Speed has al­ways been part of life for Manukau rac­ing driver Shane van Gis­ber­gen. Greg Bruce meets the man be­hind the wheel.

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Speed has al­ways been part of life for Manukau rac­ing driver Shane van Gis­ber­gen. Greg Bruce meets the man be­hind the wheel.

Peo­ple like to show you pho­tos of all sorts of things you’re not in­ter­ested in — kids, houses, hol­i­days, cars — but it’s a rare and telling mo­ment when some­one takes out their phone, as Shane van Gis­ber­gen did re­cently, to show off a pic­ture of a gravel road. What do you say in that sit­u­a­tion? “Fan­tas­tic grade!”? “So rare to see gravel so grey!”? No, there is noth­ing. You can only silently ad­mire and re­flect on the sin­gle-minded ded­i­ca­tion of pur­pose that leads a per­son to such an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for a flat sur­face coated with stones and dust.

Beyond the road, the photo showed a bu­colic scene, a semi-ru­ral idyll. The road it­self looked in good shape. It re­ally was a good grade.

“Doesn’t look like that any­more,” van Gis­ber­gen said proudly, the im­pli­ca­tion be­ing that, sub­se­quent to the photo, he had com­pletely de­stroyed it with the sort of on-the-limit driv­ing with which he made his name after start­ing in the Su­per­cars Cham­pi­onship as an 18-year-old in 2007 and con­tin­ues to ex­hibit to this day. In 2012, the mo­tor­sport writer for Syd­ney’s

Daily Tele­graph de­scribed him as “the Kiwi wild child” and his driv­ing style as “bash and barge”. Jamie Whin­cup, the com­pe­ti­tion’s most suc­cess­ful ever driver, with six ti­tles, said of him in the same year, “He’s al­ways loose as hell out there,” be­fore adding, “which I think is good.”

After an on-track in­ci­dent in 2011, vet­eran driver Paul Dum­brell de­scribed him as an “oxy­gen thief”. In 2015, then-cham­pi­onship con­tender David Reynolds said, “He’s dead to me, bro, dead to me,” after van Gis­ber­gen spun him out on track. Van Gis­ber­gen, now 28, told the Daily

Tele­graph in 2012 that his style would never change. “I think that is just how we drive here in New Zealand,” he said. “We just go for it. That is how I grew up rac­ing. There is no point sit­ting be­hind some­one. If you are faster than them, well, you have to get past them.”

This was all prior to 2016, when he be­came the first New Zealan­der since “Gen­tle­man” Jim Richards in 1991 to win Aus­trala­sia’s most pres­ti­gious mo­tor­sport com­pe­ti­tion, the Su­per­cars Cham­pi­onship.

VAN GIS­BER­GEN’S in­tro­duc­tion to Su­per­cars came with a hand­ful of races as a just-turned18-year-old at the end of the 2007 sea­son. By 2009, he felt like he was “al­most crack­ing it” and a year later he broke through with a string of podium fin­ishes and a sixth place fin­ish in the cham­pi­onship. Sud­denly, he was the sport’s hot young tal­ent.

Since that year, he’s never fin­ished lower than sixth. He’s had an­other sixth, a fifth, two fourths and a sec­ond, to go with last year’s win.

Just be­fore that his­toric win, Richards told the Her­ald he thought his soon-to-be-suc­ces­sor had ma­tured as a driver since his early years, sin­gling out two races ear­lier in the sea­son where van Gis­ber­gen had set­tled for sec­ond, in­stead of push­ing for a win.

“To be hon­est, I was a bit crit­i­cal of some of the things he used to do a few years ago,” Richards said. “I think a cou­ple of years ago he wouldn’t have been in this sit­u­a­tion be­cause he could some­times beat him­self.”

This “ma­tu­rity” nar­ra­tive has ap­peared sev­eral times through­out van Gis­ber­gen’s Su­per­cars ca­reer. It ap­peared in 2011, after his first race win, which was the same year Dum­brell called him an “oxy­gen thief” and a year prior to van Gis­ber­gen him­self say­ing his style would never change.

