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.
Markelov shined in F2 with the Russian Time team
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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.”