ROBERT van Gisbergen dances around the Holden Barina rally car and leaps into the air so high there’s no way you would believe the bloke’s got a serious back injury.
“F__king awesome,” he shouts into the drizzle.
It’s an emphatic reaction made even more startling because he’d been so low-key just seconds before.
Then he’d been playing down any chance he had of matching his son’s speed in the Barina. His son just happens to be Shane van Gisbergen, the 2016 Australia Supercars Champion and perhaps the best racing car driver going around in Australasia right now.
“It’s pretty close,” Shane had said as the Barina cooled, tinking and tonking, mud and spray camouflaging its signwritten sides.
“Well, you do this for a living so I’m glad I gave you a run for your money,” Robert had responded.
They had just driven the AP4-spec four-wheel drive Barina up and down a driveway on the family property at Manukau south of Auckland, competing against the stopwatch and each other.
It’s a match-race the two of them have staged ever since Shane was old enough to throw a leg over a quad, and it’s been conducted in the past in everything from a front-wheel drive Corolla station wagon to a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo rally car. And in all those years, Shane has never beaten his father. Sure, Robert sets a time and Shane had gone faster, but then Robert has always gone faster again on the same day.
The seeds for today’s match-up were sown at Homebush last December when Shane wrapped up his first Supercars championship, and father and son embraced tearfully after the race.
“My dad is a racer himself,” Shane had explained. “He has been a great influence and he has sacrificed a lot.”
To celebrate the achievement of this shared dream, the first driveway shoot-out between the two of them for five years became the second part of a video shot by Shane’s team, Triple Eight Race Engineering, and sponsor, Red Bull.
Part one took place a few weeks earlier when Robert drove Shane’s Holden Commodore VFII Supercar at Norwell on the Gold Coast.
At Norwell, Shane had set a time and Robert then had a crack. Incredibly, after just 12 laps in the 650 horsepower monster, he got within six tenths of his son’s best effort.
“It was pretty impressive to just jump in a car that took me a few years to master,” says Shane. “Okay, it’s Norwell, it’s a small track, but it’s still pretty awesome. They are not an easy car to drive.
“If he had a proper go, or he was 10 years younger, you’d almost train him up for Bathurst.”
Shane says that with a quiet laugh, but there’s also pride tinging on awe. If there’s a rival Shane van Gisbergen truly respects, it’s his father.
There’s nothing new or rare about fathers and sons who share a passion for motorsport, but there’s something that distinguishes the relationship between Robert and Shane.
A used car wholesaler by trade, Robert loves cars and rallied for years very successfully in New Zealand. He also raced quads, which are a big deal in NZ, and Sprintcars.
Shane was literally born, raised, and completely immersed in petrol-head heaven. From as early as he can remember he was watching his dad race, his dad was helping him, or they were going head-to-head; quads, go-karts, cars, simulators, radio-controlled cars, slot cars. They’ve tested each and all of them and Robert has beaten his son plenty of times.
“I think he is a better natural driver, he picks things up quicker than me. I have to work at it,” says Shane. This from a bloke whose 2016 Bathurst co-driver, Alex Premat, says he has the talent to be a Formula 1 driver… if he wasn’t built like a lumberjack.
Shane started racing a quad when he was six and quarter midgets at Western Springs speedway by the time he was nine. Then it was karts, Formula Vee, Formula Ford, the Toyota Racing Series, and, 10 years ago, Supercars. He was just 17.
“I didn’t know he was going to be driving a Supercar. It didn’t come across my mind at all. We just had fun together,” recalls Robert.
“That’s why I race, because it’s fun and enjoyable,” adds Shane. “Everything I have gone and done, we have gone and done it because we enjoyed it.”
As Shane progressed and his talent became obvious, his father set him challenges. In quad races Shane was so dominant Robert would grid him up facing the wrong way so he would have to turn around and race through the whole field.
“He loved passing and he loves passing. When he was nine-years old in quarter midgets he loved passing cars, just outside and inside, and he learned not to hit them,” recalls Robert. “He’d watch and learn how others behaved, find their weaknesses.”
He still does. Shane’s ability to place his car and make a pass is the best in Supercars.
Robert is more than a petrol-head, he’s a perfectionist. He admits he is wound up far tighter than his son, who inherits a more relaxed demeanour via his mother Karen. The quads and cars Robert prepared for his son to race were always perfectly presented and fast.
After all, winning is clearly part of the fun.
“For me as a so-called car salesman to be able to get a race-winning car set-up, I was rapt,” says Robert. “I just wanted to beat those full-time engineers and race hot-shots. I worked it out myself – I got a bit of help from my mates – but that was my goal.”
Robert’s perfectionist zeal is reflected in the attitudes he has impressed on his son. It’s easy to assume, based on his incredible car control, that Shane can rely on his wits to get him by. Nothing could be further from the truth.
His engineer Grant McPherson, who has also worked with elite Supercars drivers Will Davison, Mark Winterbottom, and Craig Lowndes, says Shane is the best he has engineered in terms of studying the data to get the best out of himself and the car.
“He knows what he wants from the car, and he is pretty good at communicating it,” McPherson said in 2016. “We just have to make sure we can give it to him to his liking.”
The message ‘No mistakes’ is taped on Shane’s fridge at his Gold Coast apartment and in his locker in the race transporter. It is his father’s mantra passed down. That’s exactly what he delivered during his run to the Supercars title.
