Motorsports fans will know that the outfit didn’t fare well in its previous attempt to scale the heights of world-class motor racing, quickly becoming a mere footnote in the history of fickle Formula 1.
Yet the forward-thinking, technological credentials of the brand created by gregarious entrepreneur Richard Branson match the aims of the new racing series perfectly. From a single record shop to radio stations, health clubs to hospital services, trains to airlines to space travel, Branson is not a man who thinks small.
When it comes to marketing, Branson has something of the Midas touch. But he’s also passionate about innovation (look no further than the Mojave base of his Virgin Galactic spacecraft). That combination will prove invaluable to Formula E, which is designed first and foremost to alter perceptions about electric cars rather than attract existing motorsport fans.
But will the racing element prove problematic for a brand with no real motorsports heritage? Just a few years ago, suggesting that a beverages company could topple F1 motor racing royalty such as McLaren and Ferrari – and for four successive seasons – would have guaranteed you a prescription for some very calming pills. But Red Bull has gone on to dominate the sport, crushing its competitors so effectively it’s as if its cars run on the very caffeine-fuelled drinks it sells.
There’s no doubt that Virgin Racing will face stiff competition from slick, well-operated racing teams that know how to win. Lining up alongside IndyCar heavyweights and former F1 teams and legends will be no free ride.
However, the first year of the new series will be a level playing field, with all teams using the same cars, the same technology. There are no entrenched experts, no decades-old dynasties. In that respect, Virgin will have an easier time of it than Red Bull did – and former Virgin F1 driver Lucas di Grassi has so far hogged the driver’s seat as principal development driver for the Formula E Spark-Renault racing car. Whether that poses an advantage or not, it can’t hurt.
Branson puts it this way in his blog: “Having previously been in Formula 1 as sponsors of Brawn and then with our Virgin Racing team, we have taken some of the lessons of F1 into this new challenge. In every sector, industry or business, there is always room for more innovation. It’s up to all of us to challenge ourselves to do it – and have some fun along the way.”
The opportunity for a brand-first business such as Virgin is clear. Formula E truly is virgin territory, and with Branson’s experience, his team could go all the way.
(No more puns. Promise.)