RACING

How Supercars star van Gisbergen saved his Le Mans dream

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The pandemic has cost a lot of different people in different ways, most of them significantly bigger than motorsport.

Shane van Gisbergen knows this well. As a New Zealander living in Australia, he has paid the price for the two countries’ adoption of an ultra-conservative approach to case numbers, largely controlled by militant border controls. The highest price was the time he couldn’t spend with his family and friends on the other side of the divide.

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But border protocols also cost him the chance to bring a racing dream to life.

In February 2020, before the full effects of the pandemic were clear, van Gisbergen signed an incredible deal to drive a Eurasia Motorsport LMP2 entry at Le Mans alongside Nobu Yamanaka and Daniel Gaunt.

It was a dream come true. For years, van Gisbergen had contemplated a start in the classic two-clock tower, only for clashes – usually with the Darwin Supercars lap – to ensue. Finally, there was a window and it had a reader.

Then Australia closed its borders to keep COVID-19 as far away as possible and van Gisbergen’s Le Mans dream started to slip away. He kept his hopes up for as long as he could, especially when the Australian government started allowing authorized travel for business purposes. He could come and go, but would have to serve two weeks of hotel quarantine upon his arrival in Australia.

When the Supercar schedule began to cut and shift due to state border controls on an incredibly unpredictable level, heading overseas was a risk van Gisbergen simply couldn’t take. His day job had to come first. And the trip to Le Mans had to make way.

“It was disgusting,” says van Gisbergen. “There was a possibility that it happened even after COVID started, but all the Supercars dates kept changing, so I couldn’t go there and quarantine afterwards. It was a missed opportunity there- low, but I was finally able to go.

It’s true. Two years later, van Gisbergen will finally live his Le Mans dream. This time it’s in a GTE Pro entry, in a Riley Motorsports Ferrari 488 GTE Evo. Once again, a void in the Supercars calendar has appeared. And now, with the borders open, van Gisbergen is ready to seize the opportunity with both hands.

“That’s so cool,” said the Kiwi. “It’s on the shopping list that I haven’t done, but really want to do. It’s hard to get a unique workout for races like this. Especially for us Supercar drivers. There is always a conflict with the Darwin round and the Le Mans test weekend or the race itself. So it’s great that, finally, there is no conflict.

Van Gisbergen has competed in several top endurance races, including Bathurst, Spa and Daytona, but will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut this month.

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Van Gisbergen readily admits he’s not quite sure what he’s walking into. He’s never been to Le Mans and he’s never driven a GTE car in his life. It would be daunting to many, but it’s unlikely to be the “Giz” phase. His talents may not be fully appreciated on the world stage, but make no mistake, he is among the most naturally gifted pilots on the planet.

This is not only evident in its dominance in Supercars, but in its versatility. Perhaps most relevant is his experience in GT3. In 2016, as an official McLaren driver, he won the 12 Hours of Bathurst alongside Jono Webb and Alvaro Parente. He then went to Europe and won the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup with Rob Bell and Come Ledogar thanks to victories at Monza and Paul Ricard.

At the end of 2020, taking advantage of a narrow window to visit New Zealand, van Gisbergen decided to take up rallying, a discipline revered by his father Robert. He made his Auckland City One Day Rally debut in RVG’s Ford Escort RS 1800 and won his class. The following day, he took an outright victory in the Battle of Jacks Ridge rally sprint in an AP4-spec Mitsubishi Mirage.

I hope to be able to do more in the future and that it becomes a regular activity again, whether in Europe or America. I have really missed racing abroad in recent years. I can not wait to return to

Shane van Gisbergen

During that same trip, he returned to his single-seater roots with an appearance at the 2021 New Zealand Grand Prix. Van Gisbergen has Toyota Racing Series experience, but not since the early 2000s. qualified 10th and was later forced out of the pit lane after accidentally setting off the car’s fire extinguisher before the race when he pressed the wrong button while trying to start the engine.

Of course, van Gisbergen and his six-foot-something frame, totally unsuitable for a single-seater, charged through the field and won comfortably.

Fast forward to the start of 2022 and the now two-time Supercars champion has decided to take his rally quest to a new level with an outing in the Australian Rally Championship in an R5-spec Skoda. In Canberra, home of the Toyota-backed Bates Motorsport team. Okay, he couldn’t beat Harry Bates, but he finished second and came home with a wet sail that included the Power Stage win. More ARC outings are set to follow and wins look inevitable, while he is also set to make his World Rally Championship debut in New Zealand in October.

Shane van Gisbergen demonstrated his versatility and quick learning curve with a podium finish in a recent Australian Rally Championship outing

Shane van Gisbergen demonstrated his versatility and quick learning curve with a podium finish in a recent Australian Rally Championship outing

Along with his outrageous natural ability, van Gisbergen is also extremely technical and happy to be driven by data. This is why he is so confident that, despite his lack of knowledge in GTE, he will be able to meet the challenge that awaits him in France.

“I really don’t know anything about driving a GTE car,” he says. “They have a bit more downforce than a GT3 car and a bit more grunt, but no ABS. I guess they have quite low downforce at Le Mans, given the style of circuit.

“But to be honest, I don’t know what to expect. The best thing is that we get so many laps in the test weekend. I’ll get a lot of miles, which is the best thing. There are many adaptation possibilities. »

What van Gisbergen expects is to face it as the only privateer competitor in GTE Pro, although it’s a challenge he looks forward to. “I have no goals or ambitions,” he says. “It’s quite rare to be in the Pro class and not be a factory team, so we probably face that in some ways. But it’s great to have this opportunity. It’s pretty cool .”

What van Gisbergen knows is that he wants to use this race at Le Mans to rekindle his ambitions abroad after they have been extinguished by the pandemic.

“I hope I can do more in the future and it will become a regular activity again, whether in Europe or America,” he says. “I have really missed racing abroad in recent years. I can not wait to return to. »

His larger projects? Hypercar, maybe? In typical, casual Van Gisbergen style, he doesn’t really mind. He just wants to drive race cars.

“To be honest, I don’t know and it doesn’t bother me,” he says. “It’s just good to get back to racing. I think GT3 makes the most sense; it’s the most relevant and comparable to what I do in Supercars, so it’s easy to go back and forth between those classes.

If van Gisbergen can shine on his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut, what does the future hold for his racing ambitions on the world stage?

If van Gisbergen can shine on his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut, what does the future hold for his racing ambitions on the world stage?

Photo by: Edge Photographs

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