A dozen or so of the British media’s finest representatives sat down with Sir Richard Branson this afternoon to get some more detail.
He’s a very tall man, slightly stooped, very pale looking. We sat in the Brawn hospitality area and, having looked in vain through all his pockets for his ‘cheat sheet’ notes Branson decided to just go for it and think on his feet.
As always with journalists there was a faint whiff of scepticism about this sponsorship deal with Brawn, the suggestion being that money has yet to change hands. This feeling was reinforced when Nick Fry was brought in by Branson to help him out on how much detail he should give and Nick said as an aside that he was still waiting for a cheque.
Branson said, “Until they get the cheque they don’t want me to go too far.”
The deal is a toe in the water job to start, thrown together at short notice with and it depends on how the discussions go in the next few weeks as to whether the relationship goes deeper. I asked him if he planned to buy an equity stake and get a seat on the board and he said that he needed to keep something to say to us in a few weeks time.
Here’s the rest of the conversation.
How long have you seriously looked at F1?
“I’ve enjoyed it for years and in past got tempted but it’s been such an expensive sport. But the recession has been bringing the cost of entry down to a more reasonable level and the new rules that are coming out to encourage new teams to come in for more sensible amounts of money will make it a more exciting sport. When the Honda team got into trouble and it looked like a possibility of it disappearing altogether we spoke with Honda. I think we’ve ended up with the best of all worlds with a fantastic engineer and a great brand like Virgin. It’s something which could develop into something exciting in the years to come.”
“I’ve been fortunate I’ve done ballooning and boating and it hasn’t cost any money, I’ve always got someone else to sponsor them. I like to make everything pay its way. The idea of writing a cheque for tens of millions is something we haven’t done in the past. But at the right value it makes sense. We’ve come in with an underdog team that needed financial help at a time that they have an engineer with a fantastic track record and a shot at doing well.”
“We’ve throw something together in quite a quick period of time and all of us would like to see it develop into a more complete relationship, maybe over the next three or four years.”
Could you have the naming rights for the team?
“It’s a possibility, we’ll see what happens over the next three or four weeks. The team don’t want to waste the name of the team on something that is not promoting anything. Everyone knows that it has a great engineer, the team doesn’t need to be named after an engineer and that may well change. If it happened we’d be committed for a long time.”
What do you need to make that commitment.?
“We all need more time. We are a Virgin bride and someone else may come in and offer something even better before this bride marries them. But I’m sure we will get something together.
‘We announced that we would put all the profits from our dirty businesses into developing a clean fuel. We have that fuel now and one great way of proving to the world that there is a clean fuel that works and which can be used in ordinary cars and aeroplanes is for it to be used in F1. I’ve just met the head of Mercedes to start the talks about seeing if it can be tested in F1 cars and used as soon as possible.
“Every industry has to move towards clean fuels. F1 has to be the leader in clean fuels, F1 have said they are committed to it. I know that the people at the top of F1 are very keen to move towards a sport that they can be proud of and one of those aspects is running on clean fuels as long as it doesn’t detract from the excitement of the sport. We believe our fuel will be even faster than the current fuels.
“This is the first stage of a deal which is meant to be two stages and we will see what happens over the next few weeks.”