The city of Auckland is in the news right now, as sailing yachts costing hundreds of millions of dollars are warming up in the Hauraki Gulf ahead of the 2021 America’s Cup.
Not that local Shane van Gisbergen is interested. Instead of mono-hulls, double-skinned mainsails and hydraulically operated hydrofoils, he’s far more interested in a historic Ford Escort Mk2. Good man.
Van Gisbergen is of course an Australian Supercars champion. Supercars is bonkers; frequently sideways super saloons with too much power and often not enough grip, so if you’re a rally fan looking for a taste of the circuit racing dark side you’d be hard pressed to find a better alternative.
And if you need any more encouragement, van Gisbergen was a rally winner and class winner in one weekend recently – all on his debut.
The New Zealand rallying community has been left reeling in 2020. This should have been the year it returned to the World Rally Championship for the first time since 2012. New Zealand is a home away from home for the top tier of world rallying, with its fast and flat-out gravel roads always delivering an entertaining challenge for drivers and a spectacle tough to match anywhere else in the world for fans.
What’s worse is that the country’s place on the calendar was part of a rotation with Australia, meaning it pins its hopes on 2022 now being the earliest opportunity to return.
It’s not the New Zealand way to sit idly by and feel sorry for yourself, though. Perseverance is more the style, and that’s exactly the trait the Rally New Zealand organizer exhibited earlier this month.
It used a very similar itinerary to that which would have met the WRC in Auckland on the Saturday of the event, turned it into an eight-stage rally aimed to thrill drivers, fans and the WRC Promoter in equal measure, and renamed it the City of Auckland Rally.
The organizer worked hard not only to offer the kind of New Zealand roads we’re well familiar with, but a star cast of the country’s drivers for the two-day event on November 14/15.
Fresh from winning Supercars’ prestigious Bathurst 1000 race, van Gisbergen joined the likes of Greg Murphy – another tin-top legend – and of course New Zealand’s own WRC rally winner Hayden Paddon, as well as many other of New Zealand’s finest rally drivers on the event.
Even as a bobble-hatted, blinkered rally fan it’s tough not to like van Gisbergen. His ‘get in anything and put it on the door handles’ approach is exactly what you’d expect from someone who comes from a rallying home.
His father Robert has an Escort RS1800, although van Gisbergen’s not driven it as much as he should. At least not before he hopped in alongside co-driver Brianna Little for the 121 miles of the City of Auckland Rally.
“In recent years, I’ve done a couple of test days, but there was always a year or two in between, so I never really got a proper go,” van Gisbergen tells DirtFish. “I’d never driven an Escort before. It was cool!
“Dad showed me how to do it first, he was running up and down – we’ve got a short, short sort of gravel section at home – and did a few laps with him. And then we swapped over. It didn’t take too long to get comfortable.
“They’re really nice cars to drive, nicely balanced, and they sort of do what you want, which is awesome. But probably the hardest bit was the notes, learning them and what they all sort of meant…”
Most circuit racing drivers who give rallying a go do a single-venue rally or a small asphalt event to get up to speed before going full-on into recce, pacenote and forest rallying.
Not van Gisbergen though. He thought he’d take on some of the best drivers his country has to offer – 67 of them to be exact – on gravel for his first go. It’s the kind of banzai move you might metaphorically compare to one of his infamous barnstorming Supercar overtaking moves. YouTube isn’t short of proof of those.
That means not only did van Gisbergen have to get acquainted with a recce, but also editing pacenotes and working out what worked for him with only a bit of Colin McRae Rally Playstation fun for experience.
“It was an intense few days, going through the notes, and then learning what they all mean and then, that night, looking at some video and checking the notes as well, and making sure they were all right,” adds van Gisbergen.
“So yeah, it’s quite an intense sort of prep day.
“Brianna, my co-driver, was very good and let me simplify it a little bit, like they had a five minus or a five plus or all the pluses and minuses – I got rid of that, because I didn’t really know what they meant.
“I wanted to spend as little time as possible processing stuff while driving.
“So we just did a simple 1-8 system and if it was a five minus, I just made it a four. I tried to simplify stuff and be on the safe side and then while I was driving, I didn’t have to process much and could just concentrate on learning the car rather than trying to listen to notes. And I think that worked quite well, keeping things simple but also safe.
“It was interesting to see how rallying works. The recce was crazy. It was super boring and unorganized, it was such a long day. And then you get into the rally, and it was just go, go, go.
