The rise of Formula 2 team UNI Virtuosi Racing

Single-Seaters

Both of its drivers stand a chance of winning the 2020 Formula 2 title, but just who is behind the UNI Virtuosi Racing team?

UNI Virtuosi Racing 2020 Austrian GP

Guanyu Zhou and Callum Ilott of the UNI Virtuosi Racing team

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Paul Devlin left school without a significant qualification to his name. His father sent him off to catering college but that ended in tears when he went to London and was meant to spend his time visiting hotels and restaurants as part of his course but instead chose to see the sights. He was, after all, a teenager and it was his first time alone in the captial.
His father decided that enough was enough and, days later, Devlin found himself working for Martin Donnelly Racing, polishing car wheels in Norfolk.

But he was bitten by the motor-racing bug. He had done some kart racing as a boy but knew he didn’t have what it took to become a top driver so he got stuck in and soaked everything up like a sponge while he was with Donnolly, a former Formula One driver whose career was brought to an end after a horrifying accident in Spain.

Devlin ended up running his own car, then landed a job as a crew leader in America and ran an endurance team for TVR at Le Mans.

Today he is one of three owners of UNI Virtuosi Racing, winners of the 2017 F2 championship and second in both the drivers’ and team standings in 2020.

It has been quite a journey for the 41-year-old.

He met Andy Roche when he joined him at Super Nova in Formula 3000 in 2004. Roche has been involved in motorsport since 1983 when he worked for Van Diemen. Devlin and Roche worked together with Super Nova until the end of 2009, going through various changes as the sport’s administrators continued to tinker with things in an effort to create an exciting side runner to F1.

Sponsorship helped the pair to pick and choose the best young drivers available to them and they enjoyed considerable success in F3000 and GP2, which followed it. But the financial crash meant that they lost their main Japanese sponsors – a serious blow because there was next to no prize money. There still isn’t.

“We decided that we needed to hatch a plan,” said Roche.

Artem Markelov, Russian Time F2 Team

Markelov shined in F2 with the Russian Time team

Joan Valls/NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

And that was when Declan Lohan, an Irish property developer living in Norfolk, became involved. He was a friend of Roche and says: “I was always a fan of motor racing and used to follow it quite closely and I remember going to a race and looking at the Super Nova truck and thinking that I wouldn’t mind having a piece of the action. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever think it would happen.

“Andy first approached me in 2009 at a time when I was having all sorts of problems because of the banking crisis. I had plenty of assets but I didn’t have a lot of cash available. The numbers that Andy and Paul were talking about were huge so we decided to go about things in a different way.”

Roche and Devlin knew how to engineer racing cars and get the best from them but they needed somebody with business acumen to help them secure sponsorship and get their team on a sound financial footing. And that was where Lohan came into his own. He questioned everything, always looking to save money where he could.

“I suppose my approach was a different one. I would ask them if they really needed to buy things – could they not rent equipment instead?” said Lohan. “They hadn’t thought that way before, but we needed to find ways to keep the costs under control. For instance, I knew that I could rent trucks for the weekend to get the cars to the circuits, and we sourced a race trailer. There was simply no need to but that sort of equipment. Initially, we also decided to rent some premises on a month by month basis. I was determined that I didn’t want us to owe anybody. I wanted the team to be self-sufficient and to pay its way.

“We had a lot of luck on our side initially but we rode that luck.”

Luck? On the eve of their first competitive outing in the GP2 Series at Monza in 2012 as Virtuosi Racing they were still trying to sign a driver and secure the financial package that came with him. The driver was Pal Varhaug and it was going to cost his father £150,000 to get him a drive for the season.

“We had everything lined up to go racing, but we didn’t have a driver,” said Devlin. “It all came together at the last moment. We were a brand new team and we couldn’t even go testing. Effectively, we were three guys in an office.”

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To say that they cut it fine is an understatement. On the Monday they still weren’t sure if they had somebody to drive their car – they had to hit the road for Monza the next day. Lohan rang Varhaug’s father, who talked about his son doing the first race and then deciding whether he would hand over the cash for the year, but Lohan insisted that he had to cough up the entire sum.

“He said that he would pay for Monza but I told him that if he couldn’t commit for the season then we couldn’t do a deal,” Lohan said. “I told him to send £65,000 there and then and the balance of £85,000 later. But I also told him that if his son won that first race then he would have to pay the lot and commit his son to driving for us for the year. To be honest, I didn’t even know if Varhaug could ride a bike, far less drive a car.”

But, lo and behold, he only got behind the wheel of the car and secured Virtuosi’s maiden victory at their first try. They were off and running, money in the bank. Varhaug would eventually finish second in the drivers’ standings.

Making the books balance was still a constant battle for Lohan, Devlin and Roche, who helped make ends meet by buying cars at auctions and turning them around for a quick profit.

“Because we did it that way everything meant more to us,” said Lohan. “We appreciated everything that we had. We looked at other formulas as well but we just couldn’t make the figures stack up. We continued to rent premises, but the aim was always to have our own factory and now we have one in Attleborough and we still don’t owe a penny to anybody. Throughout it all we have all worked as a team. We each have our own area of expertise – with Andy, it’s finding the drivers, with Paul, it’s the mechanics and I still look after the finances. It’s not a hobby any more.”

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The big turning point was when Virtuosi secured a deal with Russian Time at the end of 2014, when the Auto GP championship was on its knees. Out of the blue, they got a phone call telling them to fly out to Geneva to meet the people behind Russian Time. With 24 hours they had signed a £3m deal.

“Before we flew out to Geneva we had about six hours to come up with a budget for the following year. Obviously we knew what other teams were charging but we had to look like we knew what we were doing,” said Roche.

It meant that, finally, they had financial security. Initially they signed a one-year deal with Russian Time but ended up working with them for four years. “It was our opportunity to get into the paddock and prove that we knew what we were doing, even if we had two unknowns behind the wheel of our cars,” said Devlin.

The Russians agreed to foot all the bills for everything related to the cars. If they needed a simulator they simply asked for it. And in Artem Markelov they knew they had a driver who was capable of winning races. Born in Moscow, he and the team made steady progress and he claimed his first podium finish in 2015.

Good times followed, and in 2017, Markelov won five times. He was pipped to the F2 drivers’ title by Charles Leclerc but Virtuosi landed the constructors’ prize. Russian Time withdrew their sponsorship in 2018 but the team had by now built a reputation and the success has continued. As the 2020 season approaches its conclusion, with two races to come in Bahrain, they can still land both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles.

It has been a rollercoaster ride and Devlin summed it up best when he said: “We all get on so well because we have a common love of motorsport. It’s not like a job for any of us.”