Branson launches Virgin Racing F1 team

Sir Richard Branson's love of Formula One today resulted in one of the world's richest men throwing the full weight of the Virgin brand behind one of the sport's new teams.

Manor GP, one of four new marques who will help make up an expanded 13-team grid for next season, have been rebranded Virgin Racing thanks to a multi-million pound sponsorship deal with Branson.

Tycoon Branson confirmed one of F1's worst-kept secrets at a press conference in Notting Hill, London.

Branson's entrance, along with Manor boss John Booth and technical director Nick Wirth, was heralded by a dozen electric guitarists creating a sound akin to a Formula One engine.

Explaining his latest venture, Branson said: "Our first year in F1 (with Brawn GP) was tremendous for the Virgin brand, so why not go in again with a new team from scratch?

"If you look at the history of Virgin we've loved supporting technical breakthroughs, great engineers, and there's something like 120 engineers working away on this project."

Branson confirmed Virgin Racing will operate on the smallest budget of any of the new teams, under £40million.

Booth, whose Sheffield-based team are arguably the surprise package, has confirmed his hope the car will be ready for its first test at the end of January.

Following a long-standing career racing and running teams in the lower levels of motor sport, Booth said: "I've been asking the question all night as to how we managed to arrive here.

"But the budget restrictions have allowed us to get involved, and at the moment I'm on cloud nine.

"But we're the new kids on the block and we need to earn our place on the grid."

The team, meanwhile, have also confirmed the signing of Lucas di Grassi as partner to Timo Glock after two seasons in GP2, and as test and reserve driver with Renault.

"Timo and I are here together to build a team," remarked di Grassi.

"We're not working as separate individuals, but as a whole group, working as hard as we can to push the team forward."

Ten months ago Branson flirted with the idea of buying Honda, who opted to pull out of F1 last December citing the global economic downturn.

Although stating at the time "I love grands prix," Branson, though, insisted the sport needed to be "more cost effective" and with cars "run on clean fuels" before he would consider becoming involved.

In the intervening period, Formula One has attempted to cut costs, and is the reason why Virgin Racing will be joined on the grid by Lotus, US F1 and Campos next year.

As for greener, more fuel-efficient cars, they remain a future hope as bio-fuels are making an impact, but only very slowly.

Despite Branson's protestations, that did not stop him stepping in to help Brawn GP after team principal Ross Brawn led a management buy-out of Honda.

Ahead of the Australian GP that heralded the start of last season, Branson touched down in Melbourne to confirm a small but significant sponsorship deal with Brawn.

It was mutually beneficial to both parties as Branson dipped his toe in F1's waters and was bitten by the bug.

As for Brawn, they gained the publicity required at the time given the horrendous few months that had preceded their salvation.

Branson was certainly a popular figure in the paddock and in the Brawn garage and occasionally on the pitwall as the team triumphed in spectacular fashion.

Full branding, as had been speculated upon in Melbourne, failed to materialise though due to an apparent impasse over costs.

But Branson can at least say he played his part in helping Brawn become world champions, with Jenson Button claiming the drivers' crown and the team the constructors' trophy.

Now, however, Branson will have to content himself with watching his own cars almost certainly struggle at the back of the pack as with any new team.

Further explaining his reasoning, he said: "Last year with Brawn, they started the season as a David and it ended it as a Goliath.

"So we searched around for another great team, another David team, we have one and we will see how it goes."

Under the slogan 'a new team for a new era', Branson added: "The new era is seeing the costs of entry come down.

"This team will be the lowest-budget team in Formula One. It will run under the £40million per year that was being set by Formula One.

"But money's not everything. They are determined to prove that via engineering prowess, great drivers and a great affinity with the public they can do well."