Over the past few years, 33-year-old Kiwi, Shane van Gisbergen, has earned a reputation for being able to drive anything, anywhere and to be immediately competitive with unparalleled ease. The last 12 months have arguably proven to be one of his most dominant years yet. But he’s not about to slow down. Not in the slightest.
Words Steve Vermeulen Portraits Vinesh Kumaran
Natural ability seems an unusual way to define wherewithal behind the wheel of a race car. There is nothing ‘natural’ about piloting a 650 horsepower V8 ZB Commodore at speeds up to 300km/h. There is no genetic disposition that makes you innately talented at skating a Skoda Fabia rally car on gravel or spearing a GT car across the top of Mount Panorama, millimetres from the wall with the precise elegance of a ballerina’s glissade.
Yet, natural ability is what Shane van Gisbergen unquestionably possesses. In 2022 alone, he claimed the most wins in a Supercars season, his third Supercars Championship, his second Bathurst 1000 win, finished fifth in class at the Le Mans 24 Hour race, won the Rally of the Far North and achieved a podium in his first World Rally Championship event. And in between all of those real-world achievements he schooled hundreds of fanatics online in the decidedly unnatural world of the global iRacing simulator competition.
Like every pro, van Gisbergen honed his skillset from a young age. But it hasn’t been a traditional journey from the family farm in South Auckland to being labelled as one of the best drivers in the world.
“Dad was a rally driver driving a Mitsubishi Evo 3. I’d go along to rallies and watch him when I was four or five: those are my earliest memories of motorsport,” he recalls. “From there I raced speedway and quad bikes, I tried karting for a year when I was 12, but I didn’t enjoy it.
“I know it’s the known pathway for a lot of drivers, but I didn’t enjoy how serious it was. Coming from that speedway environment, karting was pretty full on. It was good to learn race craft and racing lines and a lot of my good friends all came through karting, but it wasn’t for me.”
Adopting instead a ‘just do it’ mentality, van Gisbergen learnt and adapted his circuit racing skillset on full-size tracks in the more advanced category of Formula First. It wasn’t long before he was on the radar, winning the Speedsport Scholarship in 2004 and moving through the ranks of the sport.
“I was still just racing for fun. I was still racing quads all the time and a bit of speedway. We didn’t set out to race supercars or open wheelers or whatever, we just sorta went with it.”
Trying his hand at all manner of categories has worked well for van Gisbergen. In the years since being awarded the Speedsport scholarship, there has been standout performances in Formula Ford and the Toyota Racing Series through to prototype racers and GT3s. To the observer, it all appears to come effortlessly now. But the 33-year-old recalls his first drive in Supercars 15 years ago, and how it was anything but impressive.
“It was the first time I qualified last with no problems. It was a big shock to see the level that everyone was at. I wasn’t prepared for how big a step up it was. I didn’t do the development series, I just went straight into the main races, and I probably wasn’t ready. But it was good: I had to go in the deep end and get better quickly.”
As challenging as the transition was, the young racer followed what excited him most.
“The A1GP series was big at the time, especially with the Giltrap family, and there was an opportunity to be a development driver for that series. But growing up I had always just loved supercars and the V8s, so I chose that option.”
And it’s chasing what excites him that has also earned van Gisbergen a reputation to try his hand at almost any form of motorsport and to be immediately fast at it in the process.
Take his impressive effort in Rally New Zealand during September and October, for example, where he finished ninth overall against the top tier WRC cars and drivers in a Category 2 car, after just a handful of previous rally outings.
It’s a phenomenon the man himself can’t even explain.
“I don’t really know, it just kind of happens. I guess with a new car there’s usually a bit of onboard footage or data you can look at to get an idea of how its gonna go. I don’t really think there’s crossover between my supercars skillset and rallying for instance. But I don’t try to overthink it too much. Even with the simulators, I don’t use them for study or skill development. Although they do help me learn to concentrate for extended periods through repetition and consistency.”
While some aspects of his abilities remain hard to explain, the support and impact that van Gisbergen’s father, Robert has offered along the way is an obvious part of the equation.
“Dad has always been there from those early days seeing where I could get better or how to approach my set up. The level now is above his level on the circuit stuff obviously, but since I started rally it’s been really good: that’s his background, so I needed his advice again on how to approach things.
“He’s great to talk to, he sees things from an outsider’s view and let’s me know where I might have the blinkers on. He never put pressure on me or got angry if I didn’t win.”
And maybe that’s van Gisbergen’s secret for success and what propels him forward no matter what he’s driving. He is as excited about a great race as he is to win it.
“I like winning of course, but if I get beaten and I get beaten fairly and it was a good battle, then I’m never disappointed about it. I still really appreciate a good race, even its for eighth or 12th. If it’s a good race with someone, it’s fine: I’m having fun.”