The sudden rise to prominence of the Brawn GP Formula One team has led to an overwhelming interest from sponsors keen to associate themselves with a team whose very existence was in doubt months ago. Early last December, two months after the end of the previous F1 season, the Honda team withdrew from the sport, citing the deteriorating operating environment facing the global car industry. This left more than 700 members of staff, including the drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello and the team principal Ross Brawn, facing the prospect of unemployment.
With only weeks to go to the start of the 2009 season, their future was secured under the aegis of Brawn GP, whose sole sponsor at the first race of the season, in Melbourne, was Virgin, which was rumoured to have paid the team about US$250,000 (Dh918,000) per race for the privilege. Button's maiden victory was a sign of things to come, and he went on to win five more times, clinching the world championship for himself and the constructors' title for Brawn GP.
Speaking on the roof of the marina-side team building at the Yas Marina Circuit this weekend, Nick Fry, the chief executive of Brawn GP, said: "The biggest difference is that at the beginning of the year, we had a quick car but were attractive only to entrepreneurial companies or individuals. "We were very pleased that Sir Richard (Branson) and Virgin should adopt us from a very early stage, but we were also very lucky that MIG also took a risk on us, and I am pleased we have been able to give those guys a very handsome payback.
"During the course of the year, when we proved we were a very successful team, others came on board." They included the clothing brand Henri Lloyd, the Brazilian energy drink TNT and the Qatari telecoms operator Qtel. The funds to be distributed to teams from the F1 rights-holder Bernie Ecclestone, and the fact that Brawn GP is now a more valuable proposition to sponsors means its future in the sport is more than secure.
The loyalty of the sponsors that supported Brawn from the beginning has also been rewarded. Mr Fry said: "If you look at the amount that our sponsors this year have paid and the return they have got, it is probably three or four times, at least, what you would normally expect. "They could have paid four times what they did and still they would have got a very handsome return on their investment."
Research by the team found that Brawn appeared in about 25 per cent of the total global coverage throughout the season, giving sponsors significant exposure to the roughly 600 million global viewers. In the Brazilian race in Sao Paulo, when Button was confirmed world champion, that figure shot up to 39.5 per cent. "Those figures are a mile from what the next best competitor got," Mr Fry said. "Consequently, the sponsors, like Virgin, who had been there all season, got a substantial marketing bonus."
Deals to sponsor Brawn for the 2010 season, which will start in Bahrain next March, are still being finalised. Virgin's agreement is rumoured to be closer to $30 million for the whole season. "It has put us in a very strong position for 2010 and beyond," Mr Fry said. "It sounds arrogant to say we are fighting off sponsors, but it is true that we have more people interested in sponsoring the team than we have the ability to fulfil.
"It will be a nice position to be in when things are signed and agreed." Fans, too, seem to be taking to the team. While Brawn GP shirts sold for more than Dh200 ($54.45) less than their Ferrari equivalent at Yas this weekend, there was still significant interest in the team's merchandise. Mr Fry said: "The thing that is surprising us is how quickly the Brawn brand has grown. That is largely attributable to the fact that we have been successful. Secondly, everyone loves an underdog.
"Thirdly, everyone loves a good news story in an otherwise bleak environment, and lastly, the fans have really got behind the team and Jenson. "All these things coming together in a very unique combination has allowed the brand to develop. "Next year, we won't be the underdog, which is a very nice position to be in. But we will be a team with substantial sponsorship." There is no doubt that the team would not be where it is were it not for the investment made over the previous years by Honda.
Mr Fry said: "I don't think Honda are kicking themselves at all. They took a business decision at the end of last year based on the facts in front of them at that time, and I think they would stand by that, and probably feel proud of the fact that they handed the company over to responsible ownership who have been very successful. "They won't be looking backwards particularly and have posted better-than-expected results for the last quarter, which I am sure supports the decisions they made over the last year, including the decision to pull out of F1."