F1: Honda, Button, Virgin? Keep the champagne on ice

By Andy Darley

CalendarThursday, February 19th, 2009

 
 

The Formula One team still just about known as Honda has confirmed that Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is among the companies it has spoken to about a possible takeover – sparking immediate speculation that Jenson Button’s season had been rescued.

“We are negotiating with several buyers and one of these parties is the Virgin Group,” said a team spokesperson, thereby releasing a rare snippet of fact into what has increasingly been a confusion of rumour and speculation.

“Virgin F1 bid could save the season for Button,” read one headline, while another speculated “Richard Branson’s group keen to rescue Honda F1 team” – but the truth is less exciting.

It’s always been known that Honda F1 was talking to a number of companies. All that’s changed is the identity of one of them is now known. Nothing seems to have happened in the negotiations to suggest an announcement is on the verge of happening.

Since neither the team nor its parent company in Japan had anything further to add, and Virgin itself was staying chastely silent, there was – and is – no way of knowing how serious the group’s interest is, and how close to making or breaking a deal the two parties might currently be.

Parts of the Virgin Group have scattered small amounts of money in F1 before, most notably on the Jordan team and on Takuma Sato, but they have never undertaken a major sponsorship role.

Branson is, however, a friend and business associate of Adrian Reynard, who was one of the founders of Honda F1’s predecessor, BAR. Former ITV-F1 commentator James Allen writes: “Like David Richards, who also ran the team, he has some scores to settle and some unfinished business there. Isn’t it amazing how powerful men cannot let something lie?”

Reports today suggest the deal would have to be finalised by Monday – not because of deadlines set by parent company Honda, but because Mercedes-Benz wants the first payment for a supply of engines by that date.

The team has an agreement in principle for the German manufacturer to supply it for the season, but apparently needs to start coming up with the money soon or lose the deal.

And the prospects for Jenson Button? Exactly as they were before this news broke. The story gained widespread coverage not because of its strength, but because a familiar and high-profile name was involved.

Button’s chances of driving in 2009 are draining away by the minute. Potential rescuers are out there, and we now know who one of them is, but none of that will mean anything without a real deal – and we’re no closer to that than we were before the Virgin news broke.

Perhaps Richard Branson’s famously fun-loving (but hard-nosed) group is on the verge of announcing an F1 programme that will save Honda and make Red Bull look staid and ordinary, and yesterday’s news was an early leak of that.

Or perhaps Virgin had been talking to Honda but is backing away, as other would-be buyers seem to have done – in which case the leak that started the story running a few days back could be a team insider trying to force Virgin’s hand.

We don’t know.

It’s far too early to give up on JB for 2009. But it’s also far too early to crack open the champagne.

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