It’s the day after Shane van Gisbergen has taken a stunning second place on his Australian Rally Championship debut in Canberra – for me, anyway. Not for him. It’s already the next day over there.
I text him asking for a catch-up, hoping for the best but braced for a response of being too busy. The last time I spoke to him was before his most recent Supercars title – which he’s also currently leading the standings in, naturally.
Down Under this guy is a superstar. Between his success in Supercars and GT racing, he may as well be the Sébastien Loeb of Oceania – plonk him in a car, any car, in any discipline, and he’ll win stuff. I’d understand if I got ghosted. But ask him for a confab about rallying and the response is immediate – he’s free in 10 minutes.
Is he preparing to drive his day-job Holden Commodore again later that day? Nope. He’s testing a NASCAR-style stock car. Because of course he is. If it has four wheels, he’ll probably drive it, whatever it is.
But rallying’s different. It’s in his DNA. His father Robert is a rally man through and through – there’s even a gravel test road in the van Gisbergens’ back yard to practice on over and over, as Shane did frequently back in his youth.
So it’s not a huge surprise that on making his Australian Rally Championship debut, he finished second to 2019 champion Harry Bates and even won the rally-ending powerstage.
“I obviously left thinking that we were competitive,” van Gisbergen tells DirtFish. “But you know, he [Bates] put 1m20s on me on the first day while I was learning and getting up to speed. On the second day he was probably cruising and just bringing it home because he spoke about how tough that rally was and how it’s a car breaker.
“Man, the attrition rate, I couldn’t believe it. The first day we were seeded 10th on the road and I ended up fifth on the road just by cars falling off or breaking down. So I think he might have been cruising on Sunday but maybe he pushed on the powerstage, I’m not too sure.
“It would just be great to do more and keep learning. It’s a fun, addictive sport. It’s a pretty cool way to go racing cars.”
It’s definitely a world away from Supercars. Not only in terms of the surfaces, format and driving style but even the intensity of schedule. On the surface that might be surprising given the itinerary of a typical Supercars weekend – practices plus anything up to four qualifying sessions and races – but it’s the amount of preparation needed before hitting the stages that’s surprised van Gisbergen most.
“The biggest thing was the intensity. You arrive on the Wednesday night, then it’s testing on Thursday with a couple of stages of recce, then Friday was all recce, so it was two days of preparation and writing notes. So I was wrecked on Friday night before it started!
“It was – not a shock – but I didn’t realize how much work goes into it and how important a good co-driver is. The preparation is crazy, what they have to do writing out the road book, sorting out the liaisons and all that kind of stuff. The preparation was pretty mentally draining, that’s for sure.”
For fans of van Gisbergen in Supercars hoping he’ll translate his championship-winning pace into rallying, there’s cause for optimism.
He might have been somewhat off Bates’ pace from the get-go but van Gisbergen wasn’t flat chat either. His inexperience in stage rallying comes with the key drawback every circuit-racing convert faces – getting the pacenotes right.
“I probably simplified it too much with the corner descriptions and I got rid of the pluses and minuses and stuff, just because I didn’t think I’d be able to process all that information,” says van Gisbergen of his pacenotes.
“I spent Saturday building up every leg that we went out, every group of stages after service, I would try and raise my level a bit. By the time Sunday came around, I was lacking description in the notes for the high-speed stuff and that’s probably where, the six-seven-eights, I probably could have been a bit better.
“But that will come with learning; with trying. It was pretty cool, you know. There’s probably more time in the slow-speed technical stuff but the high-speed stuff gives you the confidence when you’re pushing.”
No matter his upbringing around rallying he was still having to improvise and figure things out how to adapt his driving from other disciplines to the gravel tracks of Canberra. “I kind of just winged it,” he admits.
That might be an understatement. Before last weekend van Gisbergen had never left-foot braked in competition – not even in GT racing, where semi-automatic paddleshift gearboxes are the norm.
Yet when it came time to pilot his Škoda Fabia R5, his left foot was dancing away on the brake pedal to great effect.
“It just felt natural in the car,” explains van Gisbergen. “The brake pedal was in line with your left leg, so with right-foot braking you have to move your foot quite a way across and it’s at a funny angle. So I just felt more natural driving it that way and you didn’t need to clutch down the gears, so it works out kind of good. So I stuck with it. You just do what’s comfortable.”
So, van Gisbergen’s figuring out this whole rally thing at record speed. And for good reason – he’s hoping to contest his home nation’s triumphant return to the World Rally Championship later this year. It’s been a long wait for New Zealand to return to the WRC and understandably he won’t want to miss his chance.
He’s only 16 points off the top spot in ARC after the first round and, by the end of the season opener, he’d done a Kalle Rovanperä in rapidly figuring out his new equipment and winning the last stage of the rally.
Let’s say he rocks up in Auckland and takes WRC2 by storm later this year. We’ve seen circuit racing stars in Kimi Räikkönen and Robert Kubica make the switch to rallying at the top level full time. Why not van Gisbergen? He’s clearly got something of a knack for it – and, better still, he clearly loves the discipline.
Fellow Kiwi Scott MacLaughlin, who won everything in sight during a dominant spell in Supercars, left for pastures new in 2021 with a switch to Penske’s IndyCar team – the same squad he’d taken his three Supercars titles with.
Based on how the 2022 season has started, van Gisbergen is about to waltz to his third title. He’s already pocketed all the major trophies on offer at Mount Panorama.
Would he consider parking his circuit racing career to go rallying full-time?
“That’s a hard call! I don’t know. I love the Supercars and getting to do this extra stuff beside it, I’m a pretty lucky boy.
“It would be a huge career change and I love where I’m at right now. I’d love to do more and keep getting better at it but, as everyone knows, rally is expensive and there’s very few people – even at the top level – that get paid to drive a rally car. So it’s a hard sport to do professionally if you’re a rookie at it.
“I’ve always grown up around rally and always wanted to do it but dad’s always said he’s happy he pushed me towards the circuit racing way as rally would have been a lot more expensive.”
Perhaps New Zealand will be the only WRC round we might be seeing van Gisbergen at for some time. But what a story that would be, even as a one-off.
Chevrolet has one more reason to cross its fingers and hope its Gen3 Camaro is the business out of the box. After all, rallying is but 10 minutes away for van Gisbergen – especially after that drive in Canberra.