The paddock at Albert Park has been abuzz with talk about the Virgin Group sponsorship tie-up with Brawn GP, even since news of the deal broke earlier this weekend.
On Saturday morning, interest in the matter reached fever pitch as Sir Richard Branson arrived to announce his first proper foray into Formula 1.
After the press conference, he sat down with selected media inside Brawn GP's offices to discuss why he has finally chosen to get involved, what his plans are for the future and why he sees clean-fuel as F1's future. AUTOSPORT heard what he had to say.
Q. So how long have you been seriously looking at Formula 1?
Richard Branson: I've enjoyed it for years, and in the past I got tempted but tried not to be tempted because it has been such an expensive sport. The recession is bringing the cost of entries down to a more reasonable level, and the new rules that are coming out - where they are trying to encourage teams that are coming in for more sensible amounts of money, are going to make it a more exciting sport. And I don't think we will lose any of the engineering prowess of the past.
So, when the Honda team got into trouble and it looked like there was a possibility of it disappearing altogether, we spoke with Honda and we spoke with the management, and we have ended up with the best of all worlds with a fantastic engineer, a great brand with Virgin and something which could develop into something quite exciting in years to come.
Q. Did you nearly come in with Adrian Reynard a number of years ago, as he is a neighbour of yours?
RB: No. We've always been friends and we decided to remain friends, so chose not to get involved at that stage. I've been quite fortunate in that I have done ballooning and boating, and done quite a lot of sporting activities, and it hasn't cost any money as I always got someone else to sponsor it. So I am a bit of a cheapskate when it comes to these things, and make everything pay its way.
So the idea of writing tens of millions of pounds or dollars for sponsorship is just something that Virgin has not done in the past, or needed to do. You have Virgin planes in every airport, and Virgin trains, we have other ways of getting our name out.
But [sponsorship] at the right value does make sense, and we have come in with an underdog team that needed financial help, at a time where they have had an engineer who has a fantastic track record and where they have a shot of doing well.
Q. Can you explain a bit more about the commitment you are making financially, and what will happen in the following years? How is this deal structured?
RB: We've thrown something together in a very quick period of time. We signed it four hours before I got on the plane, and I think all of us would like to see, in a very short period of time, it developing into a more complete relationship - even in the next three or four weeks. But we will see. This is just a first step of hopefully a bigger relationship. We will see what will happens.
Q. So it is possible that your financial involvement will increase quite dramatically next year, compared to this year?
RB: If it is going to increase, it would happen over the next three or four weeks - we would not wait until next year if we are to do something with this team on a long term basis.
Q. So it is possible you could have the full naming-rights?
RB: It is certainly a possibility. But we will see what happens over the next three or four weeks. The team do not want to waste the name of the team on something that is not promoting anything, and everybody knows it has a great engineer, so the team doesn't need for it be called after an engineer. That may well change, but we will see what happens.
Q. But what about the problems of not being able to keep changing team names in F1?
RB: If it happened, we would be committed for a long time.
Q. What do you need to happen in the next three or four weeks to make it more long term?
RB: I think all of us all need time. First of all they have had to save the team; they have had to get the racing going. We are hoping that we will have a proper marriage quite soon - but we are a Virgin bride. They may find that someone comes in and offers them something even better before this bride marries up with them! But it is more likely than not that we will get something sorted in the next few weeks.
Q. Was the prospect of a Virgin car running around near the front of the grid too much to resist?
RB: We've been talking for two or three months, and we had not seen the speed of the car back then. We were committed to being involved in trying to save the team before we knew how well the car was going to go. An added bonus would be if it is one of the top five today, an even more added bonus would be if it is was in the top three. But we will see how it will go.
Q. You've talked about using your Virgin clean fuel. Is that one of the key areas for you?
RB: We announced, a year-and-a-half ago, that we would put all our profits from our dirty businesses into trying to develop a clean fuel. We have that fuel now, and one great way of actually proving to the world that there is a clean fuel that works which can then be used for ordinary cars and airplanes is for it to be used in F1. I just met the head of Mercedes-Benz to start the talks about seeing if it can be tested in actual F1 cars, and hopefully used as soon as possible because every industry has got to move towards clean fuels. F1 has got to be the leader in clean fuels as [Ross] Brawn said earlier. F1 has said it is committed to it, and we have the fuel that is just as powerful as the normal fuel, and just as noisy if F1 wants to be noisy, but happens to be clean.
Q. How many races do you plan to come to?
RB: I'm obviously quite busy, but I will definitely come to four or so. We will see. It will be as many as possible.
Q. Have you been assured by Bernie Ecclestone that the new budget cap will come into force? There's a lot of cynicism in the paddock, but you seem to be convinced?
RB: He's thrown out an idea, and like with every idea there will be negotiation, but IndyCars run on 20 million dollars or less. This is an international sport and obviously it needs more money than that. But he hasn't capped the current teams; he has capped the new incoming teams.
I'm sure a balance will be negotiated and reached which will make sense for everybody. We would not pay the kind of monies that were paid in the past to sponsor Formula 1, and I think there are a lot of other companies that won't. There are other companies sponsoring cars today I know are losing a lot of money in their other businesses, so Formula 1 has to change, but it still has to be innovative.
I don't know how many years ago, but people used hundreds of engines and that's been reduced to eight, and that hasn't hurt Formula 1 at all. I'm sure there are lots of moves like that that could be done to reduce the costs, which are in the interests of everybody.
Q. Would you see that you get an equity stake, a seat on the board, as a business proposition, beyond just actually spending money?
RB: We've got to have something to talk to you about in a few weeks' time, so we will talk to you about that then.
Q. Have you talked to Bernie Ecclestone about clean fuel, and have you received any encouragement about that?
RB: I know the people at the top of Formula 1 are very keen to see the sport becoming something they can be proud of, and one of those aspects is a sport run on clean fuel, as long as it doesn't detract from the excitement, which this particular fuel, we are happy to introduce, will not do. It will be as fast as, or potentially even quicker, than the current fuel.
Q. You've talked to Bernie about it then?
RB: I've talked in very general terms about three weeks ago, but not about our specific fuel.
Q. Will it involve much change to the current engines?
RB: It shouldn't involve any change whatsoever.
Q. You've companies in F1 like Shell and Total who will be fairly against it. Are you ready for a political fight?
RB: We are very happy to work with the fuel companies. We do not want to make lots of money out of our fuel. This is something more of a foundation, so we are happy to give this fuel to these other companies and work with them on it.
Q. Is this sponsorship deal linked to success?
RB: We would have come here with a slightly more complete deal I suspect if we'd had a bit more time, but the team have been incredibly distracted, to say the least, over the last two or three weeks. We've come here with the first stage part of the deal, which is meant in two stages, and we will see what happens over the next two or three weeks.
Q. But those stages don't depend on success?
RB: No, not at all. We're a Virgin who is committed, but we will see what happens over the next two or three weeks.
Q. You've done ballooning and power boating, do you want to have a go in one of these F1 cars?
RB: Having finally been victorious across the Atlantic in a boat, I was invited to race in a car before a Formula 1 race at Silverstone, and I was so last I hoped the people watching would think I was first! So that's as close as I will ever be to sitting in a racing car.