Who am I? Raphaël van der Straten

December 28, 2018

VDS Racing Adventures has a storied history in motorsport, one its founder’s grandson – Raphaël van der Straten – is looking to continue.  

  • Check out the original post on 24hseries.com HERE

 

2018 was a good year for Raphaël van der Straten. At the season opening Hankook 24H DUBAI in January, the team that bears his name – VDS Racing Adventures – secured its first category win in the 24H SERIES since 2015. Three months later, the #58 MARC Focus V8 took another class victory at Navarra, marking, no pun intended, the first time VDS Racing Adventures would claim more than one class win in the 24H SERIES in a single year.

Despite engine issues felling the MARC in Portimão, a class podium at Imola and two more wins at Spa-Francorchamps and the season finale at COTA were enough to guarantee the team its second consecutive SP2-class title in both the European Championship and the Championship of the Continents. Team patriarch Raphaël would take the Drivers’ spoils in both series for the second year in a row, sharing them, fittingly, with long-time teammate and friend José Close in 2018. On top of all that, in the Belgium Gentleman Driver’s Club – of which Raphaël is also president – the pair took the MARC Focus V8 to outright victory at the Spa 400, a tributary event to Spa-Francorchamps’ illustrious endurance racing heritage.

With such a successful year behind him, we’re curious: what does Raphaël think his grandfather make of the team he founded today?

“I think he would have been proud of it, especially seeing the team continue under the family name,” Raphaël explains. “At the beginning, I felt a lot of pressure to perform because of the team’s heritage, but once we’d proven what we could do as a team, that quickly disappeared. I’m very proud of VDS Racing and what we’ve managed to add to my grandfather’s history.”

 

Interesting thought, particularly when you consider how much gravitas those three letters – V, D and S – hold in the world of motorsport, both contemporary and historically. Marc VDS for example, formerly Belgian Racing and officially rebranded in 2008 with Raphaël’s uncle Marc at the helm, was a multiple race winning team in the FIA GT1 World Championship before transitioning to championship-winning success in the Blancpain Endurance Series, to say nothing of its Moto2 titles in 2014 and 2017.

The ‘VDS’ name dates back much further than that though. Indeed, the VDS Racing Team was originally founded in 1964 by Raphaël’s grandfather, Count Rodolphe van der Straten Ponthoz, with the simple goal of going motor racing. Alongside its successes on home turf and three successive starts at Le Mans during the late sixties, most notable was VDS Racing Team’s twin campaigns in the World Championship of Makes and Formula 5000 during the 1970s, the latter of which the team won four times (one-time Brabham Formula 1 driver Teddy Pilette took the European title in ’73 and ’75, 1971 Italian Grand Prix winner Peter Gethin and two-time Rothmans International Series champion Warren Brown winning the Tasman division in ’74 and ’75 respectively).

 

“The VDS Racing Team was originally founded in 1964 by Raphaël’s grandfather, Count Rodolphe van der Straten Ponthoz, with the simple goal of going motor racing.”

 

After securing its sole Can-Am title in 1981 – more on that later – VDS Racing Team would eventually move to CART/IndyCar, John Paul Jr. taking the team’s only series win at the 1983 Michigan 500 during its debut season. Granted, the team’s winning ways were long over when, two years after Count Rodolphe’s passing, the VDS Racing Team closed its doors in 1994.

A prolonged and varied racing history, complete with ups and downs, but a history a young Raphaël very much took to heart.

“Ever since I was a little boy, my family and I were always part of the racing environment, so it quickly became my dream to be more involved in it. I wanted to become a driver, but I also wanted my own team, and a way to continue my family’s lineage in the sport.”

It’s not just the ‘VDS’ name that pays tribute to the team’s heritage either. The bright yellow, Pennzoil-liveried Lolas of ‘91 to ’94 aside, (nearly) every VDS racing car to-date has worn a distinctive red livery complete with blue and white racing stripes running the length of the bodywork.

“My grandfather’s very first car was a Mini Cooper, and when they delivered the car [in 1965], the body was blue and the roof was white. Then, in 1966, my grandfather bought a couple of Alfa Romeo GTAs from Auto Delta, and that car was red. To make it distinctive on-track, the team painted a white and blue stripe on top of the red paint. That was the style from then on, and that’s still a tradition for the team today.”

 

“(Nearly) every VDS racing car to-date has worn a distinctive red livery complete with blue and white racing stripes running the length of the bodywork.”

 

Fast-forward to 2000, the revival of VDS, and the start of Raphaël van der Straten’s own racing career, primarily, for the pleasure involved. By the man’s own admission, it’s been an unorthodox route, his race debut occurring at the age of 36 and as part of the 2CV Racing cup in the woeful Citroën Dyane (“I had to start somewhere!”). Experience would be gleaned via tenures in the GDC / ASAF Championship, the Volkswagen Beetle-based Fun Cup, and the Belgian Touring Car Series from 2000 through 2005, during which he’d take by his first class victory aboard a Citroën AX GTI – like we say, unorthodox – and have his first taste of endurance racing in the touring car-focused 2003 Miles of Spa. In 2005, he took his first overall victory aboard a Renault Clio in the GDC / ASAF Championship, then, crucially, took class victory in a Nissan 200 SX- R at his first crack of the 12 Hours of Spa just a few months later. It was this race, though ironically not the result itself, that changed the way Raphaël van der Straten went racing for the better part of the next decade.

“At the 12 Hours of Spa, there was a race car with a [24H DUBAI] sticker on it, and that really interested me. Before we’d finished the weekend, I said to the team, we’re going to Dubai!

“But to get to Dubai, we had to buy a car first. Not long after that I race in the Zolder 24 Hours in a BMW M5 with Andre Carlier, and after the race, I made him an offer for the car and we were on our way to Dubai.

