IN A flurry of red and black, Virgin Racing’s lead driver Timo Glock hurled himself around the Bahrain track in qualifying, shaving home in a little under two minutes
The German’s time was only good enough to secure 19th place on the grid, and his car wasn’t one of the lucky few to complete the first race of the 2010 Formula 1 season. But on the sidelines, Newcastle-based entrepreneur Graeme Lowdon still remembered the experience fondly.
He said: “I was thinking about so much on the grid that I didn’t really take in the fact that we were there at the start of our first Formula 1 race. Fellow Geordie, John Morse, was there too – he helped the team get going from the early days so it was great that he was there to share the experience.
“We had always taken the view that getting to the grid in Bahrain should not be viewed as our World Cup but rather the start of our first race in our first championship year that we hope will be the start of many.
“I think this attitude has helped the team enormously.
“That said, the Formula 1 grid is the pinnacle of the sport so, on reflection, it was a really unique feeling to get there and obviously great to be at the front of the new teams.”
Mr Lowdon, 44, earns his money as boss of Nomad Digital, the Baltic Chambers-based data communications firm with offices in Dubai, Beijing, Alberta, Derby and London. Its success has seen him named this year’s Entrepreneurs’ Forum Entrepreneur of the Year.
But, for several years, he has been feeding his racing bug as non-executive commercial director at Manor Motorsport, the championship-winning Formula Renault and Formula 3 team which has groomed the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen.
As of January this year, he found himself as CEO of Virgin Racing, a team formed under the umbrella of Sir Richard Branson’s wide-reaching brand by Manor, technical director Nick Wirth and engine supplier Cosworth. It was a leap that seemed insurmountable until measures were introduced last year by Formula 1, limiting the expenditure of teams for 2010.
Controls now exist to haul back spending to early-1990s levels of around £40m a year, while restrictions are also placed on the amount of time a car can be tested in a wind tunnel and the amount of computing power.
Mr Lowdon said: “It was almost as if there was no point in looking at going there because the business model of F1 just didn’t present any opportunity at all for a company like Manor. It’s not as if we said ‘if we work really, really hard, we’ll get there’.
“That changed everything. It’s become a different competition. It was ‘spend as much as you want to be competitive’. Now we’ve got a model where the amount of resources you can employ is strictly limited so it’s a very different model and one which we think we can be good at.
“When we set up Nomad it was be- cause we saw a dislocation in the mar- ket and developed the technology. The F1 opportunity is very similar in that there is a dislocation and it’s completely rewired how that industry works.”
Manor teamed up with former March, Simtek and Benetton chief designer Nick Wirth and applied to enter Formula 1 in May last year. Having added the Cosworth engine to the mix, it approached Sir Richard Branson, who had sponsored a winning side in Brawn GP in 2009. While Brawn had winning driver Jenson Button and the constructors crown to celebrate last year, Sir Richard was keen to “go in again with a new team from scratch”. Nomad was also familiar with Virgin, having fitted equipment on the company’s Pendolino and Voyager trains.
Mr Lowdon said: “They were looking for a lot more out of F1 than simply putting stickers on a car. They wanted to be an integral part of building something new.”
The Virgin Racing brand launched in December and was ready for its first race in March, with drivers Timo Glock and Lucas di Grassi. BBC F1 pundit Eddie Jordan describes Virgin as “a nice team” that “everyone wants to see do well”. For Mr Lowdon it was the latest lap in a racing career that began in Switzerland in the early ’90s with the sponsorship of an Indy car team and the establishment of Eiger Racing, and continued with the link-up with Manor a decade ago.
He said: “The final few weeks were a massive challenge for the guys on the team responsible for making sure that everything needed was there on time. It was a privilege to see it all coming together.
“I think the thing that people don’t realise with Formula 1 is the enormous logistical challenge. We had over 25 tonnes of freight in Bahrain and over 130 team personnel and guests in total, yet eight months earlier the business consisted of three pages of A4 paper.”
Lucas di Grassi finished 14th in the third race in Malaysia – the only time a Virgin driver has finished a race.
Mr Lowdon said: “The thing with racing is that the smallest thing can stop your car on the first lap or the last lap, and the statistics hide an awful lot about what actually happens in a race. Kuala Lumpur was the first time we did not experience the problems we had in pre-season testing, and the difference was immediate. Constant progress is what Formula 1 is all about and we all feel we can start pushing again now that we have a finish under our belt.
“In Formula 1 you have to keep pushing all the time and, unfortunately, we have had to take a step back in terms of performance development whilst we sort out some of the reliability issues. We have a big upgrade planned for Barcelona which I hope will keep us on target.”
His promotion from director of racing to CEO has also brought extra responsibility.
He said: “I remember (ex-Channel 4 chairman) Luke Johnson saying at an Entrepreneurs’ Forum conference that five-year plans were for communist regimes and not businesses! You have to have a framework but, as Luke said, the detail will always change and so it has done with the team.
“I am really enjoying my new role and the buzz from creating something new is always a great motivating factor. Of course, there is more work involved, but that is OK. The list of things to do gets longer when you do something like this but the list of opportunities also increases significantly and there have been real benefits for Nomad, for example, in terms of business development and partnership opportunities.
“I don’t think you can split your time on things in a regimented way, but rather you have to fully understand the strategic and specific objectives of all the businesses you are involved with and constantly work to achieve them.”
Mr Lowdon was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Entrepreneurs’ Forum for his work with Nomad, which raised £8m of investment in 2006 to fund technology which allowed wireless broadband connection to be available on trains, sending signals from base stations to carriages surging along at almost 200mph.
It was first adopted on Southern Railway and has since appeared on the Heathrow Express, US railroad, the Dubai Metro, Norway’s Nordes Statsbaner and Dutch NS Intercity trains.
He said: “We had anticipated that a lot of the projects that are coming through now would ideally have happened earlier but we have little control over that. The work we are doing is pretty innovative and the market we are in is a massive global industry with a lot of ongoing large capital projects, so decision making can take some time.
“We are happy that we should be able to maintain growth as planned now that the market has momentum and we will be seeing quite a few deals in the next 12 to 18 months.
“We are doing more and more overseas projects and a lot markets have very high growth. I think we will see a good, steady build-up of our presence in these markets so we can open new offices and strengthen the ones we’ve got.
“This phase of business for Nomad is all about building turnover and profit – a straightforward growth phase.”
An engineer by profession, Graeme started with NEI Parsons in Singapore and Sweden, and returned home to found communications firm Industry On-Line in 1996.
His interest in wireless technology blossomed when he co-founded Nomad in 2002, targeting the transport sector. Its revenue this year is expected to clear £10m.
He said: “It was another case of a rapidly changing market where there would be new opportunities. It required things to be invented. It was very difficult but it offered a massive market if we got it right.”
Mr Lowdon says he values his award from the Entrepreneurs’ Forum because “it’s from people who know what they are talking about”.
He said: “People argue endlessly over what entrepreneurship means but, fundamentally, most people involved in the Forum are familiar with the various challenges of getting a business off the ground.
“To get recognition from your peers is always a good thing and, in that sense, it’s something I am proud of.”
We had always taken the view that getting to the grid in Bahrain should not be viewed as our World Cup but rather the start of our first race in our first championship year that we hope will be the start of many