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A Virgin birth

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So it’s finally done. The new Virgin F1 Racing team has been launched in London today – the most badly kept of all badly kept secrets

The drivers will be the 2 2007 GP2 title rivals, Timo Glock and Lucas di Grassi. The victorious driver went on to drive for Toyota for 2 years, the unsuccessful one went on to stay in GP2 for 2 more years, finishing 3rd twice. And now they’ve found themselves together again

2005 Macau GP winner di Grassi first entered GP2 in 2006, the same year as Lewis Hamilton, showing how long he has been stuck in the series. He has also been a member of the Renault young driver programme and has tested for the team for 4 years. Last year, he also tested for Honda but was overshadowed by Bruno Senna who was also testing for the soon-to-be-departing Japanese outfit. He compliments the ever-improving German, who equalled his best finish in his last race of 2009 at Singapore. It is a solid driver line-up, something that is vital for a new team that is looking for steady hands rather than lightning speed. Glock proved himself to be capable last year and it’s a shame it hasn’t led to greater things, but all credit to him for sticking his neck out and joining a new team, whilst di Grassi’s chance at the top level has been long overdue

Reserve driver is Portuguese driver Alvaro Parente. The 2005 British F3 and 2007 World Series by Renault champion is another that has come from GP2, winning 2 races in 2 seasons for Super Nova and Ocean. He has also won in Superleague Formula this year and was an early star of A1 GP. At 25, he is a veteran of the junior formulae, so it’s good to see he’s finally getting a chance in F1, although could have ended up with a race seat had he found the cash, according to the Portuguese motorsport press

Also signed up as test driver is another GP2 driver, Brazilian Luiz Razia. The 20 year old (turning 21 in January) took his first win in the series this year for Coloni at Monza, having also previously won in GP2 Asia for Arden, and has since joined Addax for this year’s GP2 Asia season. Before GP2, he was the F3 Sudamerica champion on 2006 and spent 2 years in the Euroseries 3000. Razia is probably bringing money (why else do they have 2 test drivers when most teams barely find roles for one these days?) but is a decent enough driver

Chief executive of the team is Virgin bigwig and pilot Alex Tai, John Booth is sporting director, Nick Wirth is chief designer, and chairman is Etienne de Villiers, former president and managing director of Walt Disney International Europe and Walt Disney Television International – he has been appointed by British bank Lloyds, who are reportedly ploughing $15m into the team via their private equity section. This is an interesting move given that Lloyds are now part-owned by the government after their financial problems earlier this year

The projected budget is under $60m, which isn’t a lot. Virgin are rumoured to only have a 25% stake in the team – they are said to have done a deal similar to Marlboro, whereby they buy the sponsorship rights to the whole car, as well as the naming rights, and they will then sell to other sponsors, of which there are already a few, including former BMW Sauber sponsor FxPro. All 4 drivers are expected to be bringing sponsorship, including Glock through his ties with Deutsche Post

Wirth has also confirmed that the car, to be known as the VR-01, will run for the first time in February, and maintains that no windtunnel testing will be done on the CFD-designed machine. It has already passed all the crash-tests. A video on the Virgin Racing website shows it to have a similar front end to the Red Bull RB5, as opposed to the new Lotus which is largely angular and simple, much like the Force India VJM-02. The VR-01 will be painted in a largely red and black livery, according to Tai, although the simulation depicted in the video shows a splash of white as well – essentially, it will be in Virgin colours

So what are their chances? Well, it’s definitely a gamble to go down the CFD route, but I think it’s a calculated gamble. Wirth has been using this approach for a while so I should think he is pretty confident it will pay off. Plus, even if it doesn’t, it’s still experience with the system which they can learn from and refine the CFD. This should be viewed as a long term project. But windtunnels or no windtunnels, the fact of the matter is they are likely to be struggling whatever they use. At worst, they’re going to finish last. At best, they’re going to finish a couple of places above last. What do they gain? Very little. So I believe it is a risk worth taking, as long as Branson understands that it is a long term project and is committed for the long haul. As for Virgin themselves, I recall plenty of sneers towards Red Bull when they first arrived for their “different” way of going about things, and a lot of people didn’t think they were committed. They finished 2nd in the championship last year. Virgin are a step beyond that as they are a company which largely thrives off PR. Take a look at the team’s new website – it’s slick, refined and original. I have a feeling Virgin will trump Red Bull in the PR stakes next year. As for the important stuff, the on track action, they may have to wait a few years yet, but in Manor they have a team that has plenty of experience in the junior formulae and they know how to win. For me, they have the most potential out of all the new teams

And finally, very much a PR own goal from Branson by letting this drag on for so long. He’d have got a lot more publicity had he launched at/around Abu Dhabi, which was when it was initially rumoured. Now it’ll be overshadowed by the Schumacher rumours. But there we are. Can’t say I feel particularly sorry for him

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Written by James Bennett

December 15, 2009 at 17:21

Posted in F1, F1 teams

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