F1: Virgin’s birth shows new team is not so innocent

By Andy Darley

CalendarWednesday, December 16th, 2009

 
 

Virgin Racing launched its F1 effort this week, unveiling drivers, sponsors, innovative technical and managerial systems – and a pair of very sharp elbows.

Manor Racing’s successful bid for one of the expansion slots on the 2010 grid was long expected to be re-branded with the name and colours of Sir Richard Branson’s company, Virgin themselves admitting it was the sport’s “worst-kept secret”.

Less expected was the team’s coup in unveiling a whole raft of commercial partners, including former BMW Sauber sponsor FX Pro and sportswear company Kappa. The private equity arm of the Lloyds Banking Group has also invested some £10m, allowing new team principal Alex Tai to declare his outfit is “fully funded”.

Timo Glock had already been announced as lead driver, and he will be joined by GP2 stalwart Lucas di Grassi. Reserve drivers will be Alvaro Parente and Luiz Razia.

This means there is no role for Northern Ireland’s A1GP champion Adam Carroll, who had been linked with the team for several months. Branson said: “We were actually very close to signing up a British driver for the team but in the end we decided to sign Lucas di Grassi for his experience and talent.”

Former Williams driver Antonio Pizzonia was also under consideration, but said on Twitter last week that the team had told him they would not be offering him a drive.

Branson first dipped his toe into the F1 shark pool during the 2009 season with a small, but phenomenally successful, sponsorship agreement with Brawn GP. He said he made the switch to Manor because he wanted to partner with technical director Nick Wirth.

Previously the chief designer for Benetton and the founder of Simtek, Wirth is designing the team’s car entirely on computer without the aid of a wind tunnel. “The engine’s great, the drivers are great, wherever we are on the grid is down to me,” he said.

Branson said: “We knew there was an extremely successful designer out there who could bring something different to the sport with his all-digital approach to designing racing cars.

“So we thought ‘why not back a new British team?’ I believe that with the right bunch of people you can achieve anything. It might take a while to get there, but I believe with this team of people on board, Virgin Racing can go all the way.”

Manor’s John Booth will manage the team, while its commercial operations will be handled by Virgin. New managing director Etienne de Villiers will ensure the three sections co-ordinate properly while Tai will be its front man for F1 politics.

And the new team has already showed it’s not afraid to wade into the pitlane rivalry, Wirth hitting back at Williams’ Patrick Head after he predicted that some of the new teams were heading for a fall.

Wirth said: “Patrick is used to falling because he has fallen from winning, which is probably why he is saying that. He has also unwisely invested in two wind tunnels which are a bit archaic. But we’ve done enough due diligence on this programme, and there is no doubt it works, and no doubt the technology is right.

“I can tell you right now how fast our car will go around Barcelona – I won’t, but I can. We know exactly where we are, but what we don’t know is where everyone else is going to be.”

Virgin has also found itself in a friendly but barbed rivalry for the title of best new team after Branson locked horns with his fellow airline magnate, Lotus chief and Air Asia founder Tony Fernandes.

Fernandes jokingly promised to retire and kill himself if his team couldn’t beat Virgin, to which Branson responded by offering a bet: the loser would have to dress as an air hostess and serve customers on one of the winner’s flights.

The bet was enthusiastically accepted, a mock-up photo of Branson in trolly-dolly uniform appearing on the Lotus website along with a comment from Fernandes: “Our passengers will be delighted to be served by a Knight of the Realm. But, knowing Richard, the real challenge will be to prevent him from asking our guests ‘coffee, tea or me?’ That would be scary.”

But perhaps not as frightening as the Virgin team’s performance and cost efficiency will turn out to be if Branson’s faith in Wirth and his computational fluid dynamics proves well-founded.

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