It helped with technical feedback from them and sometimes with access to new developments. 

In the longer term, it rather put our team in pole position to take work on from them when they were looking for support and when industrial disputes, for example, hindered them doing a job themselves. 

Pentti’s talents in our car came to Ford’s notice again that year on the 1000 Lakes Rally, finishing second to Fiat’s Markku Alen.  More importantly though we beat Ford’s own Finnish star, Timo Makinen. 

This was witnessed by Head of Motorsport for Ford Europe, Michael Kranefuss, attending his first WRC event.  He could not take in what our small, private team, supported only by a Granada estate car and competing on regular Avon tyres, was achieving against the might of the Ford armada with their choice of tyre types and wheel sizes.  Pentti was on his way to repeat it all again on the RAC that year, until a clutch problem caught us out. 

So, I suppose it should have come as no surprise the following year, when Ford offered me my first real Works contract to run their rising star, Ari Vatanen, in the 1977 BRC.

Ari Vatanen won the BRC in 1976 – how did you view his skills in those early years? did you have any idea of the future success you would have together? And as a private team manager were you a little concerned at the damage and cost, he might incur when driving for you?

In his first year with Ford, Ari had shown he was capable of great speed, but not always all the way to the finish.  He immediately endeared himself to us by winning his first event for us, the Mintex Rally in Yorkshire.  I have answered this point previously by saying “Ari used to crash for Ford, then win for us”.

It is fair to say that you are amongst the most revered of private team owners in the world – not only due to your WRC success with Ari Vatanen and David Richards in the Escort but also running the Audi Sport UK team. With such a successful career in Motorsport it must be difficult to pick out highlights – but what achievements gave you the greatest personal and professional satisfaction?

It would be false not to say that winning the World Championship with Ari and David was the crowning glory.  We had a year long fight with a major manufacturer and their two strong personalities, Guy Frequelen and Jean Todt.  They both would go on to be leaders in the sport and it still gives me an immense satisfaction that I and my team took the fight to them and won the driver’s title.

I think I’m correct in saying that you have had 4 or 5 World Champions drive your cars over the years – quite a remarkable feat! – have you any favourite memories of these drivers?

Our rally teams have been pleased to work with 7 World Rally Champions:-       Hannu Mikkola;  Ari Vatanen;  Bjorn Waldegard;  Stig Blomqvist;  Walter Rohrl;  Gabriel Pozzo (PWRC) and Martin Rowe (PWRC).

Additionally, some who many believe deserved to be World Rally Champions:-   Markku Alen;  Pentti Airikkala;  Michele Mouton and Rauno Aaltonen.

And not forgetting many National Champions;   for the UK:-   Roger Clark;  David Llewellin and Malcolm Wilson.

Was there any other driver you wish you had the chance to work with? And why?

A driver I liked and respected, was Markku Alen.  I ran him, as an experiment, in our Clark and Simpson car on the 1973 Lindisfarne, with Henry Liddon.  Henry rang Peter Ashcroft, his boss at Boreham, afterwards to say that he had just sat with the fastest driver he had ever experienced.  Markku did the RAC too, but was then tempted away to join the Italians.  I would have liked to build on that relationship.

David Sutton has kindly signed and donated a copy of his autobiography ‘ Choice of Champions’ for blind auction with proceeds being donated to the Virtual Snowman 2021 charities.

David's fascinating book documents his years in motorsport, from the challenges of running one of the worlds most successful private rally teams, to his success winning the 1981 World Championship with Ari Vatanen, and his experience of having 5 world champions drive his cars throughout a glittering career. The exclusive signed book will be of great interest to any rally fan and a treasured part of any book collection. Bids should be made by e mail to secretary@highlandcarclub.co.uk Winners will be announced at the Flying finish closing event

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