Michael Epps has told The Checkered Flag that he is delighted to have been able to showcase his true potential this season during a sensational maiden campaign in the Volkswagen Racing Cup.
The former single-seater ace returned to racing this year after almost a season on the sidelines in 2014, when VISA problems brought an abrupt halt to a prospective USF2000 title challenge in the USA.
Despite tackling tin-top racing for the first time, Epps was targeting immediate success in the VW’s. A tough first half of the season though saw a range of problems limit him to a best finish of eighth across the opening three meetings.
There was a remarkable transformation for the final four weekends though, starting with pole position and a double win at Spa-Francorchamps. Another win followed next time out at Brands Hatch, before he capped off the season in style with another double success at Donington Park,
“I don’t think I was insane to think that I could come into the championship and do well straight away,” said Epps. “We just had too many issues over the first half of the season, with parts of the car not working and eligibility problems, which hampered us and meant we couldn’t show our true pace initially.
“The second half was therefore almost perfect. Getting five wins in the last eight races, that was championship-winning sort of form, and the actual champion only won one race all season, so it goes to show how close this championship is and how tough it is to win.
“Overall, I’m happy, but slightly annoyed at what could have been, had we not had a few issues that were out of my control early on, but I’m pleased that we’ve been able to show everyone my potential in my first season of front-wheel drive racing.
“It’s been a great season really, and I want to thank everybody who’s stuck by me through the cr*p times, as well as Tony [Gilham] and everyone at Team HARD, iRacing and RCIB Insurance for their support this year.”
The switch from single-seaters to tin-top racing brought a lot of fresh challenges for the 23 year old. As well as getting to grips with his Team HARD VW Golf GTI, Epps also had to get acquainted with a whole new style of racing.
“It took me a while to get me head around it, as coming from single-seaters you got close to the other cars and never touched them, but in tin-tops you don’t really give a damn about the wing mirror getting knocked off or having a bit of rubbing here or there,” Epps explained.
“I was a bit wary of it at first, I had a couple of knocks early in the season that I thought were uncalled for but were your usual sort of tin-top move. I adapted to it though and while Spa was a real breakthrough weekend for us with our pace, I think it was the next round at Snetterton where I really felt we were coming into our own in the pack.
“I wasn’t thinking twice about making overtakes anymore, I was looking to get moves done as quickly as possible and move on, and certainly by the end of the season I was confident of making all sorts of overtakes and knowing where to put my car.”
Alongside the Spa and Snetterton performances he mentioned, Epps also enjoyed a strong outing at Brands Hatch, where he got the opportunity to pit himself against former BTCC race-winner and 2015 24H Series GT3 champion Tom Onslow-Cole.
In the second race of the weekend, Epps was embroiled in a fantastic scrap with his team-mate Howard Fuller and Onslow-Cole for the win, executing slick moves around the outside of both on the GP loop to take the lead and ultimately the win in a race shortened by a red flag.
Epps recalled: “Racing against Tom was a completely different experience to racing against anyone else on that grid. You feel twice as threatened when he’s behind you on track, as he makes little moves in your mirrors, and you know he’s going to put the car in places that’ll put you in a vulnerable position.
“While it was only a three lap race or so due to all the calamities going on with red flags and everything, I got myself into the position, made the moves when it counted and held it to the flag, so I was very happy to beat Tom when he had the pace advantage that weekend with no championship ballast.
“I found that race a really good experience for me, I could learn a lot from racing on track with him and build up my knowledge of how to race against experienced drivers like him for the future.”
One aspect that Epps seemed to struggle at on paper over the course of the season was qualifying, with his Spa pole being his only top six qualifying result of the year, but the Anglo-Kiwi says he is pleased with his progress in that area, even if the results don’t necessarily show it.
“I’ve not always been the best qualifier, but I know I’m capable of it and it just doesn’t always come together on a race weekend.
“This season there were a few occasions where we were changing things with the car and it felt like we were a session behind everybody, and then also I had to adjust to qualifying with ballast on. When you have sixty kilos on, it’s almost impossible to set the same times as someone running with no ballast, especially when it’s so close in the championship.
“There were certainly times when I could have got more out of myself and the car on the lap, but we proved we could do it at Spa, qualifying on pole by almost a second without ballast. Overall, I’d say I’m there now with qualifying and I’m confident that I can go out in a session and get the laptime I need to.”
After completing his impressive maiden tin-top campaign eighth in the championship, Epps feels his move from single-seaters has been fully justified and that his new path can provide more cost-effective opportunities as his career progresses.
“I’ve pulled myself back from single-seater racing now, as it seems to be a pit of money,” he commented.
“Out in America where I was looking to climb the ladder, the cost of Indy Lights is now one and a half times more expensive again than it was when I was out there, so for me it’s just completely unrealistic to bring together the sort of money that’s needed.
“Although it was so promising for me at the time and we looked set to enjoy some success, I’m glad to be back racing in the UK. There’s new options open for me here, both with racing and with work, and I’m enjoying it.”
Looking forward, Epps admits he’s “almost completely undecided at the moment” on where his career aspirations lie, with “many enticing opportunities” in both the touring car and GT racing disciplines.
For next season though, Epps is looking to remain in tin-top competition and is assessing his available options across the British GT and TOCA packages, with a return to the VW Cup looking his most likely move.
“I would probably look to do the same again next season. I’d like to stay in a stable environment, rather than moving again, and see where I really end up. I want to try and get a championship win under my belt,” he concluded.
“I would consider the Clio Cup and believe me I have, I’ve spoken to some people about it. The problem is though that even with the teams with the lowest budget, it would cost me at least double what my 2015 season cost, and that’s without damage and things included. I don’t know personally whether the advantage of being on the TOCA package matches up to the cost of it.
“It’s more sustainable for me to race VW’s again rather than moving up, and it’s certainly not a bad place to be. The championship is growing, so it presents a good opportunity for me to rise with it, but I’ve definitely not confirmed any plans yet. We’re still looking for more people to come on board to help my build on a promising 2015 season.”