Rickard Rydell – 20 Years after winning the BTCC

Rickard Rydell joined the British Touring Car Championship along with Volvo at the start of 1994. His debut in the BTCC stirred massive interest, as he was to be racing the now legendary Volvo 850 estate alongside ex F1 driver Jan Lammers.

Rydell on his BTCC debut in 1994 at Thurxton, with the mighty Volvo 850 Estate.

After 5 years of trying, Rickard finally got his hands on the BTCC title, beating Anthony Reid to victory in the 1998 season. 20 years on from his BTCC triumph, we catch up with Rickard and look back at his time in the BTCC.

Rickard, you joined the BTCC in 1994 with Volvo, moving from a career in F3 & F3000. What made you make the move to the BTCC and switch disciplines from single seaters to touring cars?

“A collapsed lung is the answer! I had an offer to do F3000 in Japan for the 1994 season and since my ambition was F1 at the moment that was my planned route. However I suffered a collapsed lung – perhaps from stress and travel back and forwards to Japan too many times – and that made me change my mind! I said yes to the offer from TWR Racing to join them in the BTCC with Volvo. Commuting to the UK seemed easier.”

Volvo made their BTCC debut at the same time as you and you raced the iconic 850 Estate. Did you know straight away that you would be racing an estate? What were your initial thoughts when you were told?

“Initially I didn’t know that I was going to race the 850 estate model, however, when I did find out, the logic behind the decision was there so I didn’t question it. However, it must be said that it was a bit of a change from someone dreaming of being in F1, to racing an estate!”

As 1994 progressed, the results started to come with the 850 Estate. Had Volvo continued to develop the Estate, rather than switch to the saloon, do you think the Estate would have won races eventually?

“Yes! I think the estate could have been more competitive in a second season. But since the regulations changed, with rear wings and all the extra aerodynamics, it made less sense to race the estate from 1995 on.”

Moving onto 1995, the team switched to the more traditional saloon version of the 850, which was much more competitive than the ’94 car. In fact, you won the first 4 pole positions of the season & took pole for over half of the races that season. Do you have any regrets about 1995, seeing as that you were often the fastest driver on the circuit?

“The 1995 car was a lot more competitive and fun to drive. The number of pole positions that year was also because we chose to race the Dunlop tyre that was very good to qualify on but no match for the Michelin tyres in the race, unfortunately!”

Rydell and Volvo switched to the more conventional 850 saloon for the 1995 season, as ToCA rules for aerodynamics ruled out the estate deriative.

In 1996, you remained with the 850 saloon, but Audi arrived with the dominant 4WD Quattro A4. What were the thoughts of you and the other drivers regarding the Audi’s performance and advantage with the 4WD system?

“It’s always difficult when you three different configurations of race car – rear wheel drive, front wheel drive and four wheel drive cars – together. A four wheel drive car will have an advantage in corners and traction, so you put extra weight on it but the question is how much? Naturally, we were fighting the regulations from our point of view.”

In 1997, Volvo switched from the bulky 850, to the S40, which had been in design from early on in 1996. What were the main differences between the 850 and the S40? How much work had gone into the new S40?

“TWR put a lot of effort into the 1997 car and it was really good to drive. It had a faster of change of direction and had a better balance overall compared to the 850. Also, the size of the car was a better fit for the BTCC regulations at the time, compared to the 850.”

1997 saw Volvo and Rydell switch from the 850 to the S40 model.

After a year of development and one race victory in 1997, 1998 came along and reigning BTCC Champion Alain Menu was again favourite to win the BTCC title. What were your thoughts as you entered the season? Did you see yourself winning the title?

“By the the time 1998 came along, we were out testing the car every week. I still lived in Sweden and spent 175 days travelling back and forth to Britain that year!! I knew from testing early on that this would be my best chance of winning the title yet. I was really happy with the consistency that year, I think that I had 17 podiums in 26 races.”

Rickard won the BTCC title in 1998 after 5 seasons of trying.

During the bank holiday meeting at Brands Hatch in August, you and Anthony Reid came to blows on and off the track. How intense was the battle for the title? How much pressure did Volvo put you under to win the title?

“I was really focused on winning the title that year. Of course, there was pressure from Volvo and the team, but that’s something you put aside when driving. I knew Anthony very well from our years together in Japan.

On that day though, I was very upset with him for using my car as his brake into Druids. I think that showing it in public helped them take the decision to penalise him, although I also got a fine of 2,000 pounds.”

Rickard and Anthony Reid’s tough battle for the 1998 BTCC title came to a head at the August Bank Holiday meeting at Brands Hatch.

The 1998 BTCC Season is often considered by fans as the greatest season in the history of the sport. Does that add any more pride to the fact that you won the title the year that lots of fans consider to be the best ever season?

