The 2009 Formula 1 season had a story-book quality for Brawn GP. Between Honda’s December announcement that they were leaving the sport, and the opening race of 2009, in March, Ross Brawn had to find a way to rescue the team. He was helped immeasureably by funds left in the team treasury by Honda – apparently as much as 140 million euros – to help the successor team through its transition. This would explain how the team was able to function with little visible sponsorship.
Such sponsorship as the team was able to secure came primarily from Sir Richard Branson, and his Virgin Group. Apparently, Virgin’s funding was in the neighborhood of 200,000 euros per race, which once suspects might have been barely sufficient to cover transportation costs for personnel and equipment.
Richard Branson has said publicly that Virgin likes to support underdogs, and certainly at the beginning of 2009 he had no reason to suspect that Brawn GP would be anything else. It quickly became apparent, however, that the new Brawns, now powered by the superior Mercedes engines, were the class of the field. They were able to maintain this status for the first half of the season. The second half belonged to Red Bull and McLaren.
The net result of Brawn’s steep performance curve, from a sponsorhsip standpoint, is that they will no longer be a bargain choice for any company that would like to see its brand on an F1 monocoque next year. One suspects that this is what Richard Branson really had in mind when he spoke of supporting the underdogs.
In the modern world of Formula 1, a car’s chassis and wing surfaces are rolling billboards, and, as is the case with any advertising space, the greater the exposure, the higher the fee to advertisers. Assuming that Brawn maintain their relative performance next year, and their commensurate broadcast visibility, they will be justified in demanding higher levels of funding from their sponsors.
Rather than sticking with Brawn, who would be certain to give the Virgin brand a high profile in 2010 (albeit at a higher rate than before), Branson will now likely move his funding to one of the smaller teams, where presumably he’ll be able to leverage his euros to greater effect. According to paddock gossip, Virgin might become the title sponsor of the new Manor team. In fact, there has even been talk that the team would be re-branded as Virgin GP.
While none of this has been officially confirmed yet, Ross Brawn recently commented to The Telegraph, “We had a great year with Virgin but they have different ambitions next year so it’s unlikely you will see their name on the car next year. They had the faith or good luck to be with us from the start and won a championship with us but it doesn’t look like they will continue.”
Image by Nelson Wu, licensed through Creative Commons.