“That was a great adventure, because it was our first international race. There was a great atmosphere, and everybody was so welcoming. Such a great spirit in the paddock. We actually managed to finish the race without any problems, so that inspired us to come back for the next race in Dubai. And the next, and the next, and the next!”

Perhaps more so than even his beloved Spa-Francorchamps – it’s where he would meet José Close for the first time in 2001, and where he was still marshaling as late as 2007 – the Dubai Autodrome holds a special significance for Raphaël van der Straten. At the Hankook 24H DUBAI, in his ‘new’ BMW M5 E34, he competed for the very first time outside of Belgium, and, alongside Carlier, Christian Deridder, and VW Fun Cup teammate Alain Fischer, finished a commendable 36th in a field of more than 80 participants. Raphaël hasn’t missed a race in Dubai since.

“The first will always be the best! The [Hankook] 24H DUBAI was our first race in the 24H SERIES, and it was fabulous. We scored our first victory in Hungary, so that will always feel very special, and I’m very fond of Road Atlanta and Portimão. But Dubai will always be my favourite event.”

 

“The Dubai Autodrome holds a special significance for Raphaël van der Straten: in his ‘new’ BMW M5 E34 in 2007, he competed for the very first time outside of Belgium.”

 

Sadly, despite the BMW effectively being retired from competition for the remainder of 2008 (Raphaël would still compete intermittently at Spa in a privately-entered M3), the E34 M5 was starting to show its age, and terminal engine problems meant VDS Racing Adventures’ second outing at Dubai was over before half-distance. Ironically, the failure, aided by a lifelong enthusiasm for both American cars and V8 engines in particular, inspired Raphaël to purchase a race-prepped Ford Mustang FR500 to continue his racing from fellow Belgian driver Eric De Doncker, the latter of whom had just taken back-to-back titles in the newly established GT4 European Cup.

Although the now-VDS-run Mustang failed to complete its GT4 hat-trick in 2009, history, of a sort, would still be made: when VDS Racing Adventures took the chequered flag at the 2009 Zolder 24 Hours, it was the first time the new generation Mustang had finished a 24-hour race event, and it had done so boasting a red livery with blue and white stripes. The momentum continued, the VDS Mustang taking 2nd in-class on its first Hankook 24H DUBAI entry in 2009, repeating this result one year later in 2010, and sealing a third in 2012 before VDS took on another adventure…

“It was a return to our roots. My grandfather experienced an incredible adventure by promoting the Belgian national colours in the four corners of the world. He hired racing cars and finally opted to build one bearing his own name: the VDS 001. This saga, with those red-blue and white striped muscle cars always fascinated me.

“Somewhere in a corner of my mind I always told myself that, one day, I would follow that same path.”

An impressive brute, Raphaël van der Straten’s first car featured the 4.2-litre V8 – of course – from a Maserati GranTurismo, was dimensionally similar to the Mustang, and, despite the handsome neo-retro styling, was designed with raw, animalistic driving characteristics at heart. Also, as mentioned by Raphaël’s father Herve, the new VDS GT01-R bore a striking resemblance to the ‘VDS 001’ his grandfather had commissioned to compete in Can-Am in 1980, and with which Geoffrey Brabham went on to win the 1981 title (three-time Le Mans winner Al Holbert also scored four wins the following season).

It would be a one and done deal for the VDS GT001-R at the Hankook 24H DUBAI in 2013 – at which the team finished 5th in-class before swapping to a Honda Civic Type-R for the next three years – but it was the realisation of yet another dream for Raphaël van der Straten.

By the time 2016 rolled around, both Raphaël and his team, now with over a decade of experience under their belts, were all-too aware what they were capable of: they’d already claimed their first 24H SERIES class win at the Hungaroring in 2011, their first win at Dubai following four years later, and an outright win at the Budapest 12 Hours with the Mustang slotting in-between in 2013. With renewed vigour ahead of the team’s first ‘full’ 24H SERIES season – they would miss Mugello owing to a prior racing commitment in Belgium – Raphaël, tired of pouring money into a Mustang whose development could go no further, was about to introduce a new name to the grid: MARC Cars.

“In 2015, I didn’t have a car to race, so I registered with a French team [eXigence MOTORSPORT] to drive their Renault Clio at Paul Ricard. Unfortunately the car never started the race, so I spent the rest of the weekend looking for a car to buy. That weekend, MARC Cars were competing, and the flames, the music – not ‘noise’ – and the performance really spoke to me.” MARC Cars Australia, at the behest of director Ryan MacLeod, entered three of his Focus V8s into the Hankook 24H PAUL RICARD in 2015, and finished 1-2 in-class.

“José [Close] and I still went to speak with Renault, BMW, Mercedes, etc, about different GT3 cars, but the price was ridiculous. And when you have a race car, you almost need a second car just for spare parts, so…

“The last person we contacted was Ryan [McLeod, MARC Cars owner and founder] and when he told us the price, we said, “okay, I’ll take one.” It was that simple!”

 

“Raphaël, tired of pouring money into a Mustang whose development could go no further, was about to introduce a new name to the grid: MARC Cars.”

 

Two further class podiums would beckon for the brand new MARC in 2016 – one, fittingly, at Brno – and while the team finished a distant 5th in the SP2 standings, they would finally get the job done in 2017 with five class podiums from seven outings. 42 years after its Formula 5000 title, VDS Racing was a champion on the international stage once again. More would follow in 2018.

“To win the titles is a great feeling, but you can trust me, this is not going to change the way we get things done. Racing must always remain a pleasure!”

Though he’s long gone, we’re guessing Count Rodolphe van der Straten Ponthoz would agree.

*Images courtesy of Petr Frýba and VDS Racing