Virgin Racing has endured a very difficult start to life in Formula 1, with reliability problems hitting the team in basically every single session
Added to that, the new outfit has been forced to redesign its fuel tank in order to make sure it can reach the end during races. But Virgin boss Richard Branson remains calm and believes it's all part of the learning process.
AUTOSPORT heard from Branson ahead of qualifying for the Australian GP.
Q. So what was your first reaction when you were told about the fuel tank problem?
Richard Branson: F*** me! We knew that the car was designed to push the barriers to the limits, and I also knew that we had six months to pull this car together - and that there were going to be teething problems. I think you will find that there are a number of cars that are challenged in this area, but we had to go to the FIA because of the particular redesign that we have had to do.
From what I am told, there are a number of teams that, because it is a new system, they may have to back off a limit bit on occasions. I may be wrong, and it may just be ourselves, but that is what I am told. And some of the other teams can tweak their fuel situation, whereas we have got to have a new one.
I think that we will be able to put in a good performance with the fuel tank that we've got, and we certainly should be able to complete the race. But that is not to say we won't have other problems, since the car is a brand new car. Anyway, not a perfect situation but it is part of the challenges of building a team from scratch. If Toyota can have problems, then a brand new company can also have some teething problems.
Q. So you are slightly more relaxed about it than some other teams may have been. A team like Ferrari may have given someone the boot for such a schoolboy error?
RB: I don't think it is a schoolboy error actually. I've seen transcripts of Ferrari and others talking about fuel tanks in the [FIA] press conference, and I think it is clear that getting it absolutely right - where you are trying to optimise speed and weight, and the balloon shape fuel box, is not easy. Particularly if you are a brand new team.
I think all of us around this table know that he [Nick Wirth] has managed to get a car that is the fastest of the new cars, but there is an issue here that is going to take a few races to fix. It will actually give the car some time to have some practice time - because the new cars were given so little practice time. Over the next five races we will learn more and more about the car.
It also hasn't cost us anything. I read one or two articles saying it had cost us a lot of money, but it is not going to cost us a thing. It will be the supplier whose issue it is who has agreed to redesign it, so it won't cost the team anything. Obviously, we would rather it hadn't happened, but these things happen and it is F1. It is the birth of a new team and even the most experienced teams have issues, even the most experienced car companies have issues.
Q. You had the front wing failure in the first test, the ongoing hydraulic problems and now the fuel tank issue. Were you expecting a less frustrating start to this new team adventure?
RB: As I said the first day, we expected to be the underdog team for a number of years. We are starting from the back of the pack and we will go onwards and upwards - and at least there is only one way to go!
Was I expecting it? It is Formula 1, and if the new teams could come in, build a car from scratch and get it all right then the sport would be too easy. There has got to be some teething problems. It is a really complicated sport, and getting the balance right between speed and reliability takes time and practice. I've been in balloons that have been technologically attempting to be the first to cross the Atlantic, or the first around the world. And generally speaking we ended up in the water on our first attempts. Almost always, there was a technological problem that went wrong on the first attempt. Our first boat in which we were trying to cross the Atlantic in sank, and with the second we broke the record. We just have to accept that it is a challenging sport and there will be challenging issues.
Q. Do heads roll as a consequence though?
RB: Of course not. Some articles have slightly oversimplified it as saying, how much fuel do we want - so let's build a fuel tank like this. There is a lot more to an F1 car than that. What you want it to do is maximise speed and get the fuel tank just right. It could be that we are still just right, but to play safe the team has gone to the FIA for dispensation. We think other teams are on the edge, but you can ask them.
Q. Does this affair not damage the Virgin name as a whole?
RB: I don't think so. The Virgin name is synonymous with experimentation and trying things. People, when we first tried to cross the Atlantic in a boat, people said that if the boat sinks then it will reflect badly on the Virgin companies. Well the boat did sink, and we came back and were successful the next time. I think the Virgin brand has been a challenging underdog brand throughout its history and it will continue to do so. In the end we will get it right, but there are going to be teething problems on the way.
Q. One year ago you arrived in Melbourne and won immediately. Now you are struggling so much...
RB: We've gone from first to last. I've always accepted that that was the likely scenario. I've always said that we would like to be the fastest of the new teams, and there is still a long season to go. And I am hoping still that Tony Fernandes does not come and measure we up - although he has probably got his tape measure ready. We will see how the season goes. But we are going to have a lot of fun from here, and part of the fun is the challenge of overcoming difficulties. This is a little difficulty that will be overcome.
Q. One perspective of this is that Nick has said the regulations changed from the time he designed the car to what you have now. This is a long problem F1 has had - is there any frustration about that?
RB: He wanted to get the car bedded down as early as possible - and managed to do that. Subsequently a few things shifted that changed the horizon, so if you built the car in the last few months you had an advantage on this issue than if you had built it six months ago. That is the swings and roundabouts of the sport - we are not frustrated with the sport as a result.
Q. Did you get anywhere near buying Brawn GP?
RB: Yes. But we didn't. There was a stage where we came very close, I think. But it didn't happen.
Q. Would it have been a bit of a bargain?
RB: We had the bargain of the lifetime last year, so we are not complaining. And I never look back - I like to look forward. We are going to enjoy the process of building a new team, with all the ups and downs that go with building a new team.
Q. In the short time the team has been around, what impact has it had on the Virgin brand?
RB: We have had lots of coverage, and I think most of the public who follow this sport realise that it is a tough sport, and Virgin has taken on a tough challenge. We could have written out a big cheque to continue sponsoring a team like Brawn, or we get involved in starting a new team which, I think, ultimately is more exciting. To build our way from the back and move forward, rather than be third or fourth in the championship as Brawn GP is. We are happy to take on this challenge.
Q. Does this make you modify your ambitions for the championship?
RB: We are still hoping to be the best of the new teams - and we are obviously going to be more challenged. If we can get this problem resolved, and we don't have an hydraulic problem and we don't have a gearbox problem, then we know we have a fast car. A few things need to start going our way. It will also be interesting to see how all the teams perform.
Q. You say you want to go from the bottom of the top, but what if it doesn't happen. Do you have a timeframe of when you need to do that by?
RB: I hope that Virgin will be on the car for a long time to come. We are not the owner of the team, so it would not be for us to decide - but we are very involved, and we want to stay involved. We are enjoying it.
Q. The Virgin brand is young and exciting, but F1 was criticised after Bahrain for being boring. How does that affect you?
RB: Personally, there were some exciting moments in Bahrain - for us when Timo overtook Lotus that was exciting. And other people would have had their good moments. I have always said that the more we can make the sport [more exciting], with more overtaking places, and bring the teams' budgets in line - remember that our budget is £40 million against some of the other teams' £250-300 million - the better the sport will be. But I think the billion people who watch the sport don't seem to find it boring. You are the guys who write on it, but I am not sure the public necessarily agree with you.
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