The bridge is coming. The bridge is really coming. Still nothing. Nothing but the noise of a Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC with the taps wide – wide – open. Everything changes. The left foot stabs the brake, the world goes a bit bananas. And we make the bridge.
We make the bridge.
A day on from Thierry Neuville’s commanding Rally di Alba win, he’s back aboard the Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, bound for the Albaretto Sinio stage. Only this time he’s got me and not Nicolas Gilsoul alongside him. Admittedly, in a slightly wider seat.
I’ve been fortunate enough to sit alongside a few of the world’s finest rally drivers in my time at this keyboard, but this was the first time next to Neuville. And the first time in ages on asphalt.
Having been baked for more than a week in Italy, the weather turned on Monday. The storm which had been building for a couple of days delivered and turned grippy roads to Teflon. Lunch was brought forward in the hope that it might stop raining long enough to offer a more realistic insight into the scorching conditions Neuville and Hyundai Motorsport team-mate Ott Tänak had competed in the day before. And it did stop.
“We’re on the rain tyre, the really soft one,” said Neuville. “It’s too soft – the car’s moving quite a lot. But it’s better than taking the hard tyre. We’ll save that one for Colin…”
Colin Clark, my DirtFish colleague, would be following me into the car. And Neuville had been advised that the noisy Scot might not be the best passenger and, for sheer entertainment value, it might be worth turning it up a little bit.
It wasn’t like I was getting off easy. Settling into the seat, Hyundai team principal Andrea Adamo arrived at Neuville’s door.
“Remember what he wrote about you,” said the Italian nodding in my direction. “Remember all the s**t he said…
“And David, did you write the story about this drive already? Is it on your computer? Just in case you don’t come back – maybe I can send for you?”
But seriously, sod off.
“He did tell me to go flat out,” said Neuville as he backed us out and away from the swarm of mechanics. “But I told him: ‘Last time you told me to go flat out at a test was Finland. Look what happened then…'”
That’s even less funny.
It might not have rained for an hour or so, but the road was still properly greasy. Weaving across the road, Michelin’s FW3 wobbled, then gripped. The lateral movement was joined by some longitudinal energy as Thierry accelerated hard before standing on the brakes.
The dashboard briefly lit up as the wheel locked.
“My foot is the ABS,” said Neuville. “I can feel where is the locking point and then play with it a bit.”
That sort of sensitivity is what sets people like Thierry apart from normal folk. The other stuff that makes him a special sort of fella would become abundantly clear in the next five minutes.
Putting my head back against the seat, I was ready for the launch.
The pull, pull, pull of gear, gear, gