Nick Fry and Ross Brawn's purported management buy-out of Honda's Formula 1 team could yet be dashed by the last-minute re-emergence of the very first party to have demonstrated an interest in acquiring the squad - Virgin.

It was recently claimed by a Honda F1 source that a party described as 'reputable, able to bring long-term financial stability [and] with a brand image known throughout the world' had come into the picture at the eleventh hour [see separate story - click here] - just as the parent company in Japan was all-set to conclude a deal with CEO Fry and team principal Brawn.

It is now widely understood that the organisation in question is Virgin Group Ltd, owned by Richard Branson. A source close to both and the deal revealed that the travel, entertainment and lifestyle brand - which encompasses more than 360 companies worldwide - was in fact the very first party to have approached Honda regarding a possible takeover, ten days before the Japanese car maker even announced it was putting its F1 operation up for sale back in early December.

The bid came about after Reynard Motorsport founder Adrian Reynard - a neighbour and close friend of Branson, and an investor in some of Virgin's companies - suggested to the billionaire British entrepreneur that a venture into the grand prix paddock would likely not be a bad thing.

It is not the first time Branson has demonstrated an interest in the sport, and Reynard is known to be keen to return to the F1 scene, having last featured in the top flight as a minority shareholder in British American Racing's entry back in 1999 - an outfit that subsequently went on to be taken over by Honda in 2006.

However, with Branson deeming the current situation too great a mess to get to grips with, the initial interest subsided, and the proposed buy-out by Fry and Brawn was understood to be all-but a done deal, with all other bids having been dismissed.

That situation is believed to have now changed somewhat, though, following the recent statement by Petrobras insisting that it is resolutely not interested in backing the team in the absence of a manufacturer behind it and stressing that it has never lent its financial support to drivers - a revelation that flew in the face of Fry's suggestions that the Brazilian oil company was ready to come on-board along with Bruno Senna.

With Fry seen to have backed himself into something of a corner, our source claimed that Honda in Japan has now gone back to Branson again to try to resurrect his and Virgin's interest in a deal, but there are concerns that the latest moves have come very late in the day. What's more, there is no engine tie-up yet in place - even though Mercedes-Benz is understood to be willing to offer a customer supply - and a crash test has still to be passed if two cars are to be presented on the starting grid for the curtain-raising 2009 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in just over five weeks' time.

"I think it would actually be a very good idea to have Branson on-board," our source contended. "I think he would be very good for the sport, but the question is who would fund it all?

"As a company, Virgin has major financial problems at the moment. It owns the leasehold on Zavvi (previously Virgin Megastore), which has gone bust, and as I understand Virgin is liable for the rent on all of those premises.

"Moreover, who would design the cars? Adrian Reynard has not designed a Formula 1 car in years, and Ross [Brawn] is an excellent engineer, but he is not a designer per se. A lot of his success at Ferrari came off the back of Rory Byrne, so they would need to get someone else in on the design front really."

There is also, it transpires, a more pressing date looming - that of 5 March, when the three-month notice on which all Honda F1 staff were placed when the original withdrawal announcement was made is due to expire.

A Virgin spokesperson would only tell "As a company we don't comment on rumours."



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