Running with the bulls

RACQ Motoring Editor Barry Green straps in for some hot laps with Shane Van Gisbergen.

With just seven turns and 2km to a lap, the Norwell Motorplex is not exactly a place for pace like iconic Mt Panorama or Phillip Island. But from where I sit – inside one of Red Bull Racing Australia’s all-conquering Holden Commodore Supercars, normally driven by Jamie Whincup – it has my full attention.

We brake for one of the tight, second-gear corners with such force that the sunglasses threaten to slide off my nose, turn in for the corner and then, with 620+ horsepower (462kW) at the rear wheels (courtesy of its roaring 5.0-litre V8), the Commodore monsters the ripple strip on exit and fairly launches towards the next turn. But relax, we’re in good hands – those of the sublimely-gifted Shane van Gisbergen.

The expat Kiwi, now residing on the Gold Coast, is the proverbial man of the moment in motor sport. Last year, he won not just his first Virgin Australian Supercars Championship, Pirtek Enduro Cup and Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hours, but the prestigious Blancpain GT Series in Europe. He missed out on adding the Super Cheap Bathurst 1000 in crossing the line a scant 0.1434 of a second behind the winner, the closest competitive finish in the history of Australia’s great race. Somehow, he also found the time to compete successfully at a national level in the extreme motor sport discipline of drifting.

Little wonder he was named by the UK Autosport magazine among its Top 50 racing drivers in the world in 2016, coming in well ahead of such luminaries as 2009 World Formula One champion Jenson Button, current FIA World Rallycross champion Mattias Ekstrom and, probably more importantly to Shane, his much-decorated teammate Jamie Whincup.

Shane Van Gisbergen with Barry Green in V8 Supercar

We’re at a Red Bull Racing Australia (now Red Bull Holden Racing Team) drive day at Norwell, where management and staff of the team’s partners can experience a hot lap or two with van Gisbergen, Whincup, Craig Lowndes or Steven Richards. Unfortunately, Shane’s so in demand that a planned interview shrunk to more of a ’60 Seconds with SVG’. 

We start by discussing his uncanny ability to move seamlessly between such contrasting motor sport disciplines. Circuit racing is about driving the car straight (the quickest way around) whereas sideways – flamboyantly so – is the go in drifting.

Does, then, his drifting experience give him an edge in setting up his Supercar differently to teammates Whincup and Lowndes? Ditto the ability to deal with a race car when the tyres start to lose their grip or break into snap oversteer?

“No” is the answer in both instances.

“Our driving styles are all similar, so my race set-up is no different,” Shane said.

No one likes a loose race car.

He ponders the next question thoughtfully: who among drifting, international GT racing and Australian Supercars does he find the toughest competitor?

“All the top drifters are pretty awesome and in GT racing (long distance events where three drivers share a car) you never seem to race the same bloke twice,” he said.

“But in Supercars? Easy – that’s Jamie.”

His response is hardly surprising. The full-on battle for the 2016 Supercars title between the two Red Bull racers went right down to the wire. Leading narrowly going into the final round of the Coates Hire 500 in Sydney, Shane bounced back from a troubled first race to emphatically win the final race and take the title.   

Beating the six-times Supercars champion – who many regard as the best in the history of Australian Supercar/touring car racing – one-on-one meant a lot to him. This became obvious when asked about what a winning Australian motor sport’s holy grail – the Bathurst 1000 – would mean to him.

“300 points,” Shane said.

“It would be great to win it (on the day), but it takes a year’s work to win a championship and that’s my focus.”

(His Supercars championship defence could not have got off to a more emphatic start at the Clipsal 500 in Adelaide in March – Shane topped the qualifying sessions, took out pole position twice and won both races).

Our conversation shifts to GT racing, a category that is going gangbusters around the world thanks to intense competition between the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, McLaren, Bentley, Audi, BMW, Aston Martin, Nissan and Mercedes AMG.

Shane raced as a McLaren factory driver in both 2016 and 2017, but with two dates clashing between the 2017 Blancpain and Supercars championships, he has unfortunately had to give the former a miss this year. Instead, he has turned his attention to America and IMSA endurance event racing, where he is driving for WeatherTech Racing.

The good news for Australian motor sport fans, though, is his 20/20 focus will continue to be on Supercars.

“It’s the best series, has the best drivers, the best racing and I love it,” Shane said.

Images by Stuart Riley.