Richard Branson's bid to take over Honda's defunct Formula 1 operation has received the highest seal of approval possible - with the sport's commercial rights-holder Bernie Ecclestone stating that he would 'welcome' the Virgin mogul 'with open arms'.

It came to light earlier this week that Virgin was the mysterious 'third party' that had come to the Honda dealing table at the eleventh hour [see separate story - click here], threatening to scupper the purported management buy-out bid that has been put together in recent weeks by CEO Nick Fry and team principal Ross Brawn, together with three other senior Honda Racing executives.

Crash.net revealed that Virgin had in fact been the very first organisation to express an interest in acquiring the Brackley-based outfit - put up for sale by the parent company in Japan back at the beginning of December, as a result of falling car sales precipitated by the current global credit crunch and poor on-track return for its substantial ?147 million investment in its F1 project.

Branson has flirted with a potential move into the top flight for the past decade, with his empire sponsoring Jordan Grand Prix back in 2002. Honda has always maintained that it will only sell the team to someone capable of securing its long-term future, and Ecclestone believes the immensely successful British entrepreneur could be just the man for the job.

"We would welcome them with open arms," the 78-year-old told the Daily Mirror. "He's exactly the type of person we would want in the sport.

"Sir Richard Branson is a wonderful guy. I met him at Monza last year and we got on very well."

The Virgin Group is understood to be worth some ?7 billion, and Ecclestone contends that a team constituted of essentially the same people but run by a man with Branson's undisputed business savvy, international reputation and financial clout could be the perfect solution.

"I know about the management buy-out," the Formula One Management chief executive reflected, "but if Virgin are interested and people say they want the same management, then that's great too."

Time, however, is running out, with the Honda board in Tokyo under pressure to make a decision fast as the season curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne is now little over five weeks away.