Lone Wolf: into the mind of Supercars champ Shane van Gisbergen
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People like to show you photos of all sorts of things you're not interested in - kids, houses, holidays, cars - but it's a rare and telling moment when someone takes out their phone, as Shane van Gisbergen did recently, to show off a picture of a gravel road.
What do you say in that situation? "Fantastic grade!"? "So rare to see gravel so grey!"? No, there is nothing. You can only silently admire and reflect on the single-minded dedication of purpose that leads a person to such an appreciation for a flat surface coated with stones and dust.
Beyond the road, the photo showed a bucolic scene, a semi-rural idyll. The road itself looked in good shape. It really was a good grade.
"Doesn't look like that anymore," van Gisbergen said proudly, the implication being that, subsequent to the photo, he had completely destroyed it with the sort of on-the-limit driving with which he made his name after starting in the Supercars Championship as an 18-year-old in 2007 and continues to exhibit to this day.
In 2012, the motorsport writer for Sydney's Daily Telegraph described him as "the Kiwi wild child" and his driving style as "bash and barge". Jamie Whincup, the competition's most successful ever driver, with six titles, said of him in the same year, "He's always loose as hell out there," before adding, "which I think is good."
After an on-track incident in 2011, veteran driver Paul Dumbrell described him as an "oxygen thief". In 2015, then-championship contender David Reynolds said, "He's dead to me, bro, dead to me," after van Gisbergen spun him out on track.
Van Gisbergen, now 28, told the Daily Telegraph in 2012 that his style would never change. "I think that is just how we drive here in New Zealand," he said. "We just go for it. That is how I grew up racing. There is no point sitting behind someone. If you are faster than them, well, you have to get past them."
This was all prior to 2016, when he became the first New Zealander since "Gentleman" Jim Richards in 1991 to win Australasia's most prestigious motorsport competition, the Supercars Championship.
Van Gisbergen's introduction to Supercars came with a handful of races as a just-turned-18-year-old at the end of the 2007 season. By 2009, he felt like he was "almost cracking it" and a year later he broke through with a string of podium finishes and a sixth place finish in the championship. Suddenly, he was the sport's hot young talent.
Since that year, he's never finished lower than sixth. He's had another sixth, a fifth, two fourths and a second, to go with last year's win.
Just before that historic win, Richards told the Herald he thought his soon-to-be-successor had matured as a driver since his early years, singling out two races earlier in the season where van Gisbergen had settled for second, instead of pushing for a win.
"To be honest, I was a bit critical of some of the things he used to do a few years ago," Richards said. "I think a couple of years ago he wouldn't have been in this situation because he could sometimes beat himself."
This "maturity" narrative has appeared several times throughout van Gisbergen's Supercars career. It appeared in 2011, after his first race win, which was the same year Dumbrell called him an "oxygen thief" and a year prior to van Gisbergen himself saying his style would never change.
If maturity means greater caution, it's a debatable claim. It was a loaded question, then, when I asked van Gisbergen if he would always follow team orders and - for example - not push to overtake somebody if the team deemed it inappropriate.
"Of course," he said.
The final weekend of the 2016 championship season took place in Sydney. Van Gisbergen was so far ahead of second placed Whincup that it would have taken a disaster for him not to clinch the championship over the weekend's two races. In the worst scenario - Whincup winning both - he just needed to finish in the top five.
In the first race: disaster.
"I just started the race nervous - I'd never been in the hunt for a championship before - which is weird because nothing normally fazes me like that, and I just drove cautiously and people hit me out of the way, and normally I'd just get them straight back and keep racing elbows out. But I was just timid, knowing I only had to finish fifth."
In the early laps, he was bumped back to sixth, then was given a penalty that dropped him back to 22nd, while Whincup led. Midway through the race, it appeared the championship would come down to the following day's final race.
