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2016: The year of #97

The 2016 Supercars season may be run, won and done, but it’s still all systems go here at Red Bull Racing Australia HQ.

As the crew disappears for hours at a time to debrief, prebrief and whatever-else-brief, it feels as though we’re mid-year and prepping for the enduros. But for the guy who masterminded the #97 Holden’s championship victory, sights are firmly set on the ensuing Christmas break.

during the Castrol EDGE Townsville 400, in Townsville, Australia, July 08, 2016.

“It’s in the process of sinking in,” says Grant “Shippy” McPherson of the year that was. “The Sunday night celebrations and Monday night gala went a long way to making the effort sink in, but I think over the break I probably will almost try to switch off from work and racing for a few weeks and just recharge the batteries.”

Shane van Gisbergen wasn’t the only one to claim a maiden championship on the streets of Homebush. Shippy, Race Engineer for car #97, had come close before, as SVG had, but it wasn’t until the pair teamed up that it all clicked and the magic happened.

But that’s not to say it was an easy ride. A handful of errors in the first half of the season meant Shane was further down the championship leader board than he could have been and, although it’s a damn long season, there was work to do.

“The lowlight of the year was probably tripping up on the oil at Tassie. We should have banked 150 points there and had back-to-back race wins, but instead we walked away with doughnuts on Sunday,” Shippy says.

Luckily, though, those #97forlife boys know how to bounce back better than anyone. “Everyone in that group gets on really well and I think it’s always a very upbeat group of people,” he says of the whole crew behind Shane’s car, including SVG himself.

during the Gala Dinner, in Sydney, Australia, December 05, 2016.

“We never get too disappointed by results, we’re always there for each other, pumping each other up, making sure that we’re ready for the next race. Everyone on the crew does a great job, reliability was perfect this year, so I think when you’ve got a great group of people together, it’s easier to deliver results as a unit.

“But we had no expectations of winning on our first attempt as a group.”

So what was the turning point? When did the domination that we saw in the back half of the year really click into place?

“That second test day was pivotal for us,” Shippy declares. “The first test we sort of just got Shane comfortable in the car and got comfortable working together, but we needed to do some race meetings to work out where our strengths and weaknesses were. Those first few rounds gave us an indication there. That next test, we got to work on those weaknesses and from there we were running.”

Welcoming SVG into the group was a big step for not only him, coming from a small team of 12 people and one car, but also Triple Eight. Having had the same two drivers for the last 10 years, adapting to a newbie behind the wheel was likely to have teething issues, but there’s no time for drama in this joint.

“I think the only real area that Shane probably received the extra pressure was the extra sponsor and media commitments. The larger team and personnel probably only worked in his favour. I don’t think that put any more pressure on him to perform. He knew his job was just to do his best in the car and he should be proud of what he’s done this year.”

And of course the season wasn’t without learning curves for Shippy himself and the entire T8 squad: “The challenges lay in a combination of getting the car right for Shane and working with the other engineers to get all three cars to be in front of everyone else.

“That was the priority – get our team to the front and then we could scrap it out for one, two and three. To me that was probably the biggest challenge and I’m very proud of how we all stuck together.”

Having ticked more boxes this year than Shane’s done burnouts (well, almost!), it begs the question of what there is left to improve in 2017.

Shane Van Gisbergen of Red Bull Racing Australia during the ITM Auckland SuperSprint, at the Pukokohe, Pukokohe, , November 05, 2016.

“We finished the year obviously with a good qualifying car with the pole award and a good race car with eight wins,” he says proudly, “so it’s not so much that there’s any car characteristics that we’re really looking to improve.

“The tyres are changing and that’s going to be a big shake-up and we just need to make sure we react and develop faster than everyone else.”

As much as Shippy would be happy to reminisce about the season that was for hours on end, we need to let him run off into the Christmas sunset to enjoy his well-deserved (and much-needed) holiday.

Parting words?

“Next year’s going to be a big one, I just need to make sure I’m ready for it.”