The deadly combination that elevated 2021's Supercars dominator to new levels

His talent has never been in question, but working hard to refine the small details and glean from record-breaking Triple Eight team-mate Jamie Whincup has made Shane van Gisbergen the ultimate Supercars driver. His team manager explains why, despite the Kiwi's collarbone injury, he never looked like being beaten in 2021

The deadly combination that elevated 2021's Supercars dominator to new levels

It takes a fair bit to surprise Mark Dutton, your typical been there, done that kind of guy. He’s worked at Triple Eight since before it was even Triple Eight. Having engineered Jamie Whincup to five of his seven titles and overseen the other two (as well as two, now, for Shane van Gisbergen) as T8’s team manager, he’s seen it all when it comes to good driving.

But there were moments during the 2021 season when even a seasoned winner like ‘Dutto’ found himself marvelling at van Gisbergen's brilliance.

“The favourite of the year was Bathurst,” he tells Motorsport.com. “When Shane was in the lead but helped J-Dub into second... it was amazing.

“He gave us a bit of a heads-up that was something was coming [over the radio], but he didn’t tell us what. He just said, ‘be ready to react’. And then he told us to give J-Dub a message just before Turn 2 so they could put a move together.

“I don’t know if it went to script exactly, because there was a moment when Jamie was on the outside at the part of the track he shunted last year. So we held our breath for a bit. But when the two of them pulled it off, honestly, [van Gisbergen’s engineer David] Cauchi and I just looked at each other, shook our heads with the biggest smiles, and went, ‘Jeez he’s amazing’.

Amazing sums up van Gisbergen’s entire 2021 campaign. The Bathurst 1000, when he pulled off that remarkable move to help Whincup past eventual winner Chaz Mostert into second place, was actually a relative lowlight. But even then, on a rare day when T8 was solidly beaten for car pace, van Gisbergen kept himself in the hunt for a race win until a tyre failure late in the race. It was a performance typical of 2021-spec van Gisbergen, a driver who looked like he had a God-given right to win almost every race.

Van Gisbergen and co-driver Garth Tander didn't have the pace to live with Chaz Mostert, but remained in the hunt all day

Van Gisbergen and co-driver Garth Tander didn't have the pace to live with Chaz Mostert, but remained in the hunt all day

Photo by: Edge Photographics

That was particularly prevalent early in the season when he was actually winning every race. His winning streak started at the 2020 Bathurst 1000 last October. He then flew home to New Zealand and jumped in his dad Robert’s Mk2 Escort for the City of Auckland Rally. He’d never competed in a rally before. He was a class winner on every stage. The very next day he traded the Escort for an AP4-spec Mitsubishi Mirage and won the Battle of Jack’s Ridge Rally, outright, against a field that included WRC event winner Hayden Paddon.

He kicked off 2021 with a cameo in the New Zealand Grand Prix. His six-foot-something frame isn’t really built for an open-wheeler and, after claiming pole, his fire extinguisher went off right before the formation lap and he was forced to start from pitlane. He drove through the field and won, obviously.

Van Gisbergen returned to Australia and made a perfect start to the Supercars season with two wins from two races at the Mount Panorama 500. But his flawless form on four wheels didn’t transfer to two. Exactly a fortnight before the second round of the Supercars season at Sandown he came off his mountain bike and badly broke his collarbone. He was rushed into surgery and immediately began daily sessions in a hyperbaric chamber, on the advice of fellow broken collarbone sufferer Toby Price. But being fit for Sandown seemed like a long shot.

"The biggest thing that was working for Shane was when we ran deep into a stint and have him fresher tyres at the end. That strategy shouldn’t always make you win, not nearly a much as Shane made it win" Mark Dutton

A few days later, he jumped in a BMW production car at Queensland Raceway and turned a few laps. He told the team he felt fine, which he has since admitted was a lie, and with a few ergonomic changes to his Supercar such as a slightly lower steering column they decided to give Sandown a go.

He qualified 17th for the first race which, in a T8 car, was considered a sign he wasn’t up to it. And the risk of starting that far back, so susceptible to a shunt that could cause further damage to his shoulder, seemed too much. But he took the risk and drove through the field to win. Nobody had ever won a single-driver Supercars race from that far back. It was truly one of the great wins in Supercars history and seemed to leave the rest of the field deflated. If a broken collarbone (and three broken ribs that were only discovered after Sandown), couldn’t stop the bloke, what could?

Van Gisbergen’s Supercars winning streak ended up covering the first six races of the season, ending with second at Tasmania in mid-April. By then he’d also had a win and a second in two GT World Challenge Australia races and become just the second driver in history to claim the Bathurst Triple Crown, when he teamed up with Shane Smollen and Rob Rubis to win the Bathurst 6 Hour.

Van Gisbergen made a habit of winning races at his leisure early in the season, none more impressive than at Sandown

Van Gisbergen made a habit of winning races at his leisure early in the season, none more impressive than at Sandown

Photo by: Edge Photographics

That early winning spree was obviously unsustainable, but even as other drivers snared victories here and there, van Gisbergen’s dominance was clear. And the title was never in doubt. He ended the season with 14 wins and had a second career crown all locked up before heading to the Bathurst 1000 in December.

