As the 2011 F1 season begins in Melbourne today, we decided to take a look at the team which finished at the bottom of the championship in 2010 and specifically at their change in name to Marussia Virgin Racing for 2011.

If you thought Marussia Virgin Racing was just another plaything for some football-club-owning Russian oligarch, then think again – there are real enthusiasts behind the team and an emerging automotive brand that disillusioned Lotus fans might find rewarding to support.

First, a little bit of history..

If you’re familiar with F1, then you’ll know that Richard Branson’s Virgin Group became involved with Formula 1 in 2009, partnering with the Brawn GP team to secure the F1 world championship that year with Jenson Button. It came as something of a surprise thereafter that Virgin chose to form its own team in 2010, taking over the 2009 entry made by Manor Grand Prix and changing the team’s name to Virgin Racing.

Manor Grand Prix was a tie-up between Manor Motorsport and Wirth Research and it was Nick Wirth (previously of Simtek Grand Prix) who took over the role of Technical Director in the subsequent Virgin Racing team. Interestingly Simtek Research which preceded the GP team, was founded by Wirth and ex-FIA president Max Mosley, together with investment from legendary F1 world champion Jack Brabham and sponsorship by the music station MTV Europe. Simtek was also the team which experienced the tragic death of F1 rookie Roland Ratzenberger at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix – the same event which claimed the life of Ayrton Senna.

Virgin Racing began the 2010 season together with a number of key partners including Bridgestone, Carbon Green, Lloyds Banking Group, Clear, CSC, Kappa, FXPro, Oxygen and Russian sports car manufacturer Marussia and in November 2010, Marussia acquired a controlling stake in the team taking over the stake held by Lloyds.

Marussia Virgin Racing 2011 car

Marussia Virgin Racing’s new engineering director is Nikolai Vladimirovich Fomenko, president of Marussia Motors and a well-known Russian musician and comic actor. Fomenko is also an experienced racing driver, with a career spanning FIA GT and Le Mans Endurance Series championships, including the 24 hours of Le Mans and Daytona and the 12 hours of Sebring. He was also chosen as the host of Top Gear Russia, when it was launched in 2009.

So rather than being another Russian industrial oligarch, Nikolai is without doubt a real ‘car-guy’ with a passion for racing and a solid ambition to build the Russian equivalent of Ferrari, both in terms of road car and racing prowess. His team of Russian investors are similarly idealistic but also intellectual in nature – a technologist, social thinker and brand strategist are perhaps not the kind of profiles you would have expected underpinning Russia’s second ever F1 team.

With the Russian GP set to join the F1 calendar in 2014, there’s still plenty of time for Marussia Virgin Racing to become a competitive team on the grid.

Marussia Motors

If you’ve never heard of Marussia Motors, then don’t worry you’re not alone. Marussia are a new car maker founded in 2007, producing its first design – the mid-engine B1 – in 2008 and the aggressive Marussia B2, which was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2009.

In September 10, 2010 the first Marussia Motors showroom opened in Moscow and the company plans to open two new showrooms in 2011 – in London and Monaco. But it’s not just supercars that will form the Marussia product range, the company plan on revealing 7 new models in 2011 including a new sports coupé, luxury SUV, luxury sedan and a small city car.

The current models also seem surprisingly well priced for the sector they compete within – a starting price of around 100,000 Euros puts the B1 on a par with a Porsche 911.

Marussia are clearly a business with a long-term plan and a team who have now positioned the brand in the most visible form of motor sport on the planet. Let’s hope they succeed where similar car makers such as Spyker failed, but first they’ll need to rise up the grid and compete with Team Lotus, Force India and Torro Rosso in 2011.

In today’s second practice in Melbourne, drivers Timo Glock and Jerome D’Ambrosio were some 2 seconds behind the Lotuses, so despite Marussia’s obvious enthusiasm for the sport there’s still plenty of work to do.

Just 10 days ago the global TV network CNBC announced a commercial media partnership with Marussia Virgin Racing, aimed at developing B2B (business to business) opportunities between MVR’s existing partners using the reach of CNBC’s worldwide TV network and – so expect to see plenty of new F1-related programming and creative ways in which the Marussia brand develops.

Hopefully, like me, you now feel slightly better informed on just who Marussia Virgin Racing are and what to expect in 2011. It will be tough for the team in 2011, given the advances made by other teams during the off-season, but we’re sure they’ll be plenty to keep your eye on, so make sure you check out the team’s award-winning website and the regular magazine features and podcasts produced throughout the season.