Epsilon Euskadi says that it will be bidding for the 13th available Formula 1 “franchise”. The team was involved in a bid last year but lost out to Campos (now HRT), USF1, Manor (now Virgin Racing) and Lotus. This was surprising given the impressive facilities that the team has built close to Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital city of the autonomous community of the Basque Country, in northern Spain.
The team is owned and run by Joan Villadelprat, who says that he was stuck in a classic ‘chicken and egg’ situation last year as the FIA wanted proof of the team’s financing and his sponsor wanted the guarantee of an entry before making a commitment.
From Barcelona, Joan first encountered F1 at Montjuich Park in 1971 and he immediately decided that he wanted to get involved. He worked for a while in the under-developed Spanish racing scene before joining the Equipo Nacional Espanol, a team that had been designed to promote young talent in Spain. The drivers were Fermin Velez and Jordi Caton and they raced Ralts in international Formula 3, against future stars such as Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Derek Warwick. The money eventually ran out and Villadelprat moved on to the team that had impressed him the most in Britain – an operation called Project Four Racing, run by a young Ron Dennis. For the next eight years he worked for Dennis, switching to McLaren when Marlboro engineered a merger between the old F1 team and Dennis’s ambitious young operation. Those were great years with the McLaren-TAG combination winning three straight Drivers’ titles with Niki Lauda and Alain Prost. In 1987 former McLaren technical director John Barnard lured Villadelprat away to Ferrari, where he became chief mechanic. At the end of 1989 he was recruited by Tyrrell as team manager but after a promising season in 1990, the team had a disappointing year and Joan was then hired by Benetton. He quickly became Operations Director and went on to oversee two World Championship titles for Michael Schumacher in 1994 and ‘95. He stayed on until the start of 2000 but then went home to Spain with the aim of setting up his own F1 team in Barcelona. When sponsor Telefonica decided against the plan, Joan joined Prost Grand Prix as Managing Director. It would be a short-lived job. The team went out of business at the start of 2002 and once again Joan went back to Spain to embark on a new project. He formed an alliance with France’s Epsilon Sport to run a project in the Nissan World Series in Spain. The team was given the name Epsilon Euskadi and it was soon very competitive. In 2005 it won the series, which had been rebadged as the Renault World Series, with a young driver called Robert Kubica. Villadelprat then bought out his partners and teamed up with his old driver Caton, and Epsilon has been quietly expanding ever since.
Villadelprat’s policy has been not only to aim for F1 but also to lay the groundwork for future Spanish teams.
“Since we started Epsilon we have taken three or four guys each year from the technical high school and trained them to be mechanics,” he says. “If they have the right attitude, then we keep them. Now we have a Masters degree course, which is linked to Mondragon University. This is for graduate engineers who want to be involved in motorsport. So we are training new engineers all the time. That is part of the process. From the beginning of the project we were aiming to combine high technology and innovation with racing, education and an industrial element as well. When we started out in 2003, we bought one team and we slowly grew. We had young guys and we needed funding for their ambitions. The Spanish Ministry of Innovation was interested and offered suitable business loans to aid the development process. You apply and you get very good conditions. You get 15-year loans at very reasonable interest rates. We have two of those from the Spanish government. The local Basque authority was also interested and was looking to invest European Union money to create research and have things for them to do so we started another team. Then we said that we wanted to show the world that we could be a constructor. We did not have what we needed to do that and so we started thinking of how it could be achieved. We were not thinking about F1 at all. We wanted to build a suitable facility that could do all the things that we want to do.”
Villadelprat and Caton recruited top engineers Sergio Rinland and Henri Durand while also looking at ways to get government development facilities in its region.
“When we decided to build a sportscar for the Le Mans 24 Hours we began to look for customers and we had some lined up. Obviously the recession came along and the orders disappeared. We had the old factory but we broke ground on the new one in February 2008. At that time the whole world was not collapsing and the idea was to look at markets apart from Formula 1. There are lots of other categories and when you look at it there are only a handful of companies who can manufacture racing cars. We would like to have a percentage of that market.”
The Epsilon factory has cost around $60m to build and includes everything that a motor racing company could need, including a 60 percent scale rolling road wind tunnel.
“At the back of my mind I figured that the facility could one day be used for Formula 1,” Villadelprat admits. “If one day the sun and the moon are in alignment and there is a chance to go to F1 then we would take it. Although the recession slowed things down, as one door closed another opened.”
