Q & A with Richard Branson

Virgin boss Richard Branson dropped in at the Catalunya test this morning to see his new Formula 1 team in action for the first time

Q & A with Richard Branson

AUTOSPORT was there to hear his thoughts on progress so far - and on Ferrari's criticism of F1's newcomers.

Q. This is the first time you have seen the new VR-01 in the flesh. How are you feeling?

RB: Well, I am actually looking forward to seeing it. I haven't seen it yet, but it is very exciting. I have come down to wish the team well. They have done an absolutely remarkable job in six months to build a car from scratch. And they are gelling fantastically well as a team. The car looks beautiful and they are working hard to ensure that it performs beautifully as well. So it is all looking good.

Q. The clock is clicking down to the start of the season. How are you feeling personally?

RB: We are tremendously excited. We love supporting the underdogs in every area that we are in. This is one of the new teams. The new teams eight or nine months ago were going to be given a few breaks here and there in order to give them a bit of a leg up - [but] as it is they have been told that they have to come into the race with exactly the same rules as the teams that have been going for 20, 30 or 40 years. So it is going to be tough for them - as it is literally having to start from scratch. But that is what we at Virgin like - we like a challenge. We've got the best people in the world to work with and it is going to be very, very exciting.

Q. The Virgin brand is very strong and known for hard work but also fun. How much will that live on in Formula 1?

RB: I don't think we would have got involved if we didn't think we could do that. There is a fun group of people working together to create a great new team and a great new car. I think they have already proved the sceptics wrong, to show that a car can be produced within a budget - a very, very reasonable budget - and it is a very good quality car. This is just the beginning.

Every other car that is on the grid has had literally years and years of input to get a car to that stage. This car has had just over six months input to get to this stage - with no advantages whatsoever. And I think we are going to have a lot of fun proving that it can be done within that kind of budget.

I think it will be interesting - and will show the other F1 teams that they could reduce their budgets to the £40 million cap that was planned for this year but has been delayed. And have just as much fun - you don't need to spend hundreds of millions to have fun. You can do it within a cap of 40 million and people can have just as much fun - and it will be just as exciting out there on the grid.

Q. Speaking of fun, there has been a little bit of a war of words between you and Tony Fernandes. Have you got your air stewardess' outfit ready?

RB: I am going to measure him up today to make sure we get the most fetching outfit for him!

Q. What was your reaction when you see statements like the one from Ferrari belittling the new teams coming into F1?

RB: I think that it is a bit sad to see Ferrari carrying on with those kinds of words. F1 needs new teams, and Ferrari won the battle of making sure the new teams were shackled. For testing, we built a new car and we are going to have to have exactly the same amount of practice time as Brawn or Ferrari or the others, who have had years and years and years to get their cars to a certain stage. We are not complaining about it, and we are happy to go on with it, but Ferrari should be welcoming new teams because they make the sport much more exciting.

And we will make them look better for a year or two until we catch them up. Ultimately, I think the new teams will give Ferrari a run for their money and I think will make the sport more exciting - particularly as the budgets come down to more realistic levels.

Q. When you arrived in F1 last year you talked about the sport needing to be greener, and you were pushing your clean fuel. What is the progress on that? Do you think F1 needs to wake up to the changing approach to the environment?

RB: Yes. I think that it is getting to within a year or so where F1 cars can be run on clean fuels. We've spoken with the powers that be and they have intimated that the second the clean fuels are available for retail, for the public, that they will adopt it in F1. And I think that is a fair compromise. Our own fuel company is rushing to get enough fuel back out into the market place so we can persuade F1 to use it.

Q. You were involved with the championship winning Brawn GP team last year. Why did you choose to leave them and involve yourself with your own team?

RB: It was nowhere near as exciting! I love creating things from scratch, and building new things. Brawn, we won the season and had great fun sponsoring them for the year, but it is far more exciting to start a new team, and grow a new team. It may take two or three years to move up the grid, but it will be very exciting in the process.

Q. But it is true you talked to Ross Brawn and the team about what you could do together?

RB: We are not used to writing out big cheques for successful, established companies. We like to start things from scratch. We have created 200-300 new jobs, we have new technology, a new team with Virgin branding - it is exciting. It is much more exciting that way.

Q. Looking at the pace of the new teams, it seems it could be a struggle as they are four or five seconds slower?

RB: They are brand new teams, and they have only been going six months. They have built cars from scratch, and by the start of the season I think the gap between the new teams and the old teams will be less. Give it a year or two - you cannot just build a new team from scratch and immediately start beating Ferrari that has spent £400 million on a car - whereas Virgin has spent less than £40 million. That is the budget that all the teams were meant to spend this year but then at the last minute [they] changed the rules to spend the same kinds of monies that they have been spending for years.

So, the budgets are a lot less but they are going to be tremendous cars. There will be a race among the new owners and then in time the new owners will start picking off some of the established teams.

Q. So what will be a good year for you then? Have you set a target?

RB: If this year we can beat the other new teams that will be a great start. If we can take one or two of the established teams occasionally that will be fun, and then next year we will go a little bit better and start moving forward. Once the budgets for the established teams comes down to the £40 million that Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA have said they must come down to - then we will see a much more equal playing field.

Q. Did it disappoint you that the established teams were so resistant to the budget cap?

RB: I think it was a pity that they were resistant and I think it is foolish actually. I think the one thing the Virgin team will prove is that you can have a really good racing team, running very fast, within a very tight budget. There is no need to do massively expensive wind tunnel testing, or all the other things that they do to get the extra second or two.

Q. You were part of the Brawn team last year - but will the emotions be different this year?

RB: No. We had tremendous fun with Brawn last year, and we wish them all the best. They are one of the best teams in the world - we have tremendous respect for them. For the time being we will see the back of their car, but one day we might look back at the front of their car. Let's see.

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