Shane van Gisbergen turned 30 last week, and he’s come a long way since making his Supercars debut as an 18-year-old.
The 2016 champion and winner of 32 races burst onto the scene at Oran Park in August 2007, his first foray into racing in Australia.
Through New Zealand legend Kenny Smith, van Gisbergen was introduced to Ross and Jim Stone the previous year, while working his way through the ranks.
In NZ, he tackled Formula First, Formula Ford and the Toyota Racing Series over successive summers from 2004/05, finishing those campaigns third, first and second respectively.
Less than three years after making his Formula First debut, he was at Oran Park racing a Supercar, sharing a row of the grid with John Bowe.
That Stone Brothers link paved the way for his chance with Team Kiwi Racing, which signed on as an SBR customer in mid-2007.
Van Gisbergen’s debut was actually Team Kiwi’s return, after a tumultuous start to the season.
It had switched from Commodores to Falcons for 2007 and established a tie-up with Ford Performance Racing, as Paul Radisich recovered from injuries sustained at Bathurst the previous October.
The 2006 Super2 champion, Adam Macrow made what was ultimately his only solo Supercars start in Adelaide, before Radisich returned at Barbagallo Raceway.
After the fourth round, though, Team Kiwi split with Radisich and FPR.
It missed the next three events then inked its SBR alliance in July, to return at Oran Park with van Gisbergen, who had undertaken a handful of Supercars tests.
“This is a dream come true for me,” he said at the time of getting the drive.
“I know I still have a lot to learn both on and off the race track but that is the challenge ahead for me and I look forward to repaying everyone who has shown faith in providing me with this opportunity.”
It was an opportunity van Gisbergen did not waste.
He finished Friday practice at Oran Park 15th in the 31-car field, which he later admitted was largely down to using new tyres.
Still, beating the likes of Craig Lowndes, Mark Winterbottom and SBR’s Russell Ingall turned plenty of heads elsewhere in pitlane.
“It’s changed the way team owners will look to find their drivers from here on,” one unnamed team owner told Motorsport eNews.
“It doesn’t matter how his weekend goes from here, to slot straight in and come up midfield on Day 1 is impressive.
“I reckon a few of our more senior drivers ought to be concerned…
“Some of those guys will spend all afternoon gazing at a laptop trying to get the squiggly lines right when, frankly, it’s still as much to do with what’s between the ears and how big the balls are as anything.”
He ultimately qualified 29th on Saturday, and finished the opening race in 20th place.
On Sunday, the Sydney skies opened, and van Gisbergen shone, along with first-time race winner Lee Holdsworth at Garry Rogers Motorsport.
Van Gisbergen cut his way through to finish Race 2 in 13th place, setting the fifth-fastest lap, before taking 23rd in the chaotic finale.
“I didn’t know what to think [when it rained],” he told eNews.
“I’ve always liked the rain but I’ve never driven a saloon car in the wet.
“It took a while to get there and I was little slow at the start of the first race, but I figured it out and I started to fly.
“I like it out there,” the teenager added.
“I just seem to struggle a bit on new tyres in qualifying, so we’ll work on that.
“The car’s different to how a single seater would react with new tyres.”
With that, van Gisbergen was on his way in Supercars.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a much better debut,” Team Kiwi owner David John, above with van Gisbergen said.
“The guy’s got plenty of talent, he works well with the team and he’s very level-headed.
“I think he’s capable of putting the car in the top 10 before the end of the season.”
Van Gisbergen didn’t quite manage that, recording a best finish of 12th on the Gold Coast, but he had slotted seamlessly into the competitive midfield.
In the 2007 season, points were only paid down to 15th place, and van Gisbergen finished the campaign with seven points-scoring finishes from 17 starts.
Ingall left SBR at the end of the year, and in van Gisbergen, the team had a ready-made replacement…