• Virgin's Alex Tai on the team's future

We want to be here longer than Ferrari

Claire Furnell December 15, 2009 « Fry hints Schumacher return is on | »
Alex Tai isn't "into cross-dressing" so hopes his team beat Lotus in 2010 © Sutton Images

Alex Tai's previous job was heading Virgin's Galactic space tourism business. Now he takes the role as team principal of Virgin Racing, as they prepare to join the grid for what promises to be the most competitive F1 season for years.

Who is the newest team principal in the paddock? Well, first and foremost Tai is a pilot, having trained with the RAF in the late 1980s he went on to have a career flying executive jets. He also claimed a number of flying world records with adventurer Steve Fossett.

Tai joined the Virgin group in 1995 and became an Airbus captain. In 2005 he joined Richard Branson's special projects team and became chairman in 2007. Along with his work on the space flight part of the business, he also brought the Virgin brand to F1 last year with Brawn GP.

Claire Furnell caught up with Tai at Virgin Racing's launch in London to find out what he thinks next year has in store.

Claire Furnell: How do you feel about next year, joining the grid as a new team?
Alex Tai: There is a huge challenge ahead of us, but then if it was easy we probably wouldn't be here. This is the pinnacle of sport, one of the biggest sports in the world, and we are absolutely delighted to be here. We have a huge amount that we have to make sure we do correctly and to the best of our abilities.

You have hugely experienced people behind you in the team though don't you?
I think we have chosen a team that can actually deliver the results we want; in Nick Wirth [technical director] I think we have a man with a uniquely economical approach, it's not just that he can do it for less, but what he does is also brilliant. He has proven that success in sports cars and Indy over the years, and in F1 before that with Simtek and Benetton.

With John Booth [sporting director] what we have is absolute excellence in race team management - his success over the last 20 years is outstanding. Nineteen championships wins, 170 race wins. F1 turned to him to bring people like Lewis Hamilton , Kimi Raikkonen and Robert Kubica through. It's not just drivers, even people like Christian Horner all went through Manor to get to F1.

How do you see this involvement as a business investment for Virgin?
It is possible to have an F1 team that makes money - we don't go into any business where we can't do that and we believe this is where we have a chance to succeed. The team is already fully funded and we have announced our partners today, and I do believe in the long run that we will make money out of this.

The F1 paddock is a cut-throat place to be, as a newcomer will you be watching out for the piranhas?
I think it's the piranhas that should be scared. We have been into hostile waters before with our other businesses - in the airline and music businesses they don't always play fair. So we are more than ready. We have signed the Concorde Agreement so we are bound to the sport till 2012, but we want to be here for a much longer time. We want to be here longer than Ferrari - there is a new red car on the block now.

So can we assume the car will be all red?
Our colour scheme is like you have seen today with our logo - it will be red, black and white.

You are from an aviation background, not racing, so what will you be bringing to the team as team principal?
What I do is bring the Virgin brand, which is required for us to finance the endeavours of Nick [Wirth] and John [Booth] and their teams. My job is to communicate what Virgin Racing stands for, what this collection of brilliant individuals stands for, to the public. There are a billion people that follow this sport and we need to be able to communicate better with them and show some of the passion in our team. We want to make this sport much more open and available to the public.

If you could sum up what Virgin Racing is all about, how would you do that?
We are a challenging brand that have very high hopes, we are very optimistic.

Do you think Richard Branson will make good on his bet with Tony Fernandes to work as an Air Asia stewardess if Lotus beat you next year?
Obviously I hope that won't happen and I am sure if he [Branson] has to, he will make me do it as well. There is a lot to play for and now there is even more. I am really not into cross-dressing.