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Van Gisbergen one to watch in TRS season opener


Fast-rising young Auckland racing driver Shane Van Gisbergen will be the one to watch in the Toyota Racing Series races at the opening round of the 2006/07 Mike Pero Motorsport Series at Pukekohe's Pukekohe Park Raceway this weekend.

The precociously talented 17-year-old from Manukau City cut a swathe through the New Zealand Formula Ford Championship last season and was quickly signed by last year's winning Toyota Racing Series team, International Motorsport, to join defending champion Daniel Gaunt in the country's premier single-seater category.

Though this weekend's meeting will be his first in a genuine 'wings-and-slicks' single-seater, Van Gisbergen's incredible car control skills are expected to have him in the front bunch from the first qualifying session.

Ask the St Kentigern College student and he will tell you that his goals this season are the same as last; win the Rookie of The Year award and - hopefully - garner a place in the top five overall.

However, put the same question to people who have worked with him, and they will tell you that Van Gisbergen is quite possibly one of the most exciting motor racing prospects this country has ever produced.

And that whenever he slips behind the wheel of a racing car lap records and outright wins are always on the cards.

The tall, slim teen certainly knows how to win, having been the first to greet the chequered flag on hundreds of occasions since his competition debut behind the handlebars of a kid's ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) at the tender age of eight.

Over the years he has won Club, Island and/or New Zealand titles on ATVs (or Quads as some people call them), in a Quarter Midget speedway car at Auckland's Western Springs, Karts and now single-seater racing cars.

Though his is by no means a conventional career path for an aspiring racing driver, Van Gisbergen's affinity with loose surfaces has - ironically - given him a real edge on the country's sealed circuits, his ability to keep a car balanced on the absolute limit of traction drawing comparisons with some of the motor racing world's greatest names.

That said, he works as hard on the theoretical side of his 'job,' constantly trying to match his car's chassis set up to the track conditions in order to extract that last hundredth of a second out of it.

And as the man behind the annual SpeedSport Scholarship, magazine editor Grant McDonald points out, the 17-year-old has an extraordinary ability to focus on the job at hand, as well as a strong work ethic.

Modelled on the Shell Scholarship which produced the likes of Greg Murphy, the SpeedSport Scholarship offers aspiring young racing drivers the opportunity to earn a fully-supported drive with the Sabre Motorsport team in the New Zealand Formula First championship.

Van Gisbergen was a popular winner of the Scholarship in 2004, and - so far anyway - has been the most successful recipient, finishing third overall and winning the Rookie of The Year award.

Usually a driver will 'learn the ropes' in his first year then return, with support from a 'Friends of the Scholarship' fund, for a second year.

But having seen how quickly Van Gisbergen adapted to the entry level Formula First single seater, Grant McDonald encouraged the youngster to head straight to the next 'rung on the ladder,' Formula Ford.

There the story was repeated, with a surprise early season victory at the annual Formula Ford Festival meeting at Christchurch's Powerbuilt International Raceway at Ruapuna Park, and a runaway championship victory kicked off by an historic clean-sweep (pole and wins in all three races) at the first round.

In fact, such was his utter domination of the 2005/06 New Zealand Formula Ford championship that he ended up one of the most decorated drivers in the history of the series, winning the Steel Trophy (for a second year in a row) for the best performance by an under 21-year-old, a MotorSport NZ President's Scholarship, and the Auckland Car Club's Denny Hulme Trophy.

Since then he has also won the Best Young Driver award at the 2006 New Zealand Automotive Industry Awards ceremony in Auckland.

It is the 2006/07 Toyota Racing Series he is now focused on however, the locally-conceived 'wings-and-slicks' category for 1.8 litre Toyota-engined single-seater racing cars now New Zealand's premier single-seater class.

The key to the immediate success of the Toyota New Zealand and Toyota dealer network-backed series is that it provides local drivers with an important stepping stone between the junior single-seater formulas like Formula First and Formula Ford, and internationally recognised 'step-on-the-ladder' categories like Formula Renault and Formula 3 in Europe, and Formula Atlantic and the Indy Pro Series in the United States.

Returning to defend his 2005/06 title, and therefore pre-season favourite is Van Gisbergen's International Motorsport teammate Daniel Gaunt with competition expected to come from a number of quarters.

Locally, both Ben Harford from Wellington and Andy Knight from Christchurch are expected to be on Gaunt's pace, as are series 'young guns' Van Gisbergen and his 2006/07 new Zealand Formula Ford Championship sparring partner, Earl Bamber.

The series has also attracted several drivers from overseas, including Australian-domiciled Englishman Ben Clucas, last season's New Zealand Grand Prix winner Hamad Al Farden from Bahrain, and Michael Johnson from the United States.

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