Virgin set to sponsor Brawn UPDATE #2 Added photo from Saturday's Virgin and Brawn GP announcement.
03/26/09 This rumor is upgraded to 'fact' today. Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group is to invest in Formula One for the first time as a significant team sponsor. A deal has been reached with Brawn GP, whose driver, Jenson Button, is favorite to win the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday.
The multimillion-pound deal, which was revealed exclusively by Times Online yesterday, is expected to be confirmed in Melbourne tomorrow by Branson, who has cut short a family skiing holiday to fly to Australia for the occasion. It represents Brawn's first big sponsor signing after a management buyout led by Ross Brawn, the team principal, saved the team from extinction when Honda decided to quit the sport in December.
Until now their cars have run in pre-season testing with no commercial branding apart from the Brawn GP logo and that of Bridgestone, the Formula One tire supplier. But a senior source at the team indicated to The Times that the cars will now carry extensive Virgin branding and may even do so this weekend. However, Branson's company is not thought to have acquired the team's title sponsorship rights.
Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One commercial rights-holder, confirming that a deal had been reached, said that the size of Virgin's financial commitment has still to be worked out in detail. Ecclestone is delighted by what he views as a coup both for the team and for Formula One at a time when other big companies are scaling back their sponsorship commitments or even pulling out.
“Virgin and Brawn have come to commercial terms which he [Branson] thinks are viable,” Ecclestone said. “Both he and the team are happy.” Ecclestone added that he had been working to ensure a deal was done in recent weeks and that he had been prepared to make it work himself if the team had decided against going ahead.
“I've been pushing, pushing, pushing and pushing,” he said. “If they hadn't done it, Richard and I would have done it [facilitated the deal] anyway. But I am delighted they have just got going on it and have a deal in place. It's good for the team, it's good for Formula One, I'm very happy with it.”
The agreement follows negotiations this year between Virgin and Brawn amid speculation that Branson was considering buying the Northamptonshire-based outfit. However, those discussions came to nothing a month ago when Branson said that the sport needed to be more cost-effective and would have to use cleaner fuels before he could get involved. “I think there are faults that would need to be rectified before we could go into Formula One,” he said.
Since then Ecclestone and Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, the governing body, have announced a stringent budget cap of £30million for each team per season starting next year, something that may have encouraged Branson to take the plunge.
Branson's only previous involvement in Formula One was through a minor sponsorship deal with the Jordan team in 2002, using his Virgin Mobile company. Virgin Atlantic Japan has also backed Takuma Sato, the former Super Aguri driver, in recent years.
The deal with Virgin helps to guarantee the long-term future of Brawn GP, who stunned the sport by producing a car - developed last year by Honda - that is significantly faster than all their rivals, but which has sparked the first big row of the season. London Times 03/26/09 (GMM) Sir Richard Branson is on his way to Melbourne to unveil his Virgin brand's sponsorship of the Brawn team for 2009, Britain's the Times newspaper reports.
It is claimed a deal has been reached between the Brackley based team and the British billionaire, which according to a "senior source" will involve "extensive Virgin branding" on the BGP001 car.
The unsponsored Brawn cars in Melbourne, however, were on Thursday sporting essentially the same blank yellow and blank liveries as in winter testing.
A further indication of the eleventh-hour nature of a Virgin deal is that Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello had their official photographs taken on Thursday, sporting plain white and black overalls with no significant sponsor branding.
The Times, reporting that Bernie Ecclestone "confirmed that a deal was reached", reports that the Virgin agreement is not a title sponsorship and that the precise size of the backing is still being discussed.
Last month, Branson and Virgin reportedly considered buying the former Honda team outright.