Newcomer Haas RT came storming out the blocks in its first-ever motor race at the 2023 Hankook 24H DUBAI, taking a top five finish barely four months after the Antiguan team had been founded. And as CREVENTIC discovered with team principal Kris Dedoncker, that was, quite literally, just the start...
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba | Racingpixels.com
“The car was good, and in fact, 5th place was a disappointment!”
It’s a staggering, albeit completely sincere statement, given the grin on his face, from Haas RT team manager Kris Dedoncker. Just one week earlier after all, Haas RT had raised many an impressed eyebrow when the brand-new team scored a top five finish, on merit, at the 2023 Hankook 24H DUBAI from a lowly 43rd on the grid. On top of that, the endurance racing newbie, remarkably, even led the event outright for a combined 41 laps, fewer only than eventual winner Team WRT and 2nd-placed Herberth Motorsport.
It was an extraordinary performance on what was, let’s not forget, Haas RT’s motor racing debut.
Even so, despite the stellar finish and the well-earned plaudits from rivals and contemporaries alike, Kris still feels that an overall podium finish – if not more, had Lady Luck been feeling particularly generous that day – had been left on the table in Dubai. It’s no real surprise then, as he sits with CREVENTIC in the Yas Marina Circuit paddock, that Kris and Haas’ ambitions are equally as high for the team’s second-ever race at the 2023 Hankook 6H ABU DHABI. A win is clearly the goal…
“Yep, we’re really not happy with it!” Kris continues. “I think a podium would have been really possible, given the speed we had. We were a little bit unlucky with the Code 60 three times, because after two hours, we were in P1, but then after four hours, we lost that because we’d just passed pitlane when the purple flags came out. That meant we couldn’t refuel on the next lap, because the [refuelling] station was full, and that lost us time… and that happened, I think, three times. After that, we kind of lost contact with the leaders. And that’s the difference between a win and P5.
“So, in Abu Dhabi, we are here with podium ambitions. Minimum! And maybe even higher than that. We were P1 in Free Practice, so we definitely have the speed. And if, mechanically, things stay okay over six hours, we’ll be looking good.”
Kris’ confidence is certainly not misplaced either. A few hours after his chat with CREVENTIC, the Haas RT team principal is celebrating a maiden overall podium for his new outfit, the #21 Audi R8 LMS GT3 EVO II having finished just 10 seconds adrift of eventual winner Pure Rxcing, and a cigarette-paper-thin 2.8 seconds behind 2nd-placed Herberth Motorsport. As in Dubai, Haas’ performance had made a colossal impact.
Now, before we continue, we should make one thing perfectly clear: the Haas Racing Team has absolutely no affiliation at all with either Gene Haas’ Formula 1 team or the Newmann/Haas juggernaut that conquered IndyCar during the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s. No, Haas RT is instead the eponymous team of Belgian/Antiguan photographer – and technology entrepreneur – Sandrine Haas (“It’s a good name. It just says, ‘speed!’ ”)
For close to a decade, Sandrine was a regular face on the Formula 1 Grand Prix stages before turning her attention to studio shoots and smaller national competitions in the late 2000s. While her focus may have shifted, the enthusiasm for motor racing was far from dulled. Indeed, a chance conversation with a friend led to Sandrine accepting an invite to race a BMW 325i for QSR Racingschool at last year’s 24 Hours of Zolder. Together with David De Saeger, Philippe Lowette, Sebastian De Jonge, and 24H SERIES regular Mathieu Detry, Sandrine finished a credible 17th overall and 3rd in-class.
More significantly though, the 24 Hours of Zolder – unofficially at least – was the catalyst for getting Haas RT off the ground…
“After Zolder, Sandrine came to me and said, ‘next year I want to do the 25H VW Fun Cup, can you manage this for me?’ I said, yes, of course. This is something I do every year for a number of drivers, so I knew we could put a car and a team together. Things started from there, and now we are here.
“I think it’s normal actually that people don’t know much about Haas RT because, in fact, Sadrine and I, as partners in the team, only started the idea in August last year. And when I say ‘started,’ I mean just talking about it: ‘what do you want to do?’, ‘what interests you?’, etc. Very quickly we came to an agreement that we were going to build a team together.”
