ONCE UPON A TIME...
Everyone enjoys a good love story, right? For Nicolas Gilsoul, his path into rallying was set before he was even born. (Interview by Becs Williams)
It all began with a glance, a look between two people which would start the career of one of the WRC’s professional co-drivers. His parents met at a rally and there began the story which would see a young man who was passionate about his sport, pursue and ultimately achieve accolades at the highest echelon of the sport, the FIA World Rally Championship. It was 1975 when his father went to spectate at Boucles de spa, watching with awe as ‘The Stig’ (Stig Blomqvist, who went onto to become the 1984 WRC champion), blasted through the stages. But it wasn’t just Stig that caught his attention, Collette was also spectating and it was along the special stage at Awan-Aywaille where they met. The relationship resulted in marriage in 1979 and bouncing baby Nicolas Gilsoul followed in 1982. With such an auspicious start it was only natural that Nico would follow the rally path…
Nico’s dad was part of the local motorsport association, Ecurie Le Sanglier and was highly active in organising events and was passionate about the sport of rally. He dedicated much of his time and was well known and respected for the work he did. Whilst growing up Nico attended many events with his father and eventually began to work alongside him. Although his father loved rallying, his motivation was never to be within the car, he didn’t compete as a driver, which Nico couldn’t quite grasp…
Childhood and rallying
“My dad never competed and this is something really difficult for me to understand because as you can imagine, as far as it is possible for me to remember he has always been involved in rally, in the organization for example as race director and many other different roles. My father is very much a ‘worker’, he began to work at 14 years old and loves to help other people, be involved organizing events, helping drivers and spectators to enjoy events. He never wanted to drive the rally car, this was always something strange for me because when I was a teenager I was happy to be involved with the motor club, helping to organise and helping find money for the rally program, putting together the roadbook, looking for interesting stages but my ultimate target was to be sitting in the car as soon as it was possible – as soon as I was old enough to get a licence! But this was not the case for my father and this was strange for me”.
For Nico’s mother, despite meeting the love of her life at a rally her interest was not as fervent as his fathers, although she gave full support to her husband and her son.
“My mum was just watching the rally as it passed through her village, she was quite young 16 or 17 years old, she was not interested in the sport back then. She was not as involved as my father, she respected his passion but was not as interested in it as he was. Since I began to compete myself they are happy to help me. When I was competing in the Belgian championship they would be there at each stop point with something to eat something to drink, checking the times. Because when I start to compete, and at a regional level, you don’t have access to the results as quickly as you do now. So you had to do it by yourself and if you wanted to be one step in advance of your competitor you had to be able to calculate by yourself the classification. So my parents were always there for me in shadows, always supportive”.
Nico’s began spectating with his father at first before beginning to help him in his work organizing events. At twelve years old he began to compete on road rallies which were 60 kilometers in length, learning how to read road books; tulips and maps. The passion for his future would start here. There seemed to be no question on which side of the car Nico wanted to be seated.
The first rallies
“When I was a teenager I was very passionate about maps and reading roadbooks, it fascinated me. Each Friday evening there were many road rallies – very tricky events that I participated in, I think in Belgium we have a lot of very talented co-drivers who can read maps well, check average speeds because we have done a lot of complex events with old maps, 30 year old maps with so many roads that are missing, but you learn a lot doing this kind of exercise. I’ve always had my feet firmly on the ground and I knew that my parents weren’t in the position to fund me. I had the opportunity when I was a teenager to spend a lot of time with older people and I immediately realized that it would be difficult for me to have the money to buy a car to drive and as I was performing my own skill as a co-driver I understood that this was my place and when I had the chance to do my first speed rally I realized straight away that it was something really interesting to do when you are young, to co-drive with an older driver is very helpful. Experience is really important, if you get it from older people it is much better than to compete with a friend your age who is as stupid you (!) – so you will lose many, many times doing stupid mistakes that you for sure can avoid and you can learn really quickly if you decide to spend time with older drivers. I have a lot of appreciation for them and it helped me a lot”.
That first speed rally came in 2000, in an Opel Corsa MK1 group A car. The experience Nico was getting was paying off. He continued to learn from the more experienced members of his club, the drivers he sat alongside and his competitors. He also absorbed all the knowledge his father would offer in the organization side of rallying. All of this taught Nico to be extremely focused and develop a method of working which continues to this day. In 1998 he took part in his first Historic rally – at 17 years old he came second! A motorsport journalist published an article about him called ‘A star is born’ – how right he was!
“I remember when I saw it, I bought it to keep as a memento and its really funny to read it now and see the picture because in my mind it is not that long ago and on the other hand I was 17 and now I’m 34! It was a long time ago. It’s part of me, when I do something I do it 100% and I follow the plan – and this was working when I was young. I was competing against older, more experienced drivers and co-drivers in their 40s & 50s who were very passionate about historic rallying, and when they were competing on the weekend they were tired from their working week. But me I was a student – it was easy to sleep during the week! To study the area we would rally on the map so when I was arriving on the rally I was a ‘killer’ compared to them! For them it was disturbing as I was small, a bit fat, 17 years old, coming from nowhere and able to read the maps better than them because I didn’t need glasses. For me it was funny because I could feel they didn’t know whether they loved me or hated me!”
In 2002 Nico was in the midst of helping to organise a regional rally in Aywaille with Ecurie Le Sanglier. He had been helping to find partners to include in the rally program, detailing the stages, checking the roadbooks. As the only co-driver who was part of the committee his insight and vision were invaluable and he relished the opportunity to have such an input into the event. However, just a few weeks before the event was due to run Nico got an offer to jump into the co-driving seat of a group N Mitsubishi EVO 7. It was a great chance for the hard working Gilsoul, who desperately wanted to develop his co-driving skills further.
“I remember it well, It was a Mitsubishi Evo 7, full group N spec, turning up at a regional event with that car was something special! At that time I was really involved with my father we were 3 people organizing the rally. One of his best friends and me. I was still in school so all my free time was used to work on the rally and 3 weeks before I had the proposal to compete as a co-driver. I was just competing at the regional level and national event in Belgium I had been helping that guy driving the group n car across the season. Helping him, his wife and his friends at every stop point checking the times, exactly like my father and my mother had done for me. It was for me an opportunity to discover the rally, helping a good guy and it was a way for him to say thank you to me. He provided me with the opportunity to navigate on my own rally. I talked with my father saying its really something I can’t say no to, maybe it will happen only once. It was difficult to explain to my dad but I found a way and it was really nice, and we organized a really good rally. The event happened two weeks after the last round of the national championship and I got a lot of drivers to come with their cars – without even rebuilding their cars and using old tyres – they just needed to buy a bit more fuel and it was just for fun. We had a lot of good cars and great drivers and I won the rally with my friend and it was really great! I also realized the difference from the regional rallies with a small car compared to a turbo engine, four wheel drive, racing tyres etc. Because in regional level we are driving with commercial tyres. I was really disturbed the whole winter because from inside me I felt that that is what I REALLY want to do,… But in another way I felt like I had an angel and a devil on each shoulder – the devil was saying ‘Hey you have to tell people, that it was great’ and the angel was saying ‘No you have to be serious, get a proper job you will lose time and money”.
With a great experience under his belt, Nico really wanted to pursue a career in the co-driving seat. But he knew first hand how difficult it was to secure the kind of work that would offer him a salary and security. With his parents very involved with rally and also aware of how difficult it is to make it a career, how supportive were they?
“To be honest they were always really supportive, the deal I had with my parents when I was a student was ‘If the results are good at school then its OK to do rallies, but as soon as it will not be the case we will say no’. At that time it was a passion for my free time only. I remember very well when I got the fantastic opportunity to navigate for Bruno Thiry in 2004. It was a big challenge for me because I continued to study at school, as well as performing at a European an Belgian level. It was not so fun at school – it was difficult. But I was pretty sure that after that season, even if Bruno was stopping it would be easy for me to jump in with another driver – but actually that was not the case. It really depends on what is happening in the driver/co-driver market. It does not depend on whether you are good – you can be really good but if you don’t have a driver with a program then no way. But I remember that after this season in 2004, my father and my mother talked with me and said ‘Ok it was a really nice season it was like a dream for you, but now you have to realize that this is not a job for you, it is not the real life. And now we would like you come back with your feet on the ground and find a job’. I had my diploma in my pocket and I was on the work market. I really tried over one year. I had a conventional job as a co-ordinator in a coach company. But after one year I said ‘No I can’t ‘ I was really sad. I was not happy. I had tried to leave the rally family but it was impossible for me. I finished at that job and I had the opportunity to work for Bernard Munster. He had his own team and he was looking for someone that was able to be a co-ordinator, sometimes a co-driver sometimes a salesperson, selling parts etc. – Someone who could adapt to many roles. So it was great, I spent a year and a half there but it was really difficult. I wanted to continue to navigate and when you are an employee it is difficult and I realised I absolutely needed to become freelance, independent. So I stop with Bernard – he kicked me out actually! And from that time I have been freelance. When I stopped with Bernard, I knew that doing some small rallies was not enough to live. You need an income to survive. I was doing another job between rallies working as a climber – climbing pylons installing antennas for mobile phones, so at least I was wearing a helmet! It was not quite the same but in fact i liked it! I need sensation, like an adrenaline rush – I would be unable to sit one week at a desk in an office, I need action! It was my friend who employed me to do this job and he understood my situation and I would give him my availability and he would provide me with a job. It was easy for me to jump from one job to another”.
The opportunity with Bruno Thiry was huge! Bruno was an inspiration to many drivers and in 2004 found himself without a co-driver for the season. Needing a co-driver who knew his stuff and had the experience to handle complex events at a high level was going to be difficult. But it seems that Nico’s name had already found its way onto the ‘Thiry shortlist’ – Nico’s hard work had got him noticed. But, a raging hangover could have spoiled the party, as Nico explains…
“I got a call early one Sunday morning. The night before it had been at the birthday of my uncle and we had been celebrating till late and I came home drunk to be honest! Then on the Sunday morning my mobile was ringing and ringing and I did not want to answer, I wanted to sleep! But it rang so many times I though OK, I had better see who it is. It was my best friend who I was navigating for at the time and before he even said hello he said ‘Do you agree that I become your manager?’ and I thought ‘What the F…?!” Then he explained that Bruno was alone and it was something like 2 or 3 weeks before the beginning of the season and there was absolutely nothing on the market co-driver wise. Bruno knew that this was probably his last season as a works driver. I had met him one year before, it was nice to meet him and he was impressed already by what I had achieved on historic events. For example, before competing in the WRC I did the Monte Carlo Historic Rally 6 or 7 times – I finished twice, fourth overall. He knew it was a difficult event, very long with a lot of advance preparation needed. He was impressed by my method and how professional I was. When he had to make a shortlist of co-drivers that he wanted I was at the top of his list. Many friends had pushed for my name to be included. Also current Citroen Racing boss Yves Matton, who is a good friend of Brunos, pushed a little bit for me. And when you get two or three phone calls and the guys are saying its a good plan you should try Gilsoul – I am sure he was eventually seduced by the idea! For me it was really something crazy because I remember the rally was the Boucles de spa which was at that time still part of the national championship. It’s just 20 minutes from my home, we were driving with the number one on our doors – it was really great! I remember during the recce I asked Bruno ‘Are you sure this isn’t a joke?’ because it’s really great and I would be really upset if after the recce you tell me it’s all just a joke. Luckily it wasn’t! It was huge opportunity for me and the first rally I knew backwards as it was local to me. But the second rally was Mille Miglia in Italy, in the mountains and it was really challenging – it was and still is the most difficult event I have ever competed on. There were a lot of very good drivers, Italian drivers who were very quick all with very good cars. But when it’s difficult, that’s when you learn a lot too. So you need to be confident, trust in yourself to prepare the job the properly”.
The time with Thiry was successful and they went onto to compete together from 2004 onwards and over the years that followed. Gilsoul co-drove for many different drivers during that time. Competing in Belgian and French championship events as well as historic events including the East African Safari Classic Rally. His WRC debut came in Monte Carlo in 2007 alongside Luc Dewinter. Although successful and respected, Gilsoul had not found a permanent partner. But that was set to change. Young Belgian driver Thierry Neuville was up and coming and would soon be on the lookout for a co-driver. So how did they meet?
“It’s a very good question! In fact I am 34, Thierry is now 28 so I have a bit more experience than him. Or at least when Thierry started to compete I was already experienced and at that time we were very good friends with Bruno Thiry. Someone from Luxembourg had proposed to Bruno that he do some rallies in Luxembourg or in Germany. I did a few rallies with Bruno during that period in a C2R2 Max. Thierry was starting to drive, and Bruno is from the same place in Belgium, (St. Vith) as Thierry. As Bruno is one of the most famous drivers from Belgium along with Freddie Loix and Francois Duval it was natural for Thierry to come and meet Bruno. I was navigating Bruno at that time and Thierry began to compete with a friend. After a couple of seasons he began to realize that his co-driver was not really ready for the high level. So Thierry had to find a solution and Bruno pushed for me to co-driver for him, saying that I was the best choice – it was why Thierry did two rallies with me and two rallies with Nicolas Klinger. He had to make a choice and I think Klinger had more of a connection with the WRC and that persuaded Thierry to choose him. We were very quick in the two rallies we did together. We finished third in Rally Antibes. In fact Citroen racing set up a meeting for all the drivers in Citroen C2R2 Max in Europe, it was held at Rally Antibes. There was something like 20-25 cars all the same spec so for sure the winner was the best driver. We beat the likes of Bryan Bouffier and all the kings from Italy. Thierry did one season with Nicolas Klinger then we reunited. I do not know the reason and it is not important. The past is the past. For sure I was happy to come back. We came back together and were immediately on the pace, fighting for victory in Gran Canaria. Finally we finished third but it was very close for the podium with Juho Hänninen. Then on the second rally, the Tour de Corse we won! It was a very good feeling! Things weren’t going well for him and then I come back and the results began to improve – but of course I am not 100% the reason. But I hope I am part of it and this is a nice feeling”.
The partnership of Neuville and Gilsoul were reunited and that began a working relationship which excelled in its determination to succeed. Each were thoroughly dedicated to achieving success in rallying. But they both knew that without hard work and focus they would flounder. The opportunity to shine in the IRC with wins at the classic events like Corsica and San Remo in 2011 was getting them noticed in all the right places. In 2012 they joined the Citroen Junior World Rally Team as part of the WRC – sharing a service area with nine time World Champion Sebastien Loeb. They had reached the highest level of rallying and were just getting started. Their hard working spirit continued as much as ever
“We work really hard and we need to do it – all the drivers are pushing like hell and you have to do at least the same as them otherwise you are behind them. For example you cannot compete in Finland and say ‘Oh, yeah i was quick last year, it will be ok’ – in fact you have to define a process and follow that process. We are quite efficient, even though i live in Belgium and Thierry now lives in Monaco, we are in contact constantly by phone, email, even Whatsapp. It’s really easy, I know exactly what Thierry needs to prepare for events in terms of information and I think our crew have the maturity level so I know exactly what i have to do. But when we have a bad result we do a debriefing together because we have to find what was wrong, what we have to change. We have always this mentality”.
So finally for Nico he has reached the WRC. After years of grating as a co-driver on National and European events he had reached the top level of the sport. In 2013 they got the call from M-Sport to join the main team – it was high profile and their talent had brought them to this moment. But there was a catch…
“I remember in 2013 when we got the drive with M-Sport I went to my parents and said ‘OK, I have good news and bad news – the good news is we have a manufacturer drive with a full program for the season. But the bad news is there is no salary for us’. I wasn’t sure that my job as a climber would be enough to continue to rent an apartment, and so I asked my parents if I could move back into the family home for one year. Luckily they said yes. But it was odd being more than 30 years old and having to ask your parents if you could move back in! For me, in my mind, it would be the last season. I didn’t want to put pressure on Thierry but I knew I needed a minimum of comfort and I started to get a bit frustrated as all my friends around me had started to get a family, a home and I was completely the opposite! But I put all my energy into that 2013 season and it was a very good season, probably our best season to date. We had great support from all the team and even though the team did not have a full budget, whenever we asked team boss Malcolm Wilson for anything, he was listening to us and always did the maximum according to the possibilities of the team. At the half way point of the season we were the leading crew. The team always provided 100 percent support and it was great to be part of it”.
... and Hyundai
After just one highly rewarding year with M-Sport it was time to shift base. A brand new team were entering the WRC and they wanted a slice of the successful duo that was Neuville and Gilsoul. The Hyundai WRT signed up the pair who were the WRC’s hot property. With a healthy budget the team were prepared to throw everything at the rally program to make it successful. It was an exciting time and it meant a lot to both Nico and Thierry!
“I was able to leave my parents’ home! It was a very exciting time, full of new possibilities and new experiences. I have always worked with experienced teams, with M-Sport, with Kronos in the IRC. Very experienced people who worked efficiently. Of course with a new team you have to build that knowledge and it took a long time to achieve that. We all worked very hard together to make sure that it worked well. We have tasted victory with the team in Germany in 2014 which was great. And most recently in Sardinia”.
Although victory is important to the crews ultimately, so far at least, these have not been Nico’s favourite ‘moments’, instead he places more emphasis on the real challenges and the results that felt ‘the best’. Some say coming second is nothing, not to Nico it isn’t!
“It is impossible to narrow down one moment as there are so many good times in rally. I would say in the car it is not the victory, second place in Finland with the Fiesta in 2013 or second place in Sweden in 2015 with the Hyundai – it was really a rally for big balls guys! In the car it was really really quick and really controlled. When all is going well like we want, we are able to do great things”.
Gilsoul may only be 34, but he has a vast experience which spans 20 years and that experience is not just confined to the co-driving seat. He knows what it is like for event organizers to put on rallies. He understands the complexities of sponsorship and running events. On top of that he is a world class co-driver! So where did he take his advice from? Who inspired him?
“For me there is not one person who really taught me but much more the combination of every good guy I met. All the time when I meet somebody or I have the opportunity to work with somebody I learn from the way they do things. I watch and see if I can make myself better from their way of working. I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many experienced people right the way through my career, from road rallies to WRC. I didn’t really have a mentor. This is also something really difficult for a co-drivers. There is no school for co-drivers, there are no books and if there are they are 30 years old! The job has changed and it’s changing all the time due to the regulations. You have to build your own experience by yourself. For me, the key thing was when I first competed on the East African Safari Rally I got to meet Dennis Giraudet, I was humbled that he knew me! For me it was really great to chat with him about many things. It was something nice that all the guys appreciate my work and that if I wanted to give a call to older, more experienced co-drivers I could call them and ask for advice. For me that’s really more important, more than just one person”.
As ever, for every competing crew the ultimate goal is to win the championship, to be the best. For Nico this is especially true…
“My target is to be a World Champion with Thierry, we are building something together and have come so far. Something I realize, is that you need all the ingredients at the same time in the right place. And this is really something difficult to achieve. You need a great team, a fast car and for both driver and co-driver to be at their peak. It is achievable!”
With such a wealth of experience already under his co-driving belt, what advice would Nico give to anyone who wants to pursue a career in rallying?
“Patience is the key. You have to be really, really passionate, you can’t count the time you spend when you are preparing rallies. I remember at a national rally I was preparing for I was cutting military maps. Actually drawing the maps! You have to be committed and really involved; if not you will always be average. It is not my target to be average. I would prefer to stop and start something else. For me this is my advice. If it’s possible to spend time discussing with experienced people in the field you choose then do it! They have the knowledge and they can help to learn quickly and avoid mistakes. It certainly has helped in my career!”
Thanks a million to the lovely Becs Williams for the inteview.
Follow her on Twitter @Becsywecsy