A Life in Building the Fast Lane
“I’ve never seen such a comprehensive proposal for an entire experience.” Christian Epp, Tilke Engineering’s Director of the Americas, is clearly enthusiastic about the Vancouver Island Motorsport Resort (VIMOR). Located in Vancouver Island’s beautiful Cowichan Valley, this unique Motorsport Facility will establish a new benchmark for club circuits when it opens in the spring of 2016.
When the GAIN Dealer Group first began to consider this project, the decision was taken to seek advice and instruction from the very best in the field. Tilke GMBH & Co, the world’s foremost designer of race and test facilities, was invited to assist.
Taking a few minutes away from his extremely busy schedule (Tilke is currently revamping the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City, ahead of the Mexican Grand Prix returning to the Formula 1 calendar on November 1, 2015), Epp kindly agreed to chat by telephone to discuss his career, and Tilke’s involvement with the Vancouver Island Motorsport Resort.
Epp has lived an international life from an early age. “The way that we grew up travel is in our genes, because of the job of my father, a representative of a major company outside of headquarters. Basically they keep you changing countries every 3-8 years, almost like an ambassador. My father was with Bayer (pharmaceuticals), and they moved us from Uruguay, Peru, Mexico, Germany, Argentina and, in my 18 year youth, we had to move countries five times.”
Epp’s brother is currently CEO of BMW Central America, “My brother joined BMW and followed my father’s career a little bit in the automotive industry.” Having moved multiple times over the years with BMW, the similarities are striking.
Continuing to describe his early life, Epp stated, “I went to study in Germany and studied engineering, and finished at Berkley in California with my Master’s degree. I worked a little bit in Germany and Mexico and joined Tilke 11 years ago. And before joining Tilke, I worked for four years for a management consulting firm.”
“When I turned 30 I said there must be something else than just giving advice to big companies like Volkswagen or Mercedes-Benz.”
Life is full of unexpected moments, some of which prove to be serendipitous. Epp explained how he came to join Tilke, “I had an opportunity to join a team that was setting up a Grand Prix for Mexico, in Cancun actually. It was 2003-2004.”
The question of whether experience in building and designing racing circuits required specialized training, Epp modestly offered, “I didn’t have a background in that, but it’s learning by doing.”
Tilke Engineering (GMBH & Co) was established by Hermann Tilke in 1984. A former racing driver, Tilke trained in civil engineering, with a specialization in Transport and Traffic Management in Germany. Combining his experience as a driver, and his academic training, Tilke has since become one of the most successful designers of Formula One motor racing circuits.
The company has worked on many of the world’s most celebrated racing circuits. The company’s first major job was the creation of the A1-Ring in Austria from the existing Österreichring. Refurbishing projects were subsequently undertaken at Hockenheimring, Circuit de Catalunya, Nürburgring, and Fuji Speedway in Japan.
Tilke has subsequently designed and constructed the Sepang International Circuit, Bahrain International Circuit, Shanghai International Circuit, Istanbul Park Racing Circuit, Valencia Street Circuit, Marina Bay Street Circuit, Yas Marina Circuit, Korea International Circuit and the Buddh International Circuit in India. In 2012, Formula 1 returned to the United States at the Tilke designed Circuit of the Americas in Austin Texas.
The Cancun Grand Prix ultimately proved unsuccessful as there are a multitude of factors that have to be considered when planning a project of this scale. Epp elaborated on the subject, “… there is only a likelihood of 20-30% that they turn into reality. It begins on a very strategic, and on a very political level. At the very beginning of a project it’s political, and money, and contracts, and the stars need to be aligned for a Formula One Grand Prix to happen. All of these factors, for a real chance for a project. We tried for three years in Cancun but it didn’t happen.” Epp gained experience working on the Valencia, Spain street ciruit, which was on the calendar for two years.
Following his time in Spain, Epp returned to the United States to begin work on The Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which currently hosts the United States Grand Prix (October 25, 2015). Epp’s involvement with the project has been extensive.
“2008-2009 I started to travel to Austin. We began at the beginning to choose the appropriate piece of land ̶ this is the perfect scenario. We were hired by race organizer Tavo Hellmund, basically to see the feasibility of an F1 race in Austin. In the first year the plan is to prepare a master plan, working on the technical feasibility then working on financial feasibility and political feasibility, and all was aligned.
“By end of 2009 – 2010, we were then hired for planning. The planning side is normally 6-12 months of detail planning, then go out to tendering ̶ looking for companies to fulfill the expectations. Architects, engineers, and construction companies. Construction began in beginning of 2011.
“The initial work is the same work as you are doing now up at the Vancouver Island Motorsport Resort ̶ earth works, drainage, eventually paving the track, setting up the buildings. We coordinate much more than Vancouver Island on a big scale project in every discipline through master plan, architectural concepts, architectural detail designs, detailed engineering concepts, engineering detail drawings, all race electronics for time keeping, big screens, and public address. Everything necessary to operate a race track falls under our responsibility.’’
Formula One motor racing is governed under the rules stipulated by FIA. Headquartered in Paris, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA, English: ‘International Automobile Federation’) is responsible for the licensing of Formula One and World Rally Championship motor racing.
