Competing in the World Series of any sport can be a stressful job for any individual, no less for those competing in the FIA World Rally Championship. But aside from the accolades and attention that the drivers receive there is an often forgotten second figure that is just a crucial in the success of the team.
That is the co-driver.
The Checkered Flag chatted with Nicolas Gilsoul, co-driver to Thierry Neuville ahead of the 2019 season, as the pair once again attempt to not become the series perpetual bridesmaids.
“For sure I’m very excited,” started Gilsoul, who caught up with us during the WRC Launch at Autosport International. “Always at the beginning of the season a new year is a new opportunity to get success, so yeah I’m looking forward to it.”
For many fans of rallying, the back-to-back-to-back runner-up Neuville has been a driver who should have caught a break by now. For all of title rival Sebastien Ogier‘s domination, mistakes from the Belgian have contributed to his missed opportunities.
While Neuville faces the scrutiny of the media at every turn, the camera can often be less glaring for Gilsoul, who has used his time away from the sport to refocus ahead of the pairs fifth attack at the title.
“I felt after Rally Turkey that it was close to over, or at least very, very difficult to catch, even if it was possible until the end. So from December, I had the time to recover and rebuild my mind and for sure, I’m 100% ready and focused on Monte Carlo.”
While co-drivers go through much of the same physical testing, as Gilsoul explains, his role is much more focused on the mental aspects to Rallying, spending much of his time studying.
“I have to analyse the itinerary of the Rally to compare previous years, to be able to select the sections which are similar and which notes I can re-use from our database. So it takes time to identify it properly and rewrite the notes, so that it’s clean and tidy for the new season.
It takes quite a bit of time to re-read the regulations, because it’s changed a few details. It is always very important to stay accurate with all the regulations.
“I also have physical training to do myself, to be as fit as possible, so all in all it takes time.”
With Neuville representing the face of the #11 Hyundai Shell Mobis team, co-drivers such as Gilsoul can find themselves outside of the politics that surrounds world-class sportsman, but the Belgian is adamant that he’d not have it any other way.
“The driver is the ambassador of the crew, so he’s always in front. It’s also part of our character.” said Gilsoul. “Thierry’s managing that very well and from my side, I’m very happy to be a little bit more behind. I feel much more comfortable with all the guys in Hyundai it’s a nice atmosphere.
“We are working like a collective brain, not individually, so I’m very happy as some are older, others younger, everybody has their own experience and is bringing something unique, it makes us a strong team.”
As a result of being out of limelight, Gilsoul admitted the atmosphere was far more friendly around co-drivers, even joking he’d have a meal with a few of them.
“To be honest, I don’t have that feeling [of rivalry]. We are competitors when the helmet is on, we are fighters, but as soon as we’re on a road section or before/after a rally, there is respect between each other.”
Of course politics and headlines do not escape the world of co-drivers completely, with two such competitors Sebastian Marshall and Mikko Markkula, finding new challenges with new partners for 2019.
Having been with Hyundai for five years and Thierry for eight, Gilsoul was quick to confirm that he had no plans to be moving on any time soon.
“It’s been working very well for many years now and there is obviously no reason to change something which is working efficiently.
“It’s something really special what we are doing. The confidence is really important to trust in each other and it is really difficult to switch from one guy to another, it takes time to get to the same level. So we are very happy to work together, there’s no reason to look outside.”
He reiterated to say that it takes time to adapt to a new car. An advantage that Neuville and himself will have over the defending champion, as Ogier makes the switch to Citroen Total WRC for the upcoming season.
One of the familiar faces making his return to the championship is Sebastien Loeb. The nine-time champion has spent the winter training, even recently taking part in the Dakar Rally, but for many drivers this isn’t an option.
Drivers have the advantage of the race track to keep themselves active, though Gilsoul explains that it’s not uncommon for him to still take part in local events with a childhood friend.
“Back when I was an amateur as a teenager I started at a regular historical rally where the speed is not the target, it’s much more about navigation, finding the right way and following the rule book properly. I’m still passionate about that and when I have a free weekend, I take the opportunity to take part with an old friend. It’s helping a lot.”
Growing up in the Rally paddock, Gilsoul had worked to gain opportunities with Bernard Munster and WRC podium finisher Bruno Thiry during his latter years, before eventually becoming Neuville’s co-driver in 2011.
“When you sit in a rally car, you need to do several things at the same time. You need to keep your focus and do everything properly and when you’re doing the navigation, it’s really good training, because you have to check the route and the navigation, while watching the road to control the speed, so you have to everything at the same time. It’s good training.”
While it’s clear his relationship with Neuville remains strong, he remained light-hearted about his powerless role over the vehicle, especially when it does not go to plan.
“It’s surprising. But it happens quite often as we’re on the edge all the time and sometimes over-estimate a turn. But he’s always able (or most of the time able) to manage and correctly compose himself.
“I’m focused on telling the notes, so I can be surprised, but it’s only a few tenths of a second and then I’m back,” he said, snapping his fingers.
The FIA World Rally Championship begins at Monte Carlo on the 24th January.