Virgin's brand-new adventure

After its toe-dipping exercise with Brawn, Virgin has now put its name to a new F1 team. But the men at the helm are by no means inexperienced…
By Adam Cooper

Virgin Racing team principal John Booth insists he never harboured any ambitions to take his successful Manor Motorsport Formula 3 outfit into F1, for the simple reason that he might as well have been aiming at the moon.

“It was just so far out of reach, it never came on the radar,” he says. “For the last 10 years they’ve been spending hundreds of millions a year. I think rather than us planning to go into Formula 1, the F1 opportunity just developed. It was a once-in-every-10-lifetimes opportunity. And if you don’t grab it, then you regret it for the rest of your life!”

The catalyst was the push by the FIA to bring down the costs of competing, combined with its pro-active efforts to attract new entrants for 2010. The goalposts have moved since Booth and Virgin technical director Nick Wirth first did their sums, and the promised budget cap and performance boosts for new teams failed to materialise. Nevertheless Virgin is going racing for less than £40 million, a substantially smaller budget than has been the norm in recent times.

“I think everybody wants to find the right path for F1, and part of that is to get the costs under control,” says Booth. “They’ll be gradually sliding down to us as we’re scrambling to ramp up. Hopefully by 2012 we’ll be at a similar level.”

The real test will come in Bahrain and beyond, where there will be nowhere for Virgin and the other new teams to hide. But those behind the project are convinced that they are on the right track.

For Wirth it’s a case of déjà vu. With Simtek back in 1994-95 he ran a slimline F1 operation on a shoestring budget, learning the hard way how not go to Grand Prix racing, i.e. single-handedly managing the technical and commercial aspects while hoping that a mega sponsor would knock on the door. The team failed to finish its second season.

After a spell as an employee at Benetton he turned his back on F1. Since 2003 he’s been building up Wirth Research in Bicester, working with Honda USA in the IRL and latterly the American Le Mans Series. His Acura LMP1 car proved to be very effective last season.

Until the FIA began its focus on cost reduction – ironically a process intensified by Honda’s F1 withdrawal in December 2008 – Wirth had no wish to return to the top level.

“It didn’t feel like unfinished business,” he says. “I had many, many friends still in F1 and you’d hear some of the stories and see some of the craziness that was going on. It just had no appeal to me at all. It didn’t feel like something that I wanted to do or needed to do until this big change came along. That’s when it suddenly became interesting again.”

The move towards a budget cap, initially pegged at a modest £25m, caught Wirth’s attention. He was well placed to find out if it could really happen. It’s well known that he’s close to Max Mosley, his former partner in Simtek, and he’d also carried out research projects for the FIA.

Convinced that it made sense, he put in a nominal entry (when the procedure to do so did not yet exist) in the name of Wirth Research, although he knew he had to find a partner team.

“I indicated to the FIA that we would be interested in participating in the 2010 championship very early, either in late ’08 or early ’09. The reply was, ‘Thank you for your interest and we’ll keep you posted on the entry process.’ I wanted to get my foot in the door.”

As the budget cap proposals gathered momentum, others also took note. Among them were Booth and his commercial partner at Manor, Graeme Lowdon. Successful in business outside racing, Lowdon could see the big picture, and in February he convinced John that the time was right.

It was a momentous decision. Working from his base in South Yorkshire, Booth was a big fish in the F3 pond, having run the likes of Kimi Räikkönen (in Formula Renault), Robert Kubica and, most famously, Lewis Hamilton. Was it worth putting such a solid business at risk?

They agreed that Manor could not follow the likes of Stewart – the last team to graduate from the junior formulae – in building its car in-house. Thus the search began for a constructor. It was the FIA which suggested that they contact Wirth, who was looking for a team. When they met in early March there was an instant rapport.

“Nick is a pretty impressive guy,” says Booth. “The kind of guy you believe in straight away. From thinking it’s a million-to-one chance, the three of us sat down and it suddenly started to seem do-able.”

“John’s reputation precedes him,” says Wirth. “He’s got an incredible pedigree of understanding and working with drivers and being successful. He’s a racer, and I love racing, and I love racers. And Graeme is also an exceptional individual.”

Wirth met with other potential entrants sent in his direction by the FIA, but he soon committed to Manor. The new partners signed a deal with Cosworth in late March, just weeks after their first meeting.

To be ready for testing by February 2010 Wirth had to get going on an F1 design, despite there being no guarantee of an entry, and therefore no immediate funding: “We had to run on fresh air in March, April, May and June.”

Nick also had to start recruiting early. His former Benetton colleague Christian Silk came on board to head the design team as project manager without knowing if the car would ever be built.

Key to the entry process was an assessment to be conducted by the FIA, and Lowdon was keen to prepare as professionally as possible. He picked the brains of a former business associate, FIA advisor and Mosley confidante Alan Donnelly, meeting him at the Spanish and Monaco GPs. The conclusion was to present a solid plan with no ifs and buts about it.

However informal, the perceived Mosley/Donnelly links with Manor would later cause some bad feeling among failed entry bidders. However, this was at the height of the conflict with FOTA, when the FIA was doing its utmost to create a credible list of potential 2010 entrants, and others were given help as and when required.

Lowdon made good use of his contacts book. He runs a company that supplies wi-fi systems to rail operators, and through customer Virgin Trains he met the people overseeing the parent company’s new involvement with F1.

Virgin had been involved in a bid to take over Honda, but lost out to the team’s management. Nevertheless the famous logos appeared on the Brawns in Australia, and Richard Branson made it clear that a closer relationship could be announced within weeks.

