Richard Branson's hint that he may not be done with Formula One after his toe-in-the-water exercise with Brawn GP this year could lead him to lead his Virgin brand to the nascent Manor F1 team.
Flamboyant entrepreneur Branson admitted over the British Grand Prix weekend that it was unlikely that his current deal with Brawn would continue beyond the end of the season, claiming that the money involved was set to escalate along with the success enjoyed by Jenson Button in 2009.
Suggestions that the Brawn cars would eventually find themselves clothed in a familiar red-and-white Virgin livery appear to have come to nought, with Branson understood to have been rebuffed when it came to renaming the team after his all-encompassing brand. The initial agreement between team and sponsor was reportedly a modest $250,000 per grand prix, running on a race-by-race basis, but, instead of a title deal, Branson hinted that it may be time to look elsewhere to promote his company.
"[Brawn's] value has gone from next to nothing to £50m a year," he told BBC Radio 5 Live's Sportsweek
programme, "We're delighted for them, [and] we have most likely got the mileage we needed from [the deal]. I suspect, next year, the price will be astronomical and we may have to look somewhere else with a smaller team."
That 'smaller team', according to the BBC, could be the new Manor F1 outfit that is poised to jump from the F3 Euroseries to the top flight along with the design skills of former Simtek owner Nick Wirth. The team has ambitious plans to field the first F1 car designed entirely using CFD technology, rather than a windtunnel, and brings a strong pedigree from the lower ranks, where luminaries such as Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen piloted its cars.
Branson's money, even on the scale of his support for Brawn, could be vital for Manor boss John Booth, who admitted over the weekend that he was investigating how the latest accord in the FIA-FOTA feud would affect his plans. The Yorkshireman signed up for F1 under FIA president Max Mosley's proposed £40m budget cap but, should the latest truce hold, will need to find more as the teams police spending themselves as they attempt to bring the cost of competing down to the ambiguous 'early 1990's levels'.
According to the Beeb's 'Mole' F1 column, the Manor team will be renamed to reflect Virgin's involvement, despite the Manor name having an unexpected link to Branson, who formerly owned the Manor Studio, before selling it, along with Virgin Records, to EMI.
Manor F1, meanwhile, attracted some unwanted interest over the weekend when it was claimed that FIA chief steward Alan Donnelly may have had a hand in the team securing its unexpected place on the grid for 2010.
According to Britain's Guardian
newspaper, Jane Nottage, an associate director of Donnelly's Sovereign Strategy company, is understood to be running the public relations function at Manor free-of-charge, while Donnelly himself is reported to have 'personally escorted' a senior Manor figure at a recent European round of the F1 World Championship. Similarly, Wirth's involvement, although not one of team principal, was met with suspicion of a conflict of interest when it was recalled that Mosley had helped to found Simtek Research before the company launched its short-lived 1993-95 F1 bid.
The sport's present competitors are understood to be readying a formal complaint against both Manor's inclusion on the 2010 entry list and Donnelly himself, who maintains that he has 'no direct involvement' with the Yorkshire-based outfit and was merely welcoming them to the paddock as he would any newcomer. Manor's place on the starting grid was something of a surprise, coming as it did ahead of unsuccessful bids from the likes of Prodrive/Aston Martin, Lola and Epsilon Euskadi.
The unease is not the first time that Donnelly has been the subject of controversy, either, after the Formula One Teams' Association wrote to the FIA earlier this month complaining that Max Mosley's right-hand man had tried to 'create division between FOTA teams' over the Turkish Grand Prix weekend in Istanbul.
The governing body has underlined that it 'utterly rejects' the accusations.