And yes, don’t worry. Though she had already left the UAE before our chat with Kris, we will catch up with Sandrine very soon!
Like his business partner, Kris is also no stranger to motor racing. 24H SERIES (and Belcar) fans will be familiar with Kris’ time as team manager with QSR Racing: he’s run the team from the pit perch at the Hankook 24H DUBAI more than half a dozen times, and has helped the Belgian outfit pick up wins in the 24H SERIES in GT4, CUP1 and A3 (“but not GT3”). He also knows a thing or two about historic national rallying, having competed – intermittently, anyway – with daughter Elise, and even took PH division honours in 2015 and 2017.
Clearly pulling a team together through mutual connections was never going to be a problem…
“It was the best way to do this, honestly. I wouldn’t think of bringing a new mechanic in for [the Hankook 24H] DUBAI. There are a lot of cars competing every year, and the pitlane is hectic as hell! If you have someone there who is inexperienced, an accident can happen very quickly, especially with a GT3 car. As we were pulling this team together, I knew I wanted people that I could trust to do their jobs properly.”
With plans to create a team only discussed – not even finalized – during the summer of 2022 though, it begs the question why Sandrine and Kris gave themselves less than six months to prepare for Haas RT’s maiden endurance race at the “hectic” Hankook 24H DUBAI, of all places. And why, rather than lean into Kris’ vast experience on the GT4 stages, both team leaders opted for a high-profile ‘sink or swim’ campaign in GT3…
“If you have ambition, especially ambition in these kinds of races, it has to be GT3. Once we’d decided that, I felt the first race we needed to do is Dubai, because it can put you on the map as a new team.
“Yes, sometimes I got the idea, ‘is this all happening too quickly?’; ‘are we rushing this?’ In fact, it was a little bit too short to prepare everything 100 per cent, if I’m being honest. But, for me, as an engineer and a team manager, this was my sixth time in Dubai, I think, and most of our mechanics and engineers have done this race at least three or four times. Nobody here is new to racing, and we all know each other through different teams, and different series, so we were putting all the right elements together. A bit more time would have helped, but I think we were as well-prepared as we could have been.”
Much like the category and venue, choosing the car around which Haas RT would base its maiden motor race proved equally as matter-of-fact: “we knew we were doing GT3, and we knew the Audi was a great car.” Ironically, the starting point couldn’t have been much better, as Haas’ #21 R8 LMS GT3 Evo was the exact same chassis – no. 123 – that MS7 by WRT took to victory at the Hankook 24H DUBAI in 2022 (following WRT’s new, and already successful, partnership with BMW, the Audi was obviously surplus to requirements).
Another coup was the team’s driver line-up. Haas RT benefitted enormously in Dubai from the experience – and innate speed – of Audi factory driver Frédéric Vervisch. The overall winner of the 2019 Hankook 24H DUBAI, who’s also won the Nürburgring 24 Hours twice before, posted the second fastest lap of the entire event during the first of his four stints behind the wheel, and, as Kris mentions, “was really a big help putting the team on another level.” Bavarian young gun Benjamin Mazatis impressed with a consistent run on his 24-hour racing debut – and indeed his first race since the outbreak of Covid – as did gentleman driver Olivier Bertels on only his second start at the Hankook 24H DUBAI, and his first in the GT3 division (Olivier previously finished 2nd in GTX, with Kris and QSR Racing, at Dubai in 2020).
Arguably the biggest draw on the team’s driver line-up though – sorry Frédéric – was Belgium’s Maxime Soulet, winner of the Bathurst 12 Hours in 2020, and, for five seasons, an official Bentley GT works driver. A high-profile signing indeed for any start-up company. Moreover, the new Haas RT program is also the first full-time appointment for Maxime Soulet since his departure from Crewe at the end of 2020. And, as CREVENTIC found out from Maxime himself in Abu Dhabi, it’s an appointment he’s very much enjoying already.
“Obviously being part of a small family team is quite different for me compared with being a factory driver with a factory team! But everyone’s willing to do well, we’re all learning, and it’s been pretty interesting so far.”
