Virgin Racing can no longer hide behind the protective barrier of being a newcomer to the grand prix grid in F1 2011, two of its most senior members have acknowledged – with the approach for the coming months one of 'small steps', but at the same time with clearly-defined objectives.
Graeme Lowdon is the man responsible for sowing the seed of F1 in the mind of Manor Motorsport team principal John Booth in the first place. Once its entry bid had been successfully approved by governing body the FIA in the summer of 2009, the Yorkshire outfit metamorphosed into Virgin Racing – courtesy of Lowdon's close links with Sir Richard Branson's company – and the Nomad Digital co-founder was installed in the role of CEO. It has been, he acknowledged, quite an experience.
“I remember ringing John two years ago saying 'I think it would be a really good idea to go into F1',” he recollected. “There was just complete silence on the other end of the 'phone – and then he said, 'let's go for it'. We knew it was going to be difficult – it's F1; it's meant to be difficult, it's not meant to be easy – and there were some aspects in which we didn't know what to expect.
“I think coming in as a new team, there's no point in trying to follow the same business model as someone like McLaren, Ferrari or Mercedes, because they've all been doing it for a long time. What's the point in trying to take the same approach and saying 'we'll do it better than them'? So we had to take a different approach – and that was CFD.
“I think we put together a really good team of people, but we are no longer a new team now – we are going into our second season as a fully-fledged F1 team. That's our mentality and our approach.”
Since then, of course, Marussia – Russia's first high-performance sportscar brand, founded in 2007 by ex-racing driver Nikolay Fomenko – has ramped up its involvement from a minor sponsor to an official team partner by buying into the newly-renamed Marussia Virgin Racing operation, which will henceforth compete under a Russian licence, a heady prospect for the country's F1 fans with the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in the pipeline for 2014.
Fomenko has come on-board as the team's engineering director, with Marussia's UK managing director Andy Webb succeeding Lowdon as CEO to focus on the executive management of the business, with the latter becoming Virgin Racing president and sporting director and benefitting from the opportunity to concentrate more on the politics of the sport.
“We got to know the Marussia guys throughout the year – they were there at our launch in late 2009, and they sponsored us throughout the year,” Lowdon revealed. “I think it's fair to say we became very good friends with them on a personal level as well. They had a good opportunity to see how we work, and we shared the ups-and-downs. After that, they still had the commitment to take on a significant investment in the team. It's really a very proud thing for us to have the Marussia name on the car now.”
“The journey is a very important part of it,” concurred Webb, who shares Lowdon's passion for engaging with and taking the team closer to the fans. “We could see the team getting stronger. The first six races were painful for everybody, but as things grew and developed, it made it more powerful for us to actually see the strength of the team. This is a distinctive offering of Virgin Racing and Marussia – and a great opportunity to bring them together and move forward.
“We're no longer competing as one of the three newcomers – let's try and get at least mid-grid and regularly into Q2 [in 2011]. That would be fantastic. It's all about small steps. Let's see how we progress over this season, and hopefully as we move forwards towards the middle of the grid, that will bring with it its own momentum.”