Motorsport: Shane van Gisbergen - the man born to race cars

By Dale Budge

Shane Van Gisbergen of Red Bull Racing Australia during the Red Rooster Sydney SuperSprint, at the Sydney Motorsport Park, Sydney, New South Wales, August 27. Photo / Mark Horsburgh.
Shane Van Gisbergen of Red Bull Racing Australia during the Red Rooster Sydney SuperSprint, at the Sydney Motorsport Park, Sydney, New South Wales, August 27. Photo / Mark Horsburgh.

A saying you often hear when talking about Kiwi Supercars driver Shane van Gisbergen is that he was born to race cars.

In most cases saying things like that is simply a clumsy way of praising someone's ability to do something but in van Gisbergen's case it might actually be close to the truth.

The 27-year-old lives and breathes motor racing. He really has very little going on in his life that doesn't involve racing cars. Other Supercars drivers have interests in other sports - golf, cycling, triathlons etc while some have families - but the boy from South Auckland is a self-confessed petrol head.

Barring a complete disaster on the streets of Sydney this weekend - a place where he has dominated in recent years - van Gisbergen will win his maiden Supercars title and become just the third New Zealander and first since Jim Richards a quarter of a century ago to lift the sport's biggest prize.

His journey to the top hasn't been without complications but when he successfully lifts the trophy he will have completed a childhood ambition that most experts have seen coming for a decade or so.

Van Gisbergen grew up in Manukau on a farm surrounded on all sides by urban sprawl.

He got an introduction into motorsport as a youngster with his father Robert still rallying cars competitively.

"My dad was a rally driver and I always went along to watch," van Gisbergen tells herald.co.nz. "I got a quad bike when I was about seven and started racing when I was eight. We lived on a farm so I practiced a lot on the bikes.

"My dad taught me to drive cars when I was 9 or 10 I think. We have a gravel road that runs down through the farm and this is where I learnt. It was awesome fun in not very nice cars. My first car was a Toyota Starlet."

Completely sucked in by driving fast van Gisbergen began to explore the idea of racing competitively - long before he was allowed to legally drive on a public road. He can recall the first time he raced in an official capacity.

"I was eight on a Suzuki 80cc quad bike," he says. "The race was in Warkworth and I won it."

From then on all he wanted to do was race.

"I never watched telly as a kid - I was always out there doing it. I just did it every weekend. I did a bit of go karting as well.

"I never planned to do anything with it - I was alright at it so I just kept going."

The steely resolve we see now in racing mode wasn't there so much off the track in his formative years. While he was fiercely competitive on the track any aspirations of turning his passion into a career path were not at the forefront of his thinking.

In fact he can't even remember the time where he realised he could earn a living racing cars.

"Not sure. I was just enjoying racing and trying to progress and getting nice results. I don't remember a particular point but sometimes things just happen."

He does remember his first experience with Supercars and where the desire to drive them came from - like many kids Kiwi racing legend Greg Murphy's success at Bathurst and at the local round in Pukekohe captured his imagination.

"When the Supercars went to Pukekohe in the early 2000s I went every year," van Gisbergen says. "Back then Murph was the King and always taking it to the Aussies. I loved the V8s and always wanted to try tohave a go one day.

"I'm very lucky to be on the other side of the fence now."

Van Gisbergen got his break with Team Kiwi Racing in 2007 after having previously finished third in the 2004-05 Formula Ford championship, winning the series a year later and finishing second in the 2006-07 Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand. He became the 200th Supercars driver to contest a round at Oran Park and piloted the under-powered Ford to a 20th, 13th and 23rd across his debut weekend at just 18 years old.

He signed with Stone Brothers Racing in 2008 - a much more competitive team which had tasted championship success with Marcos Ambrose in 2003 and 2004 and Russell Ingall in 2005. The New Zealander earned a break-through race win at his home round on the streets of Hamilton in 2011.

His career hit controversy at the end of 2012 however when he announced his retirement from the sport. The news broke at the penultimate round of that season's championship at Winton where he told his crew and rivals that he was no longer enjoying the category and planned to return home to New Zealand. He was still under contract with Stone Brothers Racing but the team was in the middle of being sold to Erebus Racing, which would move from Fords to Mercedes. Van Gisbergen admitted recently to Speed Cafe he wanted no part in that. Stone Brothers Racing released details that suggested the Kiwi was suffering from depression and was done with the sport but van Gisbergen says that wasn't accurate.

"All of that stuff [about retirement and depression] was never from me.

"I kept pretty quiet and to myself which is kind of the person I am and a lot of people heard the wrong story and still believe that.

"You get fans that are still pissed off about it and I should have said something [at the time] but didn't.

"I wasn't in a good place [mentally] but it was portrayed that I was in a worse one.

"The short of all that is if it stayed as Stone Brothers I would have kept racing, I just didn't want to be in the new part [Erebus].

"From what happened four years ago, I've come a long way as a person and have learnt to enjoy racing so much more."

Having walked away from the sport at the end of 2012 news soon broke the van Gisbergen was signing on with rival team Tekno Autosport and he appeared in the Holden team's colours at the opening event of the 2013 season in Adelaide where he banked two pole positions and a race win.

A legal cloud hung over his time at Tekno given his previous contract with Stone Brothers but the matter was eventually settled out of court. He impressed enough in his three years with the small Queensland-based team to be offered a contract with leading team Red Bull Racing for 2016.

That move paid instant dividends with numerous race wins and a likely championship to show for his first year with the team.

In recent years van Gisbergen has driven in multiple categories at once - spreading time between Europe, North America and back home in New Zealand on top of his Supercars duties. He has raced GT cars and even done some drifting.

There isn't much time for other hobbies or interests and while he likes to keep to himself away from the track, van Gisbergen says racing is a 365-day-a-year job.

"Outside of racing I prepare for the next race. Racing is really all I think about. With racing in V8, GT and trying to do the odd drifting event here and there it fills up my time."

There will be no time to chill out after his big weekend in Sydney.

"I go straight from Sydney to Sepang for a 12 hour race and then I have to be in America on the Tuesday after that for testing at Daytona and then I get a week and a half off back in New Zealand and then I am back to America after that.

"It is good prep for next year - always in a car."

And he wouldn't have it any other way.

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