“Everything was on time and [it was surprising] how rushed for time you were and how precise everything had to be, it was awesome. It was just a big learning day.”
Saturday was a proper day for rallying and Paddon romped to victory in his Hyundai AP4, as you may expect from the nation’s only WRC winner. Not many drivers have beaten Sébastien Ogier in a fair fight like he did four years ago in Argentina.
For van Gisbergen, it was a day of learning some of those qualities that have made Paddon a household name, adapting not only to rallying but forgetting some of his circuit racing habits and learning new things. Get ready for some choice language…
“Nothing really carries over from Supercars, it’s so different,” he says. “Rallying is a big mind battle as well, really more than I thought.
“I started the first stage and you’re just all alone, you don’t know how hard to push. You don’t know how hard the other guys have pushed before you for example.
“I’m like, ‘S***, am I going fast enough?’ You just don’t know what risk level you’re at. So that was hard to get a gauge for, but I finished the first stage and my time was pretty good compared to the two-wheel drives.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I’m going pretty hard then, I gotta look after it!’ That’s probably the hardest thing, not knowing where you’re at, or what you’re up to.”
When van Gisbergen says his time was “pretty good”, he means half a minute quicker than the next car in class over just 10 miles. He went on to win every stage and the class by almost three-and-a-half minutes. It was a startling debut, and one to well and truly remember. Even Paddon didn’t take the overall rally win by that much!
Van Gisbergen’s onboard is a thing of beauty. There’s a lot of steering input and correcting in places and some stabbing of the throttle, but it wouldn’t look out of place as an onboard of a WRC driver stepping back to a classic rear-wheel-drive car. Really impressive stuff.
On the Sunday, things returned to van Gisbergen’s domain in the sense that it was a rally sprint over the Jacks Ridge stage. That meant the more runs he got, the less he had to rely on the pacenotes and could approach things less like he had been before: worrying about what his competition was doing. He just knew he had to go like stink and aim for the top step of the podium.
However, it did mean a new car as van Gisbergen stepped into an AP4 Mitsubishi Mirage. The AP4 class is Asia’s answer to Rally2, built to a similar spec but with locally sourced parts to avoid high importing costs.
Having driven a ‘standard’ AP4 to victory on the City of Auckland Rally, Paddon’s car underwent an overnight transition – keeping his mechanics up past five in the morning – to become an AP4 ++, changing from a 300bhp rally car to 700bhp sprint monster.
The event was performed against the clock, in an elimination round format, with 32 cars qualifying via three qualifying runs. Of the 32, the top half progressed from each elimination round until only two cars remained.
The only pre-event question was, who would Paddon be up against? Unfortunately, though, he rolled after clipping a bank during the final eight, and that meant a fair fight between AP4 cars for victory.
It came down to van Gisbergen and Ford Fiesta AP4 driver Phil Campbell. Van Gisbergen set his fastest time of the day in the final, 1.4 seconds faster than Campbell to win on his first outing in the car with just one test day of experience.
Looking at van Gisbergen’s onboard in the AP4 from his rally-winning run, if anything he could have driven it less flamboyantly and a bit tidier more like a circuit – a style Sébastien Loeb pioneered and modern WRC drivers have followed. However, there wasn’t much left on the table and it’s hardly surprising things are a bit lairy given it was his second proper day in the car and he’d come from the Escort the day before.
So, having given the Ralliart New Zealand Mirage a win on his debut, what’s next for van Gisbergen? Of course he’s keen to rally again, but regular DirtFish readers will know he’s also a keen rallycross fan and that’s certainly not off the table for his next loose-surface venture.
“I loved it [his rally debut] for sure but yeah, it’s gonna be hard to do a bit more,” says van Gisbergen. “But you know, if Supercars finishes early again or there’s a couple more over summer, I’ll probably do some fun stuff. But yeah, it’ll be hard to do it more seriously.
“Another thing I’d love to do is a bit of rallycross, I did a bit of the [World Rallycross] Esports series, that was awesome. So hopefully with Red Bull we can do something next year if the world sort of gets better, and we can travel a bit.
“I really enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun. I guess it went okay, so hopefully that helps me get something…”
While many rally fans remain dismissive of circuit racing, it’s only fair to welcome new additions to the rallying family when their heads are turned.
Given his background and his instantaneous rallying success, van Gisbergen gets an honorary gold star and we can only hope to see him back. It’s scary to think what he could do with extensive testing.