“Yes, it makes me proud to have won the championship in the year with eight manufacturers and professional teams in the championship.”

You spent your final year with Volvo in 1999, as they withdrew at the end of the season. When did you find out that Volvo/TWR were leaving? What options did you have on the table for 2000? Was the deal with Ford the only option?

“We figured out sometime during the year that Volvo would not continue in the championship after 1999, but the team was still very focused on winning a second championship. The Volvo engine was a lot better in 1999, but unfortunately the reliability was not quite so good. At the end of the season, I had an offer from TWR to sign a two year deal to race for them in the Australian V8 championship. I thought about it for a long time before deciding not to do it & instead moved to Ford to remain in the BTCC.”

Volvo struggled with unreliability in 1999, however Rickard won the final 2 races of the season, which would be Volvo’s last involvement in the series.

When you moved to Ford, you formed part of what is in my opinion, the strongest driver line up in the history of the British Touring Car Championship. The inter-team battles were intense all season – the race debriefs must have been fun? What was the relationship like at the team that season?

“It was fun racing with Anthony and Alain and working with a very professional team of engineers at Prodrive. The relationship was good but of course it was intense at times! It took me some time to get used to the Ford Mondeo, but I still had a chance of winning the championship in the last race of the season. If I sum up the year overall, it was great in qualifying but Alain Menu did a better job in the races.”

Rickard spent the final year of his BTCC career at Ford in a BTCC superteam of him, Alain Menu & Anthony Reid.

At the end of 2000, the new low-cost forumla of BTCC car was introduced, which meant several teams and manufacturers left the series. Did you have any offer of entering 2001? Were you interested in continuing with the series? What did you make of the BTC Touring forumla from 2001 onwards?

“I had no plans to race in the BTCC for 2001 onwards. I already had a long term agreements with Volvo and Prodrive. Instead, was developing and racing the Ferrari 550 Maranello. We were also also developing the Volvo S60 that I raced in 2002 and 2003 in the ETCC.”

The calibre of drivers in the BTCC field during the 1990s was arguably 2nd to only Formula 1 at the time. In your opinion, who were the most talented drivers? Was there anyone you thought twice about going “door handle to door handle” with?

“Alain Menu was very consistent and always up there throughout my time in the BTCC, definitely one of the top drivers! I guess that all of us could step over the limit at times when it came to racing ”door to door” but it happens when you race on the limit of what is allowed!”

During your time at Volvo, you had several team-mates, who do you consider to be the fastest? Which one gave you the biggest challenge?

“When I found out that Kelvin Burt, who was a left foot braker, was going to join the team in 1996, I started to practice left foot braking during the winter tests for the first time in my career. I had always been a right foot braker, but I had to find out if it would be an advantage to use the left foot to brake. I made some mistakes whilst learning, but I never went back to right foot braking again after that.”

Left foot braking Kelvin Burt gave Rickard his biggest challenge from within at Volvo.

Who were your BTCC buddies? Or was the competition so serious that you couldn’t be friends with your major rivals? Who do you still keep in touch with?

“Most of us got along very well between races, although we wouldn’t get on so well right after an incident with someone! I’ve had some contact with Alain Menu during the years after BTCC, but that was some time ago now. It was great to catch up with some of the drivers like John Cleland at the Silverstone Classic this year, though.”

You are one of the few drivers who has driven a wide range of touring car machinery over the years. From SuperTouring to S2000. Which era of touring car racing has been your favourite? Your time in the BTCC or your stints in other touring car championships?

“The BTCC super touring years were definitely the part of my career I enjoyed the most. Especially spending a lot of time developing and testing with the team. At the time, there was also resources to follow up on new ideas to improve the car. The Super touring cars were also more challenging to drive than the newer S2000 cars.”

During your time in the BTCC, were there ever any opportuinities to join another team or manufacturer? Were you ever tempted?

“There were some teams who tried to contact us at various times during my BTCC career, but since we were progressing all the time at TWR and Volvo, I really wanted to win the championship with them.”

You recently were reunited with 2 of your iconic BTCC Volvos at the Silverstone Classic in July of this year. What was it like to see and race the cars again after so long?

“Yes! It was great to be able to see and be back in the cars again, it put a big smile on my face! Thanks to Jason Minshaw, who was the person that made it possible, I enjoyed it a lot. There were also a lot of the Volvo people from the BTCC team that made the trip, so great to see them altogether and have a trip down memory lane!”

After 24 years, Rickard was reunited with the car he made his BTCC debut with in 1994, the iconic Volvo 850 Estate, as Silverstone Classic in July. (Credit: Silverstone Classic)