That confirmation never came. Even as Jenson Button was extending his winning run in April/May the company was successfully wooed away by Manor, in the face of competition not just from Brawn but other existing teams. The prospect of a start-up operation, with greater control and a small budget, appealed to Virgin.

“They like to back the small guy who has a challenge and can win through,” says Lowdon. “There were a lot of things that fitted with what they wanted out of F1. And they gave us the ability to instantly get global recognition and access to marketing expertise.”

Thus when Lowdon and Wirth made their pitch to the FIA last June they were able to call on Virgin support. That final presentation impressed the FIA inquisitors, including Tony Purnell and representatives of Deloitte and CVC. But when Manor’s name appeared on the list of successful candidates on June 12, there were raised eyebrows, in large part because the team had kept a low profile and not conducted a PR campaign.

Much to Wirth’s frustration the crucial Virgin link – which helped gain credibility in the FIA’s eyes – would not become public knowledge for some weeks: “It was painful to see all the rocks thrown at us – it’s Max giving Nick an entry, and blah, blah, blah.”

With the entry confirmed, the finances could begin to flow, and private equity company Lloyds Development Capital joined the original Manor guys, Wirth and Virgin as shareholders.

Meanwhile Wirth’s decision to push ahead was a wise one: “I had to lock down the monocoque surfaces for this car on June 22. Working back from January, that’s when we needed to do it. It was really tough…”

Wirth has now expanded the Bicester staff from 50 to 120. Chief engineer Mark Herd will be one of five Wirth Research people attending each race, exactly 40 years after his father Robin embarked on the March F1 adventure.

Fortuitously, Wirth Research already has experience of the McLaren standard ECU that is mandatory in F1, having used the Woking company’s technology on the Acura. And as the first paid-up Cosworth customer, the company also led the way in specifying the connections and hydraulics that all the other new teams are using.

The car was designed purely via Computational Fluid Dynamics, and thus there are no scale models at Bicester. After the Acura project Wirth is adamant that the pioneering process works. The key is to ensure the best possible correlation between CFD and the track, and the rest is down to how clever you are. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s CFD or a wind tunnel, it is a device for developing,” says Wirth. “They all have their problems. It’s interesting because it’s cost-effective for us.”

Meanwhile Booth has been building up the race team at Dinnington, where sorting out transporters, the motorhome and pit equipment is just part of his massive job list. His first key hiring was team manager Dave O’Neill, who ran the Jordan test team and more recently the successful Irish A1GP outfit. Others have come from up and down the paddock.

“Brawn, Red Bull, Force India,” says Booth. “No Ferrari or McLaren, and no Williams – I think they pay too well! We were really pleased to get Alonso’s engineer Dave Greenwood. He’s a Yorkshire lad who wants to move home. There are quite a few people from the north who have moved south to be in F1. Our IT guy was commuting to Red Bull from Stockport, and now he just commutes over the hill…”

Booth has closed his F3 operation, and his new Manor GP3 team will operate from a separate unit. His original 8500 sq ft building is now the F1 logistics base, while a new 10,500 sq ft race preparation area is being completed alongside. Initial testing is being conducted from Bicester before the team heads to Bahrain, and it will move into the new facility on its return from the fourth flyaway event in China.

It’s a 130-mile trip up the M1 from design and manufacturing to the race shop, rather than the usual trip along a corridor. Wirth is not worried: “This company has been dealing with race teams from thousands of miles away. So for us, it’s just really easy. I’m sure it would be easier and better if they were next door. But we don’t have to get a plane and fly to America.”

“As far as physical logistics are concerned it’s a van going up and down an hour and a half, twice a day,” says Booth. “The three-pronged approach – having the commercial arm in London [at Virgin], R&D at Nick’s place in Bicester and us up in Yorkshire – possibly makes the departments easier to define. We can run a tighter ship that way.”

The benefits of Virgin’s marketing muscle are obvious, but there remain questions about the longer-term business model. Branson likes to get a big bang for his buck, and his F1 team is not going to be a Red Bull-style money pit. The idea is that third parties who want to be associated with the Virgin name will come on board and pay the bills, but one wonders how much he will continue to pump in if that doesn’t happen on the scale that is envisaged. Lloyds is also looking for a return.

From the outside the brash, noisy Virgin brand seems at odds with the softly-softly approach of real racers like Booth, Lowdon and Wirth. It’s telling that when the deal was struck Virgin’s ambitious special projects man Alex Tai landed himself the roles of CEO and team principal, despite his lack of racing experience, leaving Booth as sporting director.

That seemed to make little sense, and so it proved – just a month after December’s official team launch Tai was sidelined. Booth now has the job title that most observers felt was his right, while Lowdon has become CEO. Had former 747 pilot Tai initially been content with a lower-profile role, he might still be involved.

Typically, Booth wasn’t bothered either way: “It’s the same job with a different title hung on the door, maybe two-three per cent more work. I’m very honoured to be team principal, but the thing that worried me initially was that it may distract from the job I’m trying to do in building the team. But the support I have from Graeme in particular allows me to wear the title and still do the job that I wanted to do.”

He’s unconcerned that the name he established has been submerged by the Virgin brand, although the company behind the team is still called Manor Grand Prix Racing Ltd. “It’s a totally new venture. To use the Manor name as a vehicle for those few months was very flattering, but it was never really part of the plan to keep the name.”

So what sort of performance will satisfy him?

“I just want us to be reliable, safe, look the part and perform like professionals for the whole season. Longer term, our target has got to be regular point scorers within three years. If we don’t set ourselves that sort of target, there’s not much point in doing it.”