While his team-mate, Jamie Whincup, the six-time series champion, made a succession of errors, van Gisbergen displayed almost flawless, blazing speed.
But Shane does make mistakes, and he does not cope with them well. When he crashed on oil while leading in Tasmania early in 2016, he refused to talk to waiting journalists post-race. He is, for the media, undoubtedly, one of the most opaque personalities to deal with. No driver loves PR and press work, but Shane can just be contrary. At Bathurst last year a New Zealand TV journalist asked him what it would mean to win the Great Race. “300 points” came the reply.
Robert had parked the spanners by the time Shane made it to Supercars. Their relationship evolved to one of manager, mentor, adviser, and closest confidant. During practice he stands out on the corners, assessing his son’s lines and speeds against his rivals, jotting his thoughts down in a notebook.
In-car cameras have made it clear just how much influence Robert has had over Shane’s driving. Rivals took note when footage first showed Shane dialling the brake balance fore-aft to tackle different corners.
Some drivers already did it, but nowadays every driver in Supercars has to do it.
Shane got the idea from his father.
“I used to always drive the rally car on bias,” Robert explains. “To me each corner has got a different brake attitude and when I was rallying on the fast stuff I’d adjust the bias and when I came to some tight, windy stuff I’d wind it again. I was always trying to maximise what I had in my rally car.”
The arrival of Fox’s multiple cabin cameras curtailed another van Gisbergen trick, driving in socks to improve pedal feel. Robert used to insist that no cameras pointed into the footwell for that very reason.
“I did it for years,” Shane laughs.
The van Gisbergen property cascades down a ridge. A spectacular multi-storey home sits at the highest point, offering views in all directions. Downstairs is a shrine to Shane’s racing, filled with framed photographs and trophies. The rest of the land is paddocks and bush, interlaced with trails that Shane and Robert spent years racing around.
Robert is a Ford fan. A Blue Oval flag flutters outside the house. He rallied Escorts until about five years ago when he broke his back while operating a bobcat on his property. He’s nearly recovered and is building up a Mk2 Escort to go rallying once more. Needless to say, Shane’s success as a Holden driver is a bone of contention.
The driveway starts behind the family home, curls deeply downhill between a bank on one side and pine trees and a drop-off on the other, to a small paddock and stables. It then does a 180 and comes straight back up the same hill to the finish line. It’s maybe 1.5km all up. Robert taught Shane and his mates to drive here, educating them in the gentle art of drifting.
“We used to have the fence just there and we just kept taking it out, so we had to move it back,” explains Shane as we take a slow lap of the course.
“Every Wednesday we used to have race night. On the big nights there would be 30 people here, then there would be a barbecue afterwards. There were some big crashes.”
As the rain has bucketed down, the driveway surface has been churned to the consistency of molasses by practice laps. Kiwi legend Greg Murphy owns the Barina, and he seems, ahem, apprehensive about what’s about to transpire.
Watching Robert and Shane practice is to watch an exercise in egg shells. The car slithers, slips and slides, braps, brays, and growls and hunts for traction. Robert gives a fence a whack, but nothing serious.
Shane’s working it all out. He’s asking Greg about brake bias and the tyres, takes the car for a quick blat up the public road to get a feel for it. Robert is a step behind. He’s never driven a sequential ’box before and is having trouble heeling and toeing the pedals.
This is a cool little device. It’s powered by a 1.8-litre version of the Astra VXR’s turbo engine, produces 260kW/556Nm at the flywheel and sends it to all four wheels through a six-speed Sadev gearbox, with Aussie Supashock suspension.
“The car is brilliant,” enthuses Robert. “The thing is I am used to pulling 9000rpm and this thing here you just pull a gear and it’s a tractor. It just pulls.”
Adds Shane: “It’s so muddy out there yet it sticks brilliantly when you get on the throttle with the four-wheel drive.”
The build-up to the showdown takes ages. Filming and photographing goes on and on. Robert is getting tense. His competitive instinct is huge and there’s a race to be won. Shane is more relaxed, more likely to laugh when the director calls for a steely stare down the barrel.
They interact like a couple of big, boofy mates rather than relations; there’s good-natured digs, a bit of push, and shove, and an obvious sense of rivalry. But Shane defers. His father is top dog, no matter what the result this afternoon.
And then, when it happens, it’s all over in minutes. A warm-up run, then the real thing. Shane goes first with Robert timing. It’s hard to see much once the car leaves the line until it appears through the trees, swivelling around and headed back uphill.
Shane’s 52.1sec practice is the fastest we’ve seen all day. But then when it counts, he slips out of the ruts and records a 52.2.
“The road got slipperier and slipperier,” he reports. “I think my run was alright.”
Then its Robert’s turn. He completes his practice run without fuss. Then he’s off from the flying start.
We listen to the rise and fall of the throttle and then he bursts back in view. Shane looks at the stopwatch and smiles.
Moments later he delivers the news. “You’ve donea 51.9.”
Robert does his dance and his leap. He’s lost the overall challenge by three tenths but he’s elated to have retained his driveway crown.
“I’m pretty proud of that crown,” he smiles. “That was a good day. It was close, very close. Shane had a bit of an off on his money run and went out of the tracks. But he’s been pretty impressive all day.”
And then there’s a pause and a thought. “I won’t win it next time.”
Shane is not sure about that: “Dad is a pretty awesome driver.”
Like father like son.
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