Epp explained how Tilke works with FIA when beginning a new motor racing circuit project. “We work hand in hand with FIA. Typically we do first a technical feasibility, then we prepare a masterplan document which is submitted to FIA. They already know when it comes from us it will comply to their requirements. We have many, many projects with them. During construction they will come to see if our plan in theory is executed well.
“We also work closely with Bernie Ecclestone who is the commercial rights holder for Formula One, the most important racing series. Bernie controls the commercial rights, where the races are held, the racing conditions and who are the global sponsors. He is by far the most important person in the motor racing industry.
“We completed Austin and I went to New York for two years basically for a street circuit. We were pretty far ahead working on it and at one point it failed.” This is a reference to the Port Imperial Street Circuit in New Jersey. A plethora of issues ranging from delays, financial difficulties, and failure to secure approval from FIA has resulted in this project being postponed indefinitely.
Epp’s current project is the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City. Named for the famous racing drivers Ricardo and Pedro Rodríguez (both died in motor racing accidents: Ricardo in 1962 and Pedro in 1971).
The Mexican Grand Prix is to be run on November 1, 2015. Epp talked about his involvement with this project. “This will be my third Grand Prix circuit.” Epp is currently responsible for every detail of the revitalized circuit. The circuit has been reconfigured to meet the demands of contemporary Formula One cars, and many new buildings have been constructed, including new medical and media centres.
Vancouver Island Motorsport Resort
“The circuit is designed to be amazing and exciting.”
Performance driving enthusiasts are looking forward to their first opportunity to explore the Vancouver Island Motorsport Resort and the challenges it will present. Turning the conversation to his thoughts about this Tilke project, Epp, not surprisingly, had a great deal to say.
“Actually more fun are the owner’s project like the one on Vancouver Island. Here we have owners that controls all dimensions. We have lots of connection with the owners and have built up a very close relationship. I enjoy these projects a lot!” Continuing on, Epp touched on the business plan behind the Vancouver Island Motorsport Resort. “I think what GAIN is doing is amazing! I think it will mark a direction for a lot of automotive dealerships to sell their cars. Because it is really about buying a car for the driving experience, and the best way to experience a car, especially a premium sports car, is on a track. What GAIN is doing is an amazing undertaking, doing very thoroughly all the control, every dimension within the project, the early website promotion, the car dealers, through the partner hotel, they are truly controlling all variables and that is unique.
The track is all about the traffic that is on it. I think GAIN can generate a lot of the visitors on the track by their own dealerships. Then there is the membership program on very fair conditions that makes me feel it will be successful. Because a track is not a no-brainer, it’s not easy much to do everything good. The footprint of the track is good ̶ the key is a controllable, manageable footprint.”
“I think the entire package is the track ̶ there are hundreds of tracks around the world ̶ the vision that GAIN has, I’ve never seen it before, such a comprehensive view of how they want to use the track. And not only the track ̶ with the partner hotel ̶ the entire experience you will get. The track is small initially, but they have the idea to grow. The group will gain experience, and see how people are taking it; a smart approach.
“This track will be very challenging for drivers, very technical, very difficult to read just because we are playing with lots of elevation change.”
Touching on the use of the geography on site, Epp explained how this translates into a creative design.
“We design a track to live in three dimensions, not two dimensions. This means not only left, right, or straight; it’s what a driver feels ̶ like a roller-coaster feeling ̶ this comes from up and down. This track will live in three. You will start at the bottom and climb up, then twist back down to zero. For a driver this will be a great experience. It will be a very fun track, very technical.”
Asked how the Vancouver Island Motorsport Resort track compares with other similar club circuits in North America, Epp laughed before replying, “The track is a great design! It’s our company!” Still laughing he added, “It will immediately be one of the most exciting in North America!”
A few last questions and thoughts…
The conversation turned to the aspects of his job that Epp enjoys the most.
“I think the variety of projects and the variety of people I meet around the world. Every project is different, every country is different. The most exciting part is to be engaged. The project fills a need for a country or client, and is very special. It’s a big dream for them. They have built up many factories and things, but they have never done a track. It’s like building your first house, it’s a dream and we take part in this dream, we help their dream come true, whether it’s a Formula track or one for an owner.
“The variety, no day is the same, one day is finding a new piece of land, or perhaps like today where we are setting up for Formula One race in four weeks. Then there is the fun part where you meet F1 drivers and go for a drive. I would want to do this job if it wasn’t mine. I still enjoy it very much.”
Although well into the evening, Epp still had a few hours of work ahead of him. Leaving just enough time to ask what he would choose to drive on the Vancouver Island Motorsport Resort track, “I think I would choose a Porsche GT3. It’s a very personal choice, others may say Bugatti Veyron, or something else. I asked a specialist on this and they said only Porsche or Ferrari!” But then added “Or maybe I also choose an SL AMG 6.3”
When the Vancouver Island Motorsport Resort opens in the Spring, Epp will no doubt be in attendance to see the completion of another successful Tilke project, and to help celebrate another milestone in the history of the GAIN Dealer Group.