Despite 'no comment' being the quote of choice in the last 24 hours, the Virgin Group has been all but confirmed as a potential saviour of Honda's F1 team - along with several others.....
While only unnamed 'insiders' were prepared to offer clues to the team's future after rumours of an eleventh-hour bid from Richard Branson's business empire, a Honda spokeswoman has since confirmed that Virgin is among those negotiating for a place on the F1 grid this season. However, Akemi Ando, speaking to business publication Bloomberg
, also revealed that the company was not the only one still in talks, claiming - without naming names - that the team has been negotiating with 'several potential buyers' in recent weeks.
Any sale of the team, which still employs around 700 people at its Brackley headquarters, must be approved by Honda's board of directors, but time is running out if the team is to be ready for the opening round of the 2009 season, in Australia, at the end of March. Although work has been ongoing in an effort to complete the design and build of a new-spec car for Melbourne, there has been no definitive word on which engine it would use - Mercedes remains the current favourite - and the few testing opportunities that remain in 2009 are gradually being whittled away.
Virgin's approach was rumoured to have halted closing talks between those looking to offload the team and the consortium being fronted by former Honda F1 CEO Nick Fry and team principal Ross Brawn. That group, which is alleged to have the backing of F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone, is likely to be among the 'potential buyers' hinted at by Ando, although who else is interested remains unclear.
The situation at Brackley took another twist overnight when claims suggesting Brazilian petrochemical giant Petrobras was not interested in supporting the team were refuted. The company had been linked to an involvement should GP2 racewinner Bruno Senna get the second seat with whoever takes up the reins, but was reported to have backtracked on a sponsorship deal apparently agreed before Honda decided to withdraw late last year.
However, the brand's sponsorship manager, Claudio Thompson, now claims not to have known he was speaking to a journalist when he said that Petrobras would also pull out of F1 as it had no manufacturer to work in tandem with, and denied that there was any truth in rumours suggesting that the company would back Senna into an F1 seat as it had no policy of offering idividual sponsorship to drivers.
Senna does, however, retain backing from another Brazilian company, telecoms brand Embratel, which has been a long-time partner of the driver, and forms part of the business empire of Mexican Carlos Slim, who has also been connected - but ruled out - as a possible buyer of the Honda team.