“What we have been doing is to slowly show people what is possible,” he says. “I started out when a guy wanted to set up a Nissan World Series team and wanted to get money from the government and asked me to be a consultant. From there we were able to convince them to help us create an industry. It started with the school for mechanics and engineers and was followed by teams and drivers. Then we created the Le Mans car, which was a product that we could sell, and now we are building a manufacturing base. We are creating an industry. Maybe it is not the right time to do this, but we cannot stop. We need to push on. I don’t know how long it will take, but one day we will be there in F1. I am convinced of that. We have the facility, the people, the know-how, the means and the tools to do that.”
Finding money for motorsport in Spain has never been easy, but Joan says that it is a very different story to find money for F1 rather than for the Le Mans 24 Hours.
“We have Alonso,” he says. “We have two Grands Prix. We have circuits and we have a lot of testing in the winter. F1 is important in Spain. It is really hard to get a penny for Le Mans, although it was a tremendous thing last year that for the first time a Spanish driver – Marc Gene – has won there. That got a lot of media coverage but we were there with the first Spanish-built car ever to race at Le Mans and no-one noticed. Pegaso did enter some cars back in the 1950s but they never qualified.”
Although the Epsilon did not figure strongly in the race, it was the source of enormous pride for Villadelprat.
“It is a question of mentality and education. I don’t know if it is politically correct to say it, but people in Spain do not think that we can do the things that we are doing. They think that we must have bought the wind tunnel second-hand rather than having built it ourselves. They think that you cannot do these things in Spain. That is what they do in England and in Germany, but not in Spain. We need to change that mentality. I spent years in some high places in F1 but it was never really noticed. Now things are changing, but maybe it is a question of timing. Maybe I was born too early.
“You have to open your mind and look at the opportunities out there,” he continues. “We have had windmills being developed in the tunnel and we did a project also to improve the efficiency of the football. We have other projects with customers in racing and with car manufacturers. Right now in Spain there are three or four roadcar projects we are helping. They are not very well known yet. We are open to any kind of business. We spent six or seven months developing the 2009 sportscar design so we will have to see what happens. We are talking to possible customers, but that largely depends on the economy.
“The important thing is that we keep going forwards. We have tremendous potential. We have people like Sergio and Henri, both of whom have enormous experience. We have a lot of good people. We can design and manufacture cars from Formula Ford to Formula 1.”
If you ask him about the people who have influenced him in his career, Joan is very clear.
“Ron Dennis,” he says immediately. “I admire him. He has been tremendous. I can call him a friend and he has always helped me. We have had fights too, particularly when I was running Benetton and he was at McLaren. People do not realise what he has done, starting from where he started. Not many people in the world have done that. I admire his way of thinking and his attention to detail. I believe in the same things. I had the good luck to be with him for seven years and I learned a lot. Sure, he has his negative points too but he taught me to work in an ordered fashion. When I went to Ferrari the team was a disaster. The youngest race mechanics were 50 plus and I was a 30-year old Spaniard trying to get them to change. I was the first foreigner to be the chief mechanic. I think I did a good job there.
“John Barnard really helped me to understand mechanical things. He taught me to find out the reasons for things, step by step, so that one could understand the problems. If I am a good mechanic, it is thanks to him. I moved to Tyrrell and we had some good people there, with Harvey Postlethwaite, Jean-Claude Migeot and we had a good year with very little money, so I got the experience of working with a lot of money and then working with very little. When I went to Benetton I was really running the team. I designed it, employed the people, created the team spirit. It was different to other teams. Flavio Briatore does not understand much, but if he trusts you he lets you do what you want. I learned from the mistakes I made there. After that I went to Prost and I found out how to lose. It was really lost before I got there, but they had everything that they needed apart from management. So what you see here is a result of a little bit of everything.”
The Epsilon factory is mightily impressive. It has been designed with all the departments in the right places, with plenty of space and light. It is huge and includes not only all the manufacturing and race team areas but also an upstairs section which not only houses offices but also allows people to see the whole facility below, without interfering with the way it is run. If there are visitors, they need not be disruptive. And it has been cleverly thought through. All the extraneous machinery has cunningly been hidden away inside the outer shell of the structure so that there is none of the clutter that one sees at so many F1 factories that have evolved over the years. Upstairs there is also the area where the Masters degree is taught. Villadelprat aims to produce graduates from the course who will be capable of running not only his operations but also teams of their own. It is a broad and impressive vision.