FEBRUARY 16, 2009

Could it be Virgin?

There are rumours that the new bidder for Honda could be the Virgin Group, the venture capital firm that is headed by Sir Richard Branson. This specialises in travel, entertainment and lifestyle products. The company is estimated to be worth $8bn. The broad-ranging empire is not all doing well at the moment with the Virgin Atlantic airline announcing a reduction in its workforce by up to 600 jobs but other businesses doing very well. The lure of F1 is not obvious, apart from as a brand-building exercise, but it could be related to Virgin Fuel. Branson says he is investing $1bn in alternative fuels for cars and airliners. Using F1 would be a good way to promote the idea.

Virgin has been operating since the early 1970s when Richard Branson first launched the Virgin record label, shops, followed by a film company, games, the airline in 1984, holidays, airships, hotels, radio stations, books, cola, vodka, trains, cosmetics, mobile phones, internet access and space travel. Virgin announced its diversification into new fuels in 2006.

The most interesting element of any potential bid for Honda's F1 team is that Branson has expressed an interest in motor racing before. in 1997 he said that Virgin would fund the British Grand Prix if it was run without any tobacco sponsorships. In 2000 Branson appeared in Monaco as a guest of his friend, next door neighbour and business partner Adrian Reynard, as the Reynard company was at the time designing seats for Virgin Atlantic airliners. Two years later there was a small sponsorship deal from Virgin Mobile for Eddie Jordan.

The most intriguing idea is that Branson might be involved in a bid to put Reynard in charge of the team of which he was one of the founders and a shareholder in the early days. Reynard still owns the land on which the team's factories are built and is believede to own one of the two buildings as well, although these are leased to the team. Reynard and Branson have long been pals and he is one of the founding members of Virgin Galactic, Branson's companmy dedicated to taking normal (rich) people into space.