There was, however, one small problem facing Maxime ahead of Haas RT debut, namely that the amiable Belgian had driven neither the Dubai Autodrome nor the Audi R8 LMS prior to Free Practice for the Hankook 24H DUBAI…
“It was my first time in an Audi, so I had a lot of stuff to learn! Which was a bit weird for me, with all my experience – learning a new car and a new track! – and it’s the same here [in Abu Dhabi]. So it took me a couple of laps to take everything in. At the beginning, I thought, ‘whoa whoa whoa, this is a lot different!’ but during the race itself, it was a lot of fun.
“Obviously we broke an engine before Q2 and Q3 in Dubai, and that’s why we had to start P43. And, honestly, when that happened, I thought” – there’s a big, exaggerated grime from Maxime here... – “they’re going to have to change the engine themselves. But, honestly, after that, we didn’t put a spanner on the car the whole race! I think we could have easily been on the podium without some problems with the Code 60s – wrong time, wrong place – but we had the pace and we had no issues with the car at all. So, yeah, the [Hankook] 24H DUBAI was a good start for all of us.”
Our belief though that Maxime Soulet was the first driver signed up by Haas RT is wide of the mark. As Kris explains, it was actually his Dubai and Abu Dhabi teammate Mathieu Detry that caught the team’s eye first, with both Kris and Sandrine keen to unlock the Belgian young gun’s true potential in GT3 after several seasons honing his endurance skills in TCR…
“We know Mathieu very well, and we felt he deserved the chance to show what he could do at a higher level. So Mathieu was our first confirmed driver. Of course, you get a lot of attention from drivers for these kinds of races, but we wanted to show that we could be competitive. And Maxime lives not that far away – he’s in Wallonia – and is obviously very fast, so that connection was made very quickly after that.”
Their confidence, thus far, has not been misplaced. In Dubai, on his maiden GT3 outing no less, Mathieu was regularly lapping the 5.39km Dubai Autodrome within just a few tenths of a former Bentley factory driver and a current Audi works pilot. One week later in Abu Dhabi, and just a few hours removed from our conversation with Kris, Mathieu impresses yet further by posting the fastest lap, of any GT3 runner, during his allotted 15-minute session before going on to post the fourth overall fastest lap during the race itself. On his Yas Marina Circuit debut.
There’s one defining team identity we’ve yet to address though, and it’s directly associated with the national colours on Maxime and Mathieu’s racesuits, as well as the Audi’s distinctive livery. Celebrating Sandrine’s dual Antigua-Belgian citizenship, Haas RT became the first racing team to ever represent the Caribbean nation on the international motorsport stage when the Audi lined up on the grid in Dubai. A feat worthy of a visual celebration, no doubt…
“There’s never been an Antigua team that’s raced internationally. We also have a number of sponsors that are based there, so we knew we wanted the Antigua [identity] represented on our car. Of course, because a lot of races are in Europe, logistically, it’s much easier to be based in Belgium!”
It should come as no surprise that, with a headline-grabbing top five finish in Dubai and a maiden podium in Abu Dhabi already under its belt, Haas RT is not about to rest on its laurels. Indeed, news abounded shortly after the team’s Dubai debut – courtesy of Sportscar365’s Davey Euwema – that Haas RT is eying an entry for this year’s Spa 24 Hours (“we know Spa-Francorchamps very well, so maybe we will participate and take our first step in that ‘GT3 world’.”). On top of that, Haas RT is also gearing up for this year’s 25 Hours VW Fun Cup with two bespoke Beetles, and plans are shaping up to contest a full 24H SERIES season in Europe with Stéphane Perrin – fresh from his own GT3 debut with the team in Abu Dhabi – joining Soulet and long-time AC Motorsport teammate Detry and Soulet in the #21 Audi. Wins are foremost in everyone’s minds.
Make no mistake. This ‘upstart’ newcomer is looking to put itself on the map in 2023.
“I’m a competition animal! We all are. And I cannot work properly without competition. So we are not scared of challenges like this. We make plans, every time, to improve ourselves. To get the little details right, every time, to get the team to a higher level. We want to win!”