Richard Branson could be switching his company’s financial backing from Brawn GP to F1 newcomers Manor in 2010, according to press reports yesterday.
Branson said at the British Grand Prix that he felt his company had extracted all the value available from its relationship with the championship leaders and would be seeking new opportunities for next season. If the report is accurate, an agreement with Manor may already have been made at this point.
The Guardian has seen a leaked email to a Saudi royal sent by F1’s chief steward Alan Donnelly while he was in the Middle East on what he says was official FIA business. It suggests the deal between Manor and Virgin was already agreed in principle ahead of the announcement of Manor’s successful bid.
It raises the question of why an existing team sponsor may have been prepared to commit to a prospective entrant with no guarantees that it would ever make it to the 2010 starting grid.
Of course, given that a criterion of the FIA’s for new entrants was that they should produce credible financial plans, this may actually shed light on why the team was picked ahead of more obvious candidates like Lola and Prodrive.
And Branson is well-known for extracting the maximum bang from a very minimal marketing buck and may have been more willing than most in the paddock to take a flyer on a newcomer.
Donnelly has pointed out that he had no role in checking out potential entrants, a process that was carried out by an independent auditing company.
The leak follows two previous bids to discredit Donnelly, seen as a close ally of FIA president Max Mosley. The first accused him of behaving improperly by by canvassing support for Mosley during the Turkish Grand Prix and was dismissed out of hand by the regulatory body.
The second also involved Manor, and a claim that Donnelly had been too closely involved in helping the team get off the ground, by offering help through his company with its PR strategy and by facilitating paddock introductions. This story also came from The Guardian.
According to the paper, the email says: “Virgin have signed to be investment partners with a shareholding of around 20 per cent.” However, Manor reportedly says that Virgin has no equity stake in the team.
It continues: “I [Donnelly] will be in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and look forward to seeing you at our planned meeting… with representatives of Manor and Virgin.” Reportedly attached to the email was a sponsorship and investment agreement.
Prodrive in particular is said to be dismayed at the idea that that the Saudi meetings took place five days before the submission deadline for 2010 applications and have said that they put resources into F1 entry on the understanding that they would be competing on a “level playing field”.