Q & A with Graeme Lowdon

It would be fair to say that Virgin Racing's debut season in Formula 1 has been nothing less than a baptism of fire. With wing failures in testing, early reliability dramas, a fuel tank-sizing issue and continued scepticism about a team using only CFD to create a car, it's not been an easy time for the operation

Q & A with Graeme Lowdon

Matters were also not helped recently when Bernie Ecclestone hinted that Virgin Racing's future could be in doubt because of financial reasons.

But despite the troubles, Virgin Racing has kept its focus and, rather than feel downbeat about what it has faced, it is encouraged by the situation it finds itself in.

AUTOSPORT caught up with Virgin Racing's CEO Graeme Lowdon for his view on the season so far, the state of its commercial platform and what his reaction was to Ecclestone's remarks.

Q. We are now about to enter the second phase of the season after the summer break. What is your verdict on the way the first half to the campaign went?

Graeme Lowdon: We had a slower than planned start, but now we have got on top of things - and we are not just getting back on track but really towards where we want to be. It is well recorded that we had difficulties in pre-season testing, and then the first four flyaway races in particular.

But since that point it has been a massive turnaround and certainly, if we were measuring ourselves against Lotus, who are the nearest competitor, then our performance since the first four flyaways is massively different. We are fundamentally more reliable, and we have achieved four two-car finishes. So from that side we are pleased.

Now we are starting to turn the speed back on, and I think that will continue for the rest of the season as well. So, after a slower than planned start, I think we are starting to get back on track and move forward.

Q. Has it surprised you that, despite a perception that Lotus has been streets ahead, that pace wise you are actually quite close to them?

GL: The results do not show it, but if you ask people which is the most reliable new team they might answer Lotus - but the truth is far from it. One thing it does show is that initial perceptions do tend to linger.

Without any question Lotus had a better reliability in the first four races, although equally I am sure they were not particularly happy with their reliability in those races. But since then we are streets ahead, and we are just focusing on maintaining that and progressing the car. We have more of a stable platform, which we didn't have then, so I would like to think that our rate of increase can be significantly more now.

Q. The fight for tenth place in the constructors' championship seems wide open...

GL: Yes. The way the scoring works, where any team on the same number of points as another team means the result is based on the single highest car finish, applies for all the teams with zero points. So it is all down to the highest single finish. So, if Sebastian Vettel had not retired in Australia then I don't think Lotus would be tenth in the championship. That is how random it becomes at this level.

My own view is that the championship standings do not really bear any relation to where things are at, but it is incumbent on us as a team to push forward and improve our position in the championship - even if it has to come about in some rather strange ways. There is nothing we can do about cars falling off in front. There was nothing we could do about Vettel breaking down - we just have to make sure that we keep winning the race with the other new teams and, if there are a number of issues ahead, then things can happen in the championship. Obviously we are keen to keep developing the car so we can have more control over racing against the back end of the existing teams, and that is definitely the target for us this year.

Q. As the season progresses, what is the biggest challenge for you - the technical aspect or the commercial situation in terms of building a platform to go forward?

GL: The two are always interlinked. We set our stall out commercially very early on by saying, 'we are going to do this differently'. We have a different cost base to the other teams. Our view was that you cannot build the same cost base as a McLaren or a Ferrari or even Red Bull Racing - and then say we will do it exactly the same way as them as we don't care they have been doing it for so many years, but we think we will be better at it. To me that just doesn't work.

You have to go about it a different way, so we structured the team quite differently. We spend the same amount of money moving stuff around the world, we do our hospitality the same as everyone else, we do everything like that - but the key bit where we save a lot of money is in not doing scale models, or wind tunnel testing, and we save millions doing that. So we can use that to have a different commercial model.

It means we are not exposed to the same pressures that a team following the model of everyone else down the pit lane has. And I find it hard to believe anyone would come in as a new team, and say we will do it the same as everyone else but try to be better. That is quite a leap of faith for an investor if you ask me.

We think we have done a pretty good job of getting sponsors on board as a new team, and we are very happy with the approach we have taken. Like any new venture there is always a challenge involved, and there especially is on the technical side, but it has proved to be what we thought it would be.

Q. How important in terms of going forward is getting that tenth place in the constructors' championship, because it is worth a lot of money?

GL: It would be nice! You marry lots of things together in a business plan, and our objective is to finish as high as possible in the championship. From a technical point of view we set our sights on that, but from a commercial point of view, to be prudent, we always made the assumption that we would get the lowest amount of revenue from the commercial rights holder that is possible under the Concorde Agreement.

To do anything other than that would mean you are starting to get into some of the models of the failed football teams - and we cannot live in a dream world. Our commercial model assumes we get the minimum payment so it is not essential that we finish 10th, 11th, 12th, or 13th. But from a sporting side we obviously want to, and if we were to finish 10th in the championship then it does have a positive implication from a commercial point of view. So we will be trying to do it - but if we don't achieve it we don't disappear! Far from it.

Q. Sponsorship wise, have you reached the levels of income for this year and next year that you hoped to be at this stage?

GL: Yes. The big challenge, because of our cost base and because we have this target where we can break even at quite a low level, the amount of sponsorship that we needed to get was a figure that we were always quite comfortable with. The unknown, if you like, was that some sponsorship deals can take years to come to fruition, so the key thing was how quickly we could ramp up to the levels that we wanted. So that was the interesting side. Unlike the established teams, the new teams have had to go from literally zero up to a certain level, but we are pretty happy with it. And we are still adding sponsors and signing deals now, to cover the remainder of this season and the following seasons. From that point of view, we are reasonably comfortable.

But the key to all of this is that it is all reasonably comfortable if your cost basis is low. If we had a cost base of £100 million, or £150 million, or even £75 million, then the task is significantly different. That is where we have the opportunity.

Q. Do recent comments like Bernie Ecclestone suggesting some new teams will not survive make life harder for you?

GL: I think Bernie Ecclestone is obviously entitled to make his comments about various teams. But we get on with our job; we know what we need to do.

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