After a solid performance at Sandown, flying Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen has the Bathurst 1000 in his sights, writes Duncan Johnstone.
Shane Van Gisbergen has rediscovered some grunt in his Ford Falcon V8, just when it matters most.
The flying Kiwi heads to Bathurst next weekend with growing confidence.
A win at qualifying at Sandown last weekend that gave him pole position, followed by a fifth place in the 500-kilometre feature race, was just the tonic for the 23-year-old after a comparatively sluggish 2012 campaign in the Aussie Supercars series.
He emerged from Melbourne with 248 points, second only to Craig Lowndes over the weekend.
"The Giz" remains fifth in the driver's championship and off the pace being set by Jamie Whincup, but there's definitely a bit of a swagger back in his step as he eyes the season pinnacle at Bathurst.
"It was good to get some speed back and be competitive again," van Gisbergen said.
"It gives me a lot more confidence heading into Bathurst. Sure, it's only on one race weekend that we were fast, but if we can keep our level of competitiveness, I don't see why we can't get a top five at Bathurst, which would be awesome."
After a standout 2012, in which he gained a breakthrough race win on home soil in Hamilton, and followed it with another win at Hidden Valley in Darwin to end up fourth overall, van Gisbergen made a good start to this season, but then hit a flat patch.
He said his team at Stone Brothers Racing decided to regroup ahead of the endurance races because they were off the pace and holding on to fifth place through "consistency, not speed".
It was a time for a back-to-basics approach, literally.
"We had a bit of a meeting, went through things with the car and ended up taking a few development parts off that we though probably weren't working for us.
"We're back to the style of car we had at the start of the year and we are quite fast again, which is interesting. In fact, I think we are better than what we looked last Sunday. We have got some confidence back."
This will be van Gisbergen's sixth Bathurst and he's out to improve on his sixth placing last year, his best effort on the hilly 1000km race, made up of 161 laps over the 6.21km track. It's a drive that will last about 6 hours and one he will share with Luke Youlden.
But those large figures belie the nature of the race.
"It's not really an endurance so much as just pushing hard the whole day. It's a long sprint race really, but in the last 30 laps everyone steps it up again. It's out of control over those last 30 laps. That's what makes it such a special race. It's really cool.
"The key is to keep the car clean and keep it straight. But the main thing is you have to be in good position for those last 30 laps."
Race rules say Youlden must drive one-third of the race. Van Gisbergen reckons he can get even more out of his mate.
"It's almost 50-50 if the co-driver is up to speed and, knowing Luke, I think he will be. He likes the car pretty similar which is good.
"We'll just be jumping in and going for it."
Van Gisbergen's challenge is to break the monopoly enjoyed by two teams - Triple Eight with Whincup and Lowndes and FPR's Mark Winterbottom and Will Davison.
"They have won every race since last November - 23 races straight or something - so they are super teams if you want to call them that. They are just going amazing. But I'm hoping we can take it to them. We did last week and if we can do that again, I reckon we have got a chance."
Their dominance has seen van Gisbergen put some perspective on his year, which has five meetings left.
"The front four guys are a very long way ahead. If I'm to have any chance I'm going to have to have a lot of luck. But I'm going to keep pushing, I'm not giving up.
"I reckon we could get into the top four or top three if we get a good run. If we can get the car better we could have a shot at it, but it's not going to be easy, because those four have got very fast cars. But at Bathurst, with 300 points on offer in one day, anything can happen."
Next year looms as huge for van Gisbergen. Stone Brothers Racing has made the controversial decision to move away from Ford after 14 years and will race Mercedes.
It will be a new-look championship, with Nissan also involved, looking to break the Ford and Holden stranglehold on Australian motorsport.
Van Gisbergen can't talk about the shift - his focus has to be on completing the year in his current car. But team principal Ross Stone says the young Kiwi's new three-year deal will tie in nicely with the Mercedes deal.
Mercedes-Benz will supply motors and other running gear, plus panels, to Stone Brothers, which will assemble the AMG E-class cars in Australia.
The estimated A$12 million-a-year budget to race the Mercedes will be bankrolled by Erebus Motorsport and its wealthy female owner, Betty Klimenko, who has run Mercedes SLS sports cars in the Australian GT championship.
- Sunday Star Times
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