But here comes van Gisbergen! Charging back through the field! Helped by a late safety car bringing all the cars back together! Suddenly with a few sharp passes, he's back into fifth and the championship is his, so long as he doesn't do anything stupid!
Then he passes fellow Kiwi Scott McLaughlin - Scotty - to go into fourth! His engineer, Grant McPherson - Shippy - comes over the radio, saying, "You're there, that's all you need to do."
It was the last lap. James Courtney was ahead of him in third and Scotty behind him in fifth. He undertook what he describes as a risk analysis and decided to ignore Shippy.
As risk analyses go, it seemed bad. Even if Scotty passed him on that last lap, it was almost certain nobody else would. He was guaranteed the championship if he maintained fourth or fifth, but who knew what was going to happen if he tried for third?
Then again, Scotty was attacking from behind, Courtney was going slow in front, and van Gisbergen had in his head his cautious driving from the start of the race: "Normally I never drive like that, ever," he said. "It was just silly."
He passed Courtney for third and celebrated his first championship win from the public glory of the podium, rather than the anonymity of the team garage.
This year, including van Gisbergen, there are three New Zealanders competing in the Supercars Championship and, halfway through the season, he's the worst-placed of them, in fourth.
Ahead of him, in third, is Fabian Coulthard, and leading the championship is Scott McLaughlin, an ebullient and loveably childlike figure from Hamilton, who achieved instant immortality in 2014 as a 20-year-old, with a fantastic bit of racing to win a last-lap battle with reigning champ Whincup, one of the greatest V8 drivers of all time, and then followed that up with one of the greatest ever post-race interviews.
Going into the last lap of the second race of the season, at Adelaide, the young, inexperienced McLaughlin was in a surprise second place ahead of Whincup, but Whincup was all over him, the front of his car literally under McLaughlin's rear.
McLaughlin held his nerve with a near-flawless display deep into the last lap until Whincup brilliantly passed him two bends from the end, almost forcing him into the wall. Pretty much everybody assumed that was that, including the television director, who cut to Craig Lowndes crossing the line in first at the exact moment McLaughlin was pulling back out of Whincup's slipstream, hitting the racing line, apexing the final corner and hammering home past Whincup for second.
The crowd went wild, then wilder when McLaughlin - during the subsequent live on-track interview in which he was unable to stop smiling - explained the incredible pass to tens of thousands at the track and millions more viewers of live and online video content: "I just plucked her in first, gave her some jandal and - f*** yeah!"
He immediately grabbed at his mouth in shock, then said sorry five times, including once "to all the little kids out there", his charming, boyish smile radiating both abashed contrition at the naughty word he'd said and unabashed joy at the importance of what he'd just achieved.
Every self-respecting petrolhead parent in New Zealand at that moment hoped this delightful boy might cruise up their driveway in his V8 Volvo one Saturday night to take their daughter out to the street races in East Tamaki. In the space of just a few minutes, McLaughlin had become a star.
This was a year after van Gisbergen, once the young great hope of New Zealand motorsport, had become a sort of pariah, after announcing his retirement from Supercars, following a disagreement with his team, Stone Brothers Racing, then immediately returned from retirement at the start of the next season, with a new team.
His Supercars competitors, who just a few months before had signed a car bonnet as a farewell gift, eventually made all the right noises about forgiving him, but it's hard to say whether their noises matched their thoughts, and, regardless, the fans weren't all so diplomatic.
He got into a long legal fight with his former team that eventually ended in an out-of-court settlement. The rift with team co-owner Ross Stone was healed only this year.
Asked now if being liked is something he wants, van Gisbergen says, "I guess so. You don't want to be disliked. Some people are obviously more open, like Scotty's really good, and [teammate] Craig Lowndes, but for me, I try and win them over just with racing, cause obviously they're pretty outgoing people, whereas I'm not."
The gravel road in the photograph that van Gisbergen had been so keen to show off was a 1.5km stretch on his parents' 16ha property at Manukau, where he grew up driving things as fast as possible, alongside his dad.
