A resurfaced track that’s begging to be attacked, two night races under lights … it’s no wonder SVG is itching to get to Perth.
By Matthew Clayton on redbull.com
Shane van Gisbergen isn’t about to throw a pity party. OK, the start of the Supercars season didn’t go the way he or the Red Bull Holden Racing Team hoped, and the most recent event at Phillip Island went … well, let’s just leave that here. But the 2016 series champ can take some solace that he’s the only Holden driver to tame the Ford Mustang so far this year by winning Race 8 of the season at Symmons Plains in Tasmania earlier this month, and as SVG sees it, adversity has a way of showing what people and teams are made of under the white-hot spotlight of professional sport. So far, he says, so good.
“I’ve been here four years now and it’s not like this is the first time things haven’t gone exactly how we want them,” he reasons.
“It happens in sport all the time, doesn’t it? It’s been challenging, but the atmosphere at the workshop has been pretty positive. Everyone’s working hard and digging in, and nobody is feeling sorry for themselves. I can’t fault how the guys are working together on car 97 even if we haven’t got the results we want, so far anyway.”
Those results, so far, see Van Gisbergen sit fourth in the championship 10 races into the 32-race 2019 season, with that Tasmanian triumph from pole one of his four podium finishes to date. Not bad, but not great when series leader and defending Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin has won seven races already to scoot to a serious lead in this year’s title chase, a full 256 points ahead of compatriot SVG in fourth.
When we caught up with SVG, it was just 24 hours after Supercars had issued an edict that the Mustangs must undergo a series of aerodynamic changes ahead of the next event at Barbagallo Raceway in Perth (May 2-4). Which gave the RBHRT pilot cause for pause when we asked him to assess the relative pace of the two machines.
“Where we are, where the opposition is … that’s quite a sensitive subject at the moment …,” he says, voice trailing off.
“For me, the approach I’ve taken is to concentrate on my own car, what I do and to help make it as good as I possibly can. Make the most out of every race that I can. If I’m not in position to win, which has been the case for quite a few races, get the best out of it, whatever that best is.
“We had a good opportunity in Tassie at a track that doesn’t have many corners, and getting the most out of that meant we got a win that day, so that’s the approach.
“I’m trying to focus more on myself as a driver and not all of the other stuff that’s going on. Things I don’t have an influence over or an understanding of, then that gets in the way of me doing my job as good as I can if I’m thinking about that as well as the driving side. Why are they (Team Penske) so fast? Is it the aero? Is it something else? I don’t know, and it’s not my job to know about that. Sure, it’s been tough and nobody’s crying for us, so I focus on what I can do and make the best of it.”
“Best” wasn’t a word SVG or anyone at Triple Eight was uttering after Phillip Island, with the sweeping aerodynamically-dependent layout shaping as the team’s most challenging track of the year, especially after pre-season testing there threw up more questions than answers in February. SVG scrounged two grid slots at the back-end of the top 10 for the two races, finished sixth and seventh respectively, and looked to move on quickly, returning to his Aussie base on the Gold Coast for the first time in seven weeks to recharge over Easter.
“It was about as tough as we thought it would be,” he says of Phillip Island.
“We had a really tough test day there at the start of the year, and when we first put the car on track, it felt pretty similar to the test – it wasn’t very good. We tuned it up quite nicely through the first two practices and the car felt pretty good all weekend. It was nice to drive and easy to drive, but just not fast enough.
“I didn’t help myself by starting badly in both races, which is exactly what you don’t want when you’re giving away speed like we were. My starts have got a lot better in the last year or so with some style changes and a different approach, but I muffed both of them and that didn’t make our lives easier.”
Looking ahead to the next round in Perth wouldn’t normally get SVG that excited, given it’s one of the very few circuits he’s not mastered across his Supercars career. A pole here and a podium there is as good as things have got, but a significant change to the track and the format of the race weekend has him feeling optimistic something could switch in a week’s time in the west.
The inaugural Perth SuperNight event will see a 50-lap race on Friday night preceding an 83-lapper on Saturday night, with the tricky Barbagallo layout coming to life under lights to make for a challenge for the drivers, not to mention a spectacle for the fans. It’s not the only change for this year; the 2.4km circuit has been recently resurfaced for the first time in 15 years, which SVG says should better suit his signature style.
“Barbagallo is a hard place to figure out, and it’s probably been one of the worst tracks for me on the calendar,” he muses.
“I’m someone who wants to attack and really drive the car, and in the past it has been so low grip that I can’t feel the car, it just feels off. I got pole there last year so I know I can get a lap time out there, but this year I’m expecting to be completely different with the track surface being re-sealed and the night racing, so maybe that’s good for me.
“The track could be three to four seconds faster and super grippy, maybe even faster than that because we’ll be racing at night, and hopefully more a track where you can drive flat-out. Driving at 30 per cent in races in the past just to save tyres … the racing was good, but it was boring to drive because you couldn’t push at all and just drive to a number (lap time) to save tyres. Not my thing!
“As a concept I really like the idea of night racing, it’s cool for the sport to do something different. Two short and sharp races, a couple of pit stops, we can attack … I’m expecting it to be really good for us to drive and for the fans to get into it.”