So why was van Gisbergen so dominant? How was he able to make a field of professional drivers, some of them among the best on the planet, look so out-classed, so often? According to Dutton there was something that van Gisbergen consistently did better than anyone this year, even his record-breaking GOAT of a team-mate Whincup. Run a long first stint and come home strong in single-stop sprint races.

It’s far from a preferred strategy in Supercars as it relies on two very different skillsets – tyre management in the first stint to keep yourself in the right window, and aggressive passing in the second to get by the early stoppers. Get stuck behind someone for even a few corners too long in the second stint and your tyre advantage will be wasted. But van Gisbergen doesn’t get stuck behind people. He nailed both the boring tyre management stuff and the flamboyant passing, all year.

“If you look at just this season alone, the biggest thing that was working for Shane was when we ran deep into a stint and have him fresher tyres at the end,” Dutton explains. “That strategy shouldn’t always make you win, not nearly a much as Shane made it win.

“But because he was dropping so little pace on his old tyres compared to people on new tyres, even before he changed tyres he was still in contention. And then he could just get the job done. We know there are issues with these cars with aero wash and the tyres overheat so quickly if you get stuck behind someone. So it’s simple, you can't afford to get stuck behind someone.

“Simple to say, but difficult to execute. And critical when you’re on that strategy. With Jamie we saw he could still do it this year, but not as effortlessly as Shane. That was the biggest difference.

Shane van Gisbergen, Triple Eight Race Engineering

Shane van Gisbergen, Triple Eight Race Engineering

Photo by: Edge Photographics

“Shane just works so hard. You see him get out of the car and he’s dripping wet, and it’s not because he’s unfit. It’s because he’s working hard. He works hard in the prebriefs, in the debriefs, on the strategy calls before you go into a race. He backs himself to make the tyres last and then comes through and makes the passes.

“And then he’s adjusting anti-roll bars each corner and the brake bias... it’s sheer work rate and capacity. And that’s what the brilliant ones have, the Shanes, the Jamies, the F1 drivers. The amount that they have to be able to comprehend and deal with while going flat-out, that puts them a rung above the rest.”

"He was brilliant, but you could see he wasn’t at his pinnacle. He wasn’t at his peak, there was more to come. That’s what’s spectacular. When you’re that good and you still had room for improvement, that’s amazing" Mark Dutton

After wrapping up the title in Sydney recently, van Gisbergen himself made an interesting point about his 2021 form. He talked about how he, Whincup and Scott McLaughlin had pushed each other to new heights over the past four years. And when McLaughlin left to IndyCar, and Whincup perhaps found himself slightly distracted by his transition from driver to team boss, van Gisbergen was left on his own out front.

Dutton agrees that van Gisbergen has been on a constant path of evolution as a driver over his six-year stint at T8, but reckons it was the Kiwi’s own little touches, such as his off-season filled with rallying and other racing, that elevated him to those heights this year as much as the legacy of the McLaughlin battles.

“We had a relationship with Shane prior to him driving for us when he was driving for Tekno and we were doing technical support,” he says. “We knew how good he was back then, but there was so much room for improvement. And I don't want that to sound like he was lacking. He was brilliant, but you could see he wasn’t at his pinnacle. He wasn’t at his peak, there was more to come. That’s what’s spectacular. When you’re that good and you still had room for improvement, that’s amazing.

“When he joined the team he was learning from Jamie and Craig [Lowndes], with on-track and off-track things. Jamie, for example, is an amazing public speaker. I know that’s nothing to do with driving but it’s part of being the complete package as a driver. And we saw Shane take some of the way Jamie goes about public speaking and adapt it for his own personality. He’s just a sponge.

Van Gisbergen, pictured with engineer David Cauchi, has worked hard to emulate team-mate Whincup

Van Gisbergen, pictured with engineer David Cauchi, has worked hard to emulate team-mate Whincup

Photo by: Mark Horsburgh, Edge Photographics

“Jamie is the best test driver I’ve seen. His feedback, his consistency, when you’re trying to set up a car and run a test day, he still hasn’t been bettered by anyone. Shane included, at this stage. But in the last few years Shane has improved so much in that area and that’s part of the reason he’s got so much stronger.

“And at the end of last year he was over in NZ and he was getting into everything he could to drive. That’s just being sharp, that’s honing your skills. That’s training, that was training for the 2021 season. It shone through, all that extra work he’s done above and beyond what others were doing. It paid dividends.”

Like a parent talking about their children, Dutton refuses to name which out of Whincup and van Gisbergen is/was better at their devastating best: “It’s hard to differentiate Jamie at his peak and Shane at his peak. Shane is definitely up there, you’d put them neck and neck for sure.”

But at the same time Dutton is convinced we haven’t even seen the best of van Gisbergen.

“There’s still more to come from Shane,” he says. “The improvement that we saw from last year to this year, and he was already amazing, was spectacular. And the fact that you can see there’s parts where he can still improve, you think, ‘this guy will be unstoppable if he keeps improving’.

“It’s really special to be part of that.”

Dutton believes there's still more to come from Triple Eight's ace

Dutton believes there's still more to come from Triple Eight's ace

Photo by: Edge Photographics

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