In his heyday, Robert van Gisbergen - Cheese - competed in several high-profile rally events around New Zealand, even winning a few. He was known as a quality driver, but was never quite able to crack the big time.
"I had no one to teach me. My mum and dad were passionate about what I did but they had no experience in motor racing and I struggled a little bit."
The thrill of the race, though, was never a problem for Cheese. He recalls discovering a car racing game in a video parlour on his first trip to Hawaii with his wife, Shane's mother, Karen: "It just really excited me," he says. "I thought, 'This is the best video game I've ever played in a parlour.'"
He started a battle with another man. "I just had to beat this guy," he says. "I sat there for a week while we were in Hawaii and I beat this guy and of course I come back the next day and this guy comes back and beat me and I never got to meet who this guy was, but we just kept going backwards and forwards."
In other words, van Gisbergen was born to it: "He used to race around the bloody house in his baby walker," Cheese says. "Even the bloody potty. He was sliding around the kitchen in that thing. He had to slide the thing."
He started out racing quad bikes on Cheese and Karen's farm and he also had a replica McLaren go-kart his father had helped build for him. "He used to roar around the house and on the gravel road with that thing," Cheese says. "But we had a stop watch. Everything involved a stop watch. From day one."
Cheese tells a story about his son's first time racing in the Bathurst 1000, aka "The Great Race", the motor racing version of the Melbourne Cup, a race that every kid who grows up knowing the meaning of V8 thrills to.
Van Gisbergen had just turned 18, young to be taking part in the race, one that he had dreamed about since childhood. It was not only his first time competing there, but the first time he'd ever been to the track, one of the most legendarily brutal in world motorsport.
With something like reverence, or maybe awe, Cheese says: "He slept in, mate! Now, mate, that's unheard of. It's not like he couldn't sleep at all, he just slept in! Now, look, you tell anyone that story. You just wouldn't believe it. No one would believe you."
Cheese, an accountant by trade, says he's the stressful one in the family, the one who makes sure all the details are being taken care of. His son's ability to relax to the point of sleeping in for the biggest day in his life - that doesn't come from Cheese.
As manager, mentor, adviser and mate, Cheese has been a massive influence in his son's career, raising finance, building a team, and making sure that everything that's needed to be a professional racer is taken care of. It's hard to overstate how hands-on he has been.
"I don't know if I'm spoiling him or not," Cheese says. "I look at it, like, I try and make his job as easy as possible. He's got to drive the car and I sort out the rest."
When van Gisbergen's asked if he's ever worked on his mental game with a psychologist or anyone like that, he says, "Nah. They just say stupid shit. I did for one bit. It was recommended when the stuff was happening in 2012, but it just mucks with your brain. You're better off to just do it yourself. Keep it simple and have fun."
Racing is all he's ever wanted to do, he says. He's raced quad bikes, go-karts, midgets, drift cars, GT cars, and has won multiple national champion racing remote control cars. In his home on the Gold Coast, he's got a racing simulator, something like you'd see in an arcade, but very much more sophisticated. He often races online with his dad, who also has a simulator at the family home.
Cheese says: "He's got no serious lady at the moment and I don't think he will for a while, either. Hard to find a lady that will live with a man that, you know, he'd rather go and race on his simulator than go out to dinner."
In an interview with the Herald's Dale Budge last year, Shane said, "Outside of racing I prepare for the next race. Racing is really all I think about."
Success takes a certain skill and comical level of dedication, but also possibly at least one person behind you who is willing and able to dedicate their life to making sure that your skill and dedication pay off in a way that maybe they didn't quite for them.
Of his own racing career, Cheese says: "I'm happy with what I did and there's no point banging yourself over the head for what you did wrong. It's not what you did wrong - it's what you didn't know. I wasn't trained. I was a first generation racer, I suppose you could say."