Mark Skaife had all but ruled Shane van Gisbergen out.
“There is no way that he can race this weekend,” Skaife remarked to fellow commentator Neil Crompton as they stood at the end of pit lane at Sandown, analysing the Triple Eight star’s condition.
It was the countdown to Saturday morning practice at the second round of the Supercars championship at a drizzly Sandown Raceway in March this year.
Just two weeks earlier van Gisbergen had undergone surgery to have a plate and nine screws inserted into his shattered collarbone after a mountain biking accident.
He damaged the AC joint, tore ligaments and also suffered broken ribs in the biking mishap.
After back-to-back wins in the season-opening Bathurst 500, it was an accident which had threatened to put the brakes on van Gisbergen’s championship charge almost as soon as it had started.
Had the New Zealand racer been forced to miss the Sandown round, it could have put a severe dent in the championship favourite’s 2021 title hopes, or even worse, brought them undone.
But van Gisbergen wasn’t copping that.
He had just two weeks to get himself ready to race – and potentially save his season.
Pushing through the pain after surgery, van Gisbergen visited a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to promote healing and sought advice from Dakar Rally star Toby Price and motocross racer Chad Reed – both with plenty of experience with brutal racing injuries – about his recovery.
Defying most people’s expectations – including Skaife’s – van Gisbergen not only made it to the starting grid at Sandown, he produced a masterful performance to claim a clean sweep with wins in all three sprint races to extend his lead in the championship.
“Not only did he race but he came out and beat them all,” Supercars great Skaife said.
“That was just extraordinary.”
Triple Eight team boss Roland Dane saw the work that had gone into getting a banged-up van Gisbergen on track for the second round but even he was blown away by the scale of his Sandown heroics.
“It shows how dedicated he was when he made a mistake and injured himself in the course of being out exercising,” Dane said.
“Then he worked very smartly with the team and the medical people around him to ensure that he was maximising the opportunity to get back in the car.
“He did a great job at Sandown, which was unexpected by him as well as everyone else.”
After producing one of the great injury comebacks, van Gisbergen didn’t stop there.
The 2016 Supercars champion claimed victory in the first race at Symmons Plains in Launceston the next round to extend his unbeaten streak to six races and equal the most successful start to a Supercars season in history alongside Skaife (1994) and Allan Moffat (1977).
“It probably would have to be rated as one of the most dominant performances to commence the season that we have ever seen,” Skaife said.
“I think everybody predicted that he was going to come out very strong but no one would have predicted the level of dominance that he would have displayed.
“I suppose in context, especially around his mountain biking accident and to have a broken collarbone and three broken ribs and to do what he did was just extraordinary.
“It would have to be rated as one of the best starts to a season in history.”
Van Gisbergen’s teammate – seven-time Supercars champion and soon-to-be team boss Jamie Whincup – brought his undefeated charge to an end in the second race in Tasmania.
Since then, van Gisbergen has claimed another five race wins to build a 276-point lead in the championship over Whincup.
In all, the defending Bathurst 1000 champion has won 11 of the 19 races staged this year before Covid forced Supercars into a three-month mid-season hiatus.
Skaife said van Gisbergen was better now than when he won his maiden title in 2016 and his form matched any of the sport’s greats at the height of their careers.
“I think his raw speed has always been there,” Skaife said.
“But as you get a little bit older and you’ve done more miles and you’ve seen more things and you experience more racing circumstances – what van Gisbergen is putting together now is absolutely the best that he has ever put on and arguably as good as any of the dominant players throughout the course of Supercars or Australian Touring Car Championship history.”
Dane agreed 32-year-old van Gisbergen was at the peak of his racing powers.
“He is certainly in the sweet spot and it could be a sweet spot that goes on for a long time. I certainly hope so,” Dane said.
“He has got the right combination of experience and speed and he is still hungry.
“He is probably fitter than he has ever been and those things combine to have him in a really good space at the moment.
“His life is uncluttered and all he wants to do is drive race cars and win races.”
THE BURNING QUESTION
As brilliant as van Gisbergen’s performances have been, one question has lingered in the background – would he have been as dominant if Scott McLaughlin were still here?
McLaughlin, of course, is the triple Supercars champion turned IndyCar rookie of the year, who moved to the United States at the end of last year after sweeping all before him in V8s.
It’s a question Skaife has mulled over plenty but it was ultimately the sport’s loss to miss out on a van Gisbergen v McLaughlin battle this year.
“That’s one that we just don’t know. I have thought about it a lot,” Skaife said.
“I actually think at the end of last year that the Shell V Power Mustangs weren’t really as good as Scott made them look.
“So even at Bathurst if you think about his (McLaughlin’s) raw pace compared to Shane or with Cam Waters, at the end of the race last year, they just weren’t fast enough.
“I suppose when you pose that question of what would it have played out like, it’s an enthralling question. But I’m sorry, we’re not going to get to answer it.
“We are being robbed of seeing a McLaughlin and van Gisbergen battle.”
Van Gisbergen was runner-up to McLaughlin in 2018 and 2019 and third behind McLaughlin and Waters in last year’s championship fight.
Dane predicted the battle would have been tight between the two Kiwi aces.
“Certainly the performance of the DJR cars would be closer to us,” Dane said.
“I think he (van Gisbergen) would still be winning plenty of races and Scotty MC would be in the mix as well, they would be racing hard against each other.
“Scotty was a force to be reckoned with undoubtedly, so he would have been in the mix as well, that’s all you can say with any certainty.”
For his part, watching from across the Pacific, McLaughlin said van Gisbergen was in “a league of his own right now”.
“It will be interesting to see how everyone comes back from the break,” McLaughlin said.
“But if things stay the same in terms of pace and where everyone is at, I think there will be no stopping Shane as I think Jamie has already checked out.”
Van Gisbergen quietly extended his contract with Triple Eight until the end of 2023 last summer, which in some ways speaks to his personality.
You won’t see or hear a lot of self-promotion from the media-shy van Gisbergen, who has never coveted the celebrity side of the sport. He just wants to race cars.
“He recognises that some of the interactions outside of the team, outside of the car are a necessary part of the job – but it’s not his favourite part,” Dane said.
“Some drivers are very happy to be all over TV or all over the media or whatever, whether it’s in Supercars or any other motorsport formula.
“But others prefer to adopt a low profile out of the car and Shane is one of them. He is still very engaged with the team and always has been.
“He is naturally a bit shy and doesn’t come out of his shell always if he is not completely comfortable.”
Whincup’s impending retirement from full-time driving will place even more spotlight on van Gisbergen as the team’s frontman at Triple Eight, which has signed teenager Broc Feeney to replace the seven-time champion.
But Skaife doesn’t expect van Gisbergen’s on-track powers to diminish anytime soon.
“I think that’s a spooky prospect for everybody because when you think about how well he is going, I can’t see him dropping off at the moment,” Skaife said.
“It will only be his own motivation.
“Gen 3 will come along and I actually think with reduced downforce and some of the things that we are talking about with Gen 3 that he will probably go better versus the field.
“When you are driving as well as you are at that point of your career, it’s going to take a very organised team with some really good drivers to go and take it to him.”