Virgin reach for the stars with Manor

Branson's group take over Formula One's new kids on the grid with space tourism executive at the controls

Richard Branson's Virgin group have taken control of the new Manor team joining Formula One next year, according to official company filings.

The news has been confirmed in a document appointing Virgin board member and former pilot Alex Tai as Manor's chief executive. He is joined by Manor's founder, John Booth, who has been named as the team's race engineer, and on Thursday Nick Wirth, the former F1 team principal, was appointed as Manor's technical director.

Virgin sponsor F1's championship leaders, Brawn GP, and earlier this year it was rumoured that the company wanted to buy a stake in the team, although both sides allegedly failed to agree on a price. Virgin then reportedly took a 20 per cent stake in Manor, but there has been no public confirmation of their involvement until now.

As company directors represent shareholders, this is clear confirmation of Virgin's investment in the team. It is believed that this cannot be officially announced due to clauses in the company's sponsorship agreement with Brawn.

Tai is a long-serving Virgin executive and one of Branson's close confidants. He trained as a pilot in the RAF before flying for Virgin Atlantic. Rising through the ranks, Tai became vice-president of Virgin Galactic, the company's division that plans to launch tourists into space from 2011. Following Virgin's last-minute sponsorship of Brawn just before the start of this season, Tai took on the task of developing the company's links with F1.

Since they signed with Brawn when the team were unproven, Virgin are believed to have got an extremely good deal, with reports suggesting they are paying around $5 million for this season compared to the $20m spent by sponsors of other teams.

Virgin have come under fire for proposing to introduce their clean fuel into F1 – a move which would be likely to alienate the existing oil suppliers, who invest a total of around $170m in the sport annually. Virgin's involvement with Manor gives them a more direct route to negotiating with the other teams. But it remains to be seen whether this will make the clean fuel proposal any more appealing.

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