If ma­tu­rity means greater cau­tion, it’s a de­bat­able claim. It was a loaded ques­tion, then, when I asked van Gis­ber­gen if he would al­ways fol­low team or­ders and — for ex­am­ple — not push to over­take some­body if the team deemed it in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

“Of course,” he said.

THE FI­NAL week­end of the 2016 cham­pi­onship sea­son took place in Syd­ney. Van Gis­ber­gen was so far ahead of sec­ond placed Whin­cup that it would have taken a dis­as­ter for him not to clinch the cham­pi­onship over the week­end’s two races. In the worst sce­nario — Whin­cup win­ning both — he just needed to fin­ish in the top five. In the first race: dis­as­ter. “I just started the race ner­vous — I’d never been in the hunt for a cham­pi­onship be­fore — which is weird be­cause noth­ing nor­mally fazes me like that, and I just drove cau­tiously and peo­ple hit me out of the way, and nor­mally I’d just get them straight back and keep rac­ing el­bows out. But I was just timid, know­ing I only had to fin­ish fifth.”

In the early laps, he was bumped back to sixth, then was given a penalty that dropped him back to 22nd, while Whin­cup led. Mid­way through the race, it ap­peared the cham­pi­onship would come down to the fol­low­ing day’s fi­nal race.

But here comes van Gis­ber­gen! Charg­ing back through the field! Helped by a late safety car bring­ing all the cars back to­gether! Sud­denly with a few sharp passes, he’s back into fifth and the cham­pi­onship is his, so long as he doesn’t do any­thing stupid!

Then he passes fel­low Kiwi Scott McLaugh­lin — Scotty — to go into fourth! His en­gi­neer, Grant McPher­son — Shippy — comes over the ra­dio, say­ing, “You’re there, that’s all you need to do.”

It was the last lap. James Court­ney was ahead of him in third and Scotty be­hind him in fifth. He un­der­took what he de­scribes as a risk anal­y­sis and de­cided to ig­nore Shippy.

As risk analy­ses go, it seemed bad. Even if Scotty passed him on that last lap, it was al­most cer­tain no­body else would. He was guar­an­teed the cham­pi­onship if he main­tained fourth or fifth, but who knew what was go­ing to hap­pen if he tried for third?

Then again, Scotty was at­tack­ing from be­hind, Court­ney was go­ing slow in front, and van Gis­ber­gen had in his head his cau­tious driv­ing from the start of the race: “Nor­mally I never drive

like that, ever,” he said. “It was just silly.”

He passed Court­ney for third and cel­e­brated his first cham­pi­onship win from the public glory of the podium, rather than the anonymity of the team garage.

THIS YEAR, in­clud­ing van Gis­ber­gen, there are three New Zealan­ders com­pet­ing in the Su­per­cars Cham­pi­onship and, half­way through the sea­son, he’s the worst-placed of them, in fourth.

Ahead of him, in third, is Fabian Coulthard, and lead­ing the cham­pi­onship is Scott McLaugh­lin, an ebul­lient and love­ably child­like fig­ure from Hamil­ton, who achieved in­stant im­mor­tal­ity in 2014 as a 20-year-old, with a fan­tas­tic bit of rac­ing to win a last-lap bat­tle with reign­ing champ Whin­cup, one of the great­est V8 driv­ers of all time, and then fol­lowed that up with one of the great­est ever post-race in­ter­views.

Go­ing into the last lap of the sec­ond race of the sea­son, at Ade­laide, the young, in­ex­pe­ri­enced McLaugh­lin was in a sur­prise sec­ond place ahead of Whin­cup, but Whin­cup was all over him, the front of his car lit­er­ally un­der McLaugh­lin’s rear.

