There’s little doubt that high-profile drivers taking on second careers in rallycross has boosted the discipline’s popularity over the last decade. World Rally Champions Petter Solberg and Sébastien Loeb, plus double DTM champion Mattias Ekström, dutifully led that revolution; all of them reached the top in their first careers, with Solberg and Ekström going on to replicate that success in the World Rallycross Championship.
But there’s one driver staking a claim to become the next racing star to switch to rallycross. Right now, touring car racer Shane van Gisbergen is the hottest property in rallycross, despite having never setting foot in an actual World RX car.
The New Zealander took World RX Esports by storm after dominating the first of a four-round series at a virtual Yas Marina circuit, using the Dirt Rally 2.0 video game that holds the official World RX license.
The win was no fluke: he was the only non-simulator specialist to feature in the main final of World RX’s standalone Montalegre Esports event a few weeks prior, in which he scored a podium finish. At Yas Marina, his race-winning time was faster than the winning time from the sim racer final.
It’s also no surprise that van Gisbergen is among the best of the best when it comes to real-world racing drivers taking on sim racing. The 31-year-old Kiwi has honed his skills over the last decade and has been a regular figure in iRacing.
His status as points leader in the Supercars Eseries is evidence enough of that. But is there more to it than simply being good at sim racing in general? Could he master the switch to real-world rallycross and would he even consider making the move?
Let’s start at the beginning, with a young Shane smashing fenceposts on the family farm in New Zealand. Van Gisbergen may have made his name in circuit racing, reaching the pinnacle of Australasian motorsport as Supercars champion in 2016, but he’s no stranger to the rough stuff. In fact, he was born into it.
“I’ve always liked the rally stuff, that’s what I grew up with. Dad was a rally driver,” explains van Gisbergen.
Much like two-time World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz, Robert van Gisbergen has a rally stage in his back yard. He also took on some of the best drivers in the world in 1996, entering Rally New Zealand in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo I against a field that included works drivers from the world championship: that meant squaring up against reigning World Rally Champion Tommi Mäkinen and his Mitsubishi team-mate Richard Burns, plus the Subarus of Kenneth Eriksson and Piero Liatti.
“Dad I don’t think ever raced rallycross, but he did rally in the 1980s and then he started again in the late ’90s, so I was like six to eight [years old], running around, playing in the gravel and watching him as well.
“We’d watch Rally New Zealand every time it’d come around too, so I was always into it and always followed the WRC as well, especially in the late ’90s and early 2000s. I used to love it.
“So [I’ve] just always been into it. I’ve never managed to do a proper rally myself but did a lot of short sprints growing up, a few test days and stuff as well. Hopefully one day I get to drive one!”
But what about rallycross specifically? He’s not driven the real thing just yet, but he’s certainly embraced its digital equivalent, roping in fellow Supercars stars like Scott McLaughlin and Scott Pye, plus Formula E’s Mitch Evans, into doing a bit of off-roading on their sims. Pye even joined van Gisbergen on the World RX Esports grid last weekend.
“Playing the game [Dirt Rally 2.0], there’s a few of my buddies that we race with, we all love that rally game, so we get on probably a couple of times a week at night, race against each other in random stages and rallycross. I didn’t spend crazy hours [practicing] but I do play the game a lot.”
Properly talented in other forms of motorsport, check. Properly into the slippery stuff, check. One last question: could he master the transition from road racing to off-road racing?
His path to becoming a professional racing driver certainly provides solid foundations in that respect. His junior years were spent on motocross quad bikes and in Speedway – New Zealand’s primary series for dirt oval racing – both of which require subtle vehicle control in low grip conditions. Even when he’d begun his journey on the circuit racing ladder, he was still competing on the loose stuff, only giving it up after breaking into Supercars.
Around rallycross tracks which have a high ratio of asphalt to gravel like Abu Dhabi or Riga, he’s already a strong fit. But dump him onto an old-school track with plenty of gravel and the signs are positive he’ll adapt straight away.
But what do I know? I can’t even manage a single lap of the virtual Abu Dhabi track van Gisbergen was so fast on without recreating the recent SpaceX launch. Those menacing orange kerbs that sit on the apex of almost every corner tend to send my virtual car into orbit if I dare touch them. So, I’ll let reigning World RX champion Timmy Hansen and his younger brother Kevin, last year’s TitansRX and Nitro RX winner, figure that one out.
“It looks like he has a good felling on how to tackle turn one, which is key in rallycross,” says Kevin. “He is quite an aggressive driver in Australia too which would fit perfectly into rallycross. I don’t know if he has the edge to win a race weekend, but it looks like we need to find out!”
“He seems to have an eye for that first corner and managing traffic,” Timmy adds. “He’s got the right aggression: not too aggressive but not too defensive, which the key to survive well in the first corner of rallycross. That’s the only thing I guess you can carry over from the video game to real life.
“If Shane will come and do some real World Rallycross, it would be amazing. Crossovers between different motorsports always generates big publicity, and rallycross is kind of MMA for motorsports.
“You need a bit of every skill to do well in rallycross, so the things I’ve seen from Supercars in Australia is that they also slide, it’s also very aggressive driving styles, and the car in many ways reminds you of a rallycross car, though of course it’s different as well.
“We need to wait and see if he comes and does a race and how well he does there.”
All signs point to go. Now just to get van Gisbergen on board with the idea. Would he consider binning off Aussie tin-tops to go rallycrossing in Europe?
“I’d love to have a drive. It’d be full on to do a full year of it,” he says. Could the switch really be happening?
Then comes the caveat.
“I love the Supercars and where I’m at now. I see myself doing that for a long time, but [I] would certainly love to come over and have a go of rallycross. Doing a race even would be mega, but one day. Hopefully it can happen soon.”
There’s no permanent conversion from Supercars star to rallycross rebel on the near horizon, then. But it seems van Gisbergen’s certainly keen to get behind the wheel of a World RX supercar, even if only for a day.
He’s been racing in the World RX Esports series with a Team Hansen Peugeot 208, which like van Gisbergen’s Supercars employer is primarily backed by Red Bull. That surely makes the reigning World RX champion team a prime candidate for giving van Gisbergen some real-world experience of rallycross, which both he and the rallycross fanbase appear to crave in equal measure.
So is Kenneth Hansen, eponymous team boss and 14-time European Rallycross champion, keen to get van Gisbergen in one of his 208s?
“Let’s see what the future can bring,” says Kenneth.
He’s definitely not against the idea, then. Anyone got a phone number for Red Bull’s marketing department? I’ve got a call to make…