As this writer stood by the Silverstone pitlane entry ahead of the final sequence of pitstops at last weekend’s Blancpain Endurance Series meeting, one car in particular caught the eye. The orange and black no. 58 McLaren of Shane Van Gisbergen had enjoyed a comfortable lead hovering around the 40-second mark, but you would never have guessed from the way he attacked the braking zone, fully committed and visibly closing on the Am Cup Ferrari ahead. Even with his job done and Kevin Estre about to take over, Van Gisbergen was taking no prisoners.
With 60 cars all competing for space on track, finding a clear lap in traffic and settling into a rhythm would prove difficult for everyone, but it was the New Zealander who arguably had the most difficult job of all. Although he admitted to being more comfortable with the new McLaren 650S than he had been at Monza – incidentally, the first time he had driven it had been in Friday practice – this was still Van Gisbergen’s first ever visit to Silverstone, which makes his mammoth 1hr10 stint all the more impressive.
After taking over from Rob Bell ahead of schedule during a Full-Course-Yellow, the Kiwi had to sacrifice straight-line speed to save fuel and manage his tyres, all while still maintaining the gap to the second-placed Audi of Robin Frijns. Strategy may have played a decisive role in putting him into the lead, but Van Gisbergen still had a job to perform, and did so expertly, giving European audiences a glimpse of the ability which first compelled McLaren GT Director Andrew Kirkaldy to involve him in the team’s works programme.
Van Gisbergen is by no means a raw, undiscovered talent, but one of the established stars of the show in Australia’s premier V8 Supercar Series, who has been around a lot longer than his 26 years would suggest; he practically pushed Jamie Whincup around the Gold Coast in a madcap finish to the 2010 race, before breaking his duck on home turf at Hamilton a year later. After impressing at the 2013 Bathurst 12 Hour in Tony Quinn’s McLaren MP4 12C – battling for the lead with none other than GT racing royalty Bernd Schneider – Van Gisbergen won first time out for Jonathan Webb’s one-car Tekno Autosports outfit at the Clipsal 500 in Adelaide.
It was to prove the start of a fruitful partnership; overcoming the bitter disappointment of losing a shot at converting pole position to victory at Bathurst with a starter motor failure at his final pitstop – “there are ten guys who almost won Bathurst every year; that’s just the way that race is, but that was the first time I’ve been in a position to get a result there, so it’s a bit of a shame that something silly let us down” – Van Gisbergen’s terrific form in the second half of last season propelled him into surprise contention for second in points.
Ending a barren stretch going back to Pukekohe in April, two wins at Sydney Motorsports Park, followed up on the streets of Surfers Paradise and Homebush proved enough to usurp Ford Performance Racing’s Mark Winterbottom and Red Bull Racing Australia’s Craig Lowndes at the final round, in the process earning himself a call-up to partner Lowndes and runaway champion Jamie Whincup in an expanded three-car team from 2016.
“ was really good,” Van Gisbergen recalled, before Pre-Qualifying. “We worked hard all year and although we really struggled in the middle, for the last five or six rounds we had a pretty good car there. We were a long way off Jamie, but all the same, second was really awesome. We were pretty stoked about that.”
Conscious that he is still contracted with Tekno Autosports, Van Gisbergen is understandably retiscent to wax lyrical about his future employers – “I think I’ve been around long enough to slot straight in and be alright” is about all he will divulge – although there is an implicit understanding that the switch may force him to cut down on his European commitments.
“The good thing about where I am now is the freedom to go and race other cars,” he says. “I started in 2013 with Tony Quinn, who invited me to race his Porsche at Bathurst and it went really well, then I did it again the next year when he changed to the McLaren and Andrew Kirkaldy came to race with us. It went well each time and I’ve always enjoyed racing other things, so Andrew said to come and do Spa last year and then this year as well.
“It’s a completely different way of going racing; its not just about you, so you’re not selfish I suppose. Every track we go to until Spa will be new for me, so it’s about learning as much as I can and trying to be a sponge with all the information. It’s a completely new experience and to be able to experience different things makes me better as a driver.”
Owing to their busy schedule with 14 races per year, it is rare to see the V8 contingent diverge overseas, but it does happen on occasion. BJR’s Jason Bright appeared at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2013, while Van Gisbergen was joined at last year’s Spa 24 Hours by Lowndes – who finished on the podium in the Pro-Am class – Australian GT champion Richard Muscat in an Erebus/ Black Falcon Mercedes and three-time Bathurst 1000 winner Steven Richards in the Lago Racing Lamborghini.
“They see it’s possible to go and do things, you don’t just have to be a V8 driver,” Van Gisbergen says. “V8s is a full time job and it’s a bloody tough series, but some of them are good enough to come over here and race for sure.”
But quite apart from improving himself as a driver, for Van Gisbergen the McLaren programme provides a welcome release from the pressure cooker environment of the V8 paddock, literally a world away.
“In V8s we race a lot, but there’s still a lot of downtime, and I always find if I’m driving different stuff you’re learning different ways of doing things. It keeps your eyes open,” he says. “Last week [at Winton] we had a shit weekend and you leave the track angry, but you know you have a race the next weekend and its always exciting going and doing something different. If you have a bad week and then don’t race for four weeks until the next one you dwell on it, but you go away with different people, different team and you’re refreshed when you go back to Australia, you want to get into it, fix the car and be better for the next one.”
In that case, victory at Silverstone will have gone down a treat.