McLaugh­lin held his nerve with a near-flaw­less dis­play deep into the last lap un­til Whin­cup bril­liantly passed him two bends from the end, al­most forc­ing him into the wall. Pretty much every­body as­sumed that was that, in­clud­ing the tele­vi­sion di­rec­tor, who cut to Craig Lown­des cross­ing the line in first at the ex­act mo­ment McLaugh­lin was pulling back out of Whin­cup’s slip­stream, hit­ting the rac­ing line, apex­ing the fi­nal cor­ner and ham­mer­ing home past Whin­cup for sec­ond.

The crowd went wild, then wilder when McLaugh­lin — dur­ing the sub­se­quent live on-track in­ter­view in which he was un­able to stop smil­ing — ex­plained the in­cred­i­ble pass to tens of thou­sands at the track and mil­lions more view­ers of live and on­line video con­tent: “I just plucked her in first, gave her some jan­dal and — f*** yeah!”

He im­me­di­ately grabbed at his mouth in shock, then said sorry five times, in­clud­ing once “to all the lit­tle kids out there”, his charm­ing, boy­ish smile ra­di­at­ing both abashed con­tri­tion at the naughty word he’d said and un­abashed joy at the im­por­tance of what he’d just achieved.

Ev­ery self-re­spect­ing petrol­head par­ent in New Zealand at that mo­ment hoped this de­light­ful boy might cruise up their drive­way in his V8 Volvo one Satur­day night to take their daugh­ter out to the street races in East Ta­maki. In the space of just a few min­utes, McLaugh­lin had be­come a star.

This was a year after van Gis­ber­gen, once the young great hope of New Zealand mo­tor­sport, had be­come a sort of pariah, after an­nounc­ing his re­tire­ment from Su­per­cars, fol­low­ing a dis­agree­ment with his team, Stone Broth­ers Rac­ing, then im­me­di­ately re­turned from re­tire­ment at the start of the next sea­son, with a new team.

His Su­per­cars com­peti­tors, who just a few months be­fore had signed a car bon­net as a farewell gift, even­tu­ally made all the right noises about for­giv­ing him, but it’s hard to say whether their noises matched their thoughts, and, re­gard­less, the fans weren’t all so diplo­matic.

He got into a long le­gal fight with his for­mer team that even­tu­ally ended in an out-of-court set­tle­ment. The rift with team co-owner Ross Stone was healed only this year.

Asked now if be­ing liked is some­thing he wants, van Gis­ber­gen says, “I guess so. You don’t

There is no point sit­ting be­hind some­one. If you are faster than them, well, you have to get past them. Shane van Gis­ber­gen, 2012

want to be dis­liked. Some peo­ple are ob­vi­ously more open, like Scotty’s re­ally good, and [team­mate] Craig Lown­des, but for me, I try and win them over just with rac­ing, cause ob­vi­ously they’re pretty out­go­ing peo­ple, whereas I’m not.”

THE GRAVEL road in the pho­to­graph that van Gis­ber­gen had been so keen to show off was a 1.5km stretch on his par­ents’ 16ha prop­erty at Manukau, where he grew up driv­ing things as fast as pos­si­ble, along­side his dad.

In his hey­day, Robert van Gis­ber­gen — Cheese — com­peted in sev­eral high-pro­file rally events around New Zealand, even win­ning a few. He was known as a qual­ity driver, but was never quite able to crack the big time.

“I had no one to teach me. My mum and dad were pas­sion­ate about what I did but they had no ex­pe­ri­ence in mo­tor rac­ing and I strug­gled a lit­tle bit.”

The thrill of the race, though, was never a prob­lem for Cheese. He re­calls dis­cov­er­ing a car rac­ing game in a video par­lour on his first trip to Hawaii with his wife, Shane’s mother, Karen: “It just re­ally ex­cited me,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is the best video game I’ve ever played in a par­lour.’”

He started a bat­tle with an­other man. “I just had to beat this guy,” he says. “I sat there for a week while we were in Hawaii and I beat this guy and of course I come back the next day and this guy comes back and beat me and I never got to meet who this guy was, but we just kept go­ing back­wards and for­wards.”

In other words, van Gis­ber­gen was born to it: “He used to race around the bloody house in his baby walker,” Cheese says. “Even the bloody potty. He was slid­ing around the kitchen in that thing. He had to slide the thing.”

He started out rac­ing quad bikes on Cheese and Karen’s farm and he also had a replica McLaren go-kart his fa­ther had helped build for him. “He used to roar around the house and on the gravel road with that thing,” Cheese says. “But we had a stop watch. Ev­ery­thing in­volved a stop watch. From day one.”

CHEESE TELLS a story about his son’s first time rac­ing in the Bathurst 1000, aka “The Great Race”, the mo­tor rac­ing ver­sion of the Mel­bourne Cup, a race that ev­ery kid who grows up know­ing the mean­ing of V8 thrills to.

Van Gis­ber­gen had just turned 18, young to be tak­ing part in the race, one that he had dreamed about since child­hood. It was not only his first time com­pet­ing there, but the first time he’d ever been to the track, one of the most leg­en­dar­ily bru­tal in world mo­tor­sport.

With some­thing like rev­er­ence, or maybe awe, Cheese says: “He slept in, mate! Now, mate, that’s un­heard of. It’s not like he couldn’t sleep at all, he just slept in! Now, look, you tell any­one that story. You just wouldn’t be­lieve it. No one would be­lieve you.”

Cheese, an ac­coun­tant by trade, says he’s the stress­ful one in the fam­ily, the one who makes sure all the de­tails are be­ing taken care of. His son’s abil­ity to re­lax to the point of sleep­ing in for the big­gest day in his life — that doesn’t come from Cheese.

As man­ager, men­tor, ad­viser and mate, Cheese has been a mas­sive in­flu­ence in his son’s ca­reer, rais­ing fi­nance, build­ing a team, and mak­ing sure that ev­ery­thing that’s needed to be a pro­fes­sional racer is taken care of. It’s hard to over­state how hands-on he has been.

“I don’t know if I’m spoil­ing him or not,” Cheese says. “I look at it, like, I try and make his job as easy as pos­si­ble. He’s got to drive the car and I sort out the rest.”

When van Gis­ber­gen’s asked if he’s ever worked on his men­tal game with a psy­chol­o­gist or any­one like that, he says, “Nah. They just say stupid shit. I did for one bit. It was rec­om­mended when the stuff was hap­pen­ing in 2012, but it just mucks with your brain. You’re bet­ter off to just do it your­self. Keep it sim­ple and have fun.”

Rac­ing is all he’s ever wanted to do, he says. He’s raced quad bikes, go-karts, mid­gets, drift cars, GT cars, and has won mul­ti­ple na­tional cham­pion rac­ing re­mote con­trol cars. In his home on the Gold Coast, he’s got a rac­ing sim­u­la­tor, some­thing like you’d see in an ar­cade, but very much more so­phis­ti­cated. He of­ten races on­line with his dad, who also has a sim­u­la­tor at the fam­ily home.

Cheese says: “He’s got no se­ri­ous lady at the mo­ment and I don’t think he will for a while, ei­ther. Hard to find a lady that will live with a man that, you know, he’d rather go and race on his sim­u­la­tor than go out to din­ner.”

In an in­ter­view with the Her­ald’s Dale Budge last year, Shane said, “Out­side of rac­ing I pre­pare for the next race. Rac­ing is re­ally all I think about.”

Suc­cess takes a cer­tain skill and com­i­cal level of ded­i­ca­tion, but also pos­si­bly at least one per­son be­hind you who is will­ing and able to ded­i­cate their life to mak­ing sure that your skill and ded­i­ca­tion pay off in a way that maybe they didn’t quite for them.

Of his own rac­ing ca­reer, Cheese says: “I’m happy with what I did and there’s no point bang­ing your­self over the head for what you did wrong. It’s not what you did wrong — it’s what you didn’t know. I wasn’t trained. I was a first gen­er­a­tion racer, I sup­pose you could say.”

Van Gis­berge at the n driv­ing Su­per­car for the Red s Cham­pio Bull Holden nship in Syd­ney team in March.

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