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”.