Richard Branson: 'It's been fantastic to be part of the journey'

Sir Richard Branson, typically, feels the sky is the limit for Virgin Racing, yet 2010's new teams have received a frosty welcome by some, writes David Tremayne
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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Branson did not hide his enthusiasm when his Virgin Racing team unveiled their new contender for the 2010 world championship. Last year the bearded entrepreneur did one of the cheapest deals in history, investing £10m into Ross Brawn's team and seeing them win both titles. This year, with what is rumoured to be half that investment, he competes under Virgin's own name.

"It's been fantastic to be part of this journey," he said. "I'm sure we will be measured by how fast the car is on the track, but I hope that doesn't overshadow the far bigger achievement of pulling an entire racing team together and taking a brave step that defies convention. In many ways this is an exploration but, given the absolute self-belief we have seen, I can't help but feel very excited about what we can go on to achieve in the years ahead. For now, though, I'm looking forward to seeing the VR-01 on-track in testing in the coming weeks as we prepare for Virgin Racing's very first grand prix."

Branson bought into the departed FIA chief Max Mosley's dream that teams could run on $40m budgets, as did the AirAsia owner Tony Fernandes with his Lotus Racing team and Spanish businessman Jose Ramon Carabante with Hispania Racing. The ambitious USF1 team also tried but ultimately failed, let down by unreliable sponsors. Since they all signed up, however, talk of budget caps, like Mosley, have been consigned to history. And not everyone welcomes the newcomers.

Ferrari blame Mosley for creating a two-tier Formula One. "This is the legacy of the holy war waged by the former FIA president," they said. "The cause in question was to allow smaller teams to get into Formula One. This is the outcome: two teams will limp into the start of the championship, a third is being pushed into the ring by an invisible hand [a reference to the then unknown backers of Hispania] and, as for the fourth, well, you would do better to call missing persons to locate it.

"In the meantime, we have lost two constructors along the way, in the shape of BMW and Toyota, while at Renault, there's not much left other than the name. Was it all worth it?"

Branson's team hit the tracks first, but also hit hydraulic and front wing problems with their car, ambitiously designed purely by computer modelling rather than in a wind tunnel. Lotus came next, ably guided by the respected design head Mike Gascoyne, who has had spells with Sauber, McLaren, Tyrrell, Jordan, Renault and Toyota.

As USF1 faltered, and a shadowy Serbian outfit called Stefan GP waited in the wings hoping – fruitlessly as it transpired – to take up the American team's entry for its 2010 Toyotas, the former driver Adrian Campos' eponymous team fought for its own survival. Now taken over by Carabante and renamed Hispania, they will make Bahrain by the skin of their teeth thanks to the determination of team manager Colin Kolles, formerly of Force India.

And the truth is that reaching Bahrain is really only getting to base camp of the mountain of Formula One. From there, the real challenge begins. All three newcomers will be lucky to survive the year, let alone score points, as they race against competitors with far bigger budgets.

Alluding to USF1 and Stefan GP, the FIA has pledged to announce a new selection process "to identify candidates to fill any vacancies existing at the start of the 2011 season".

After the stress the new boys have been through just to get this far, it will be surprising if anyone else steps forward to join the band of merry men wielding power and influence in Formula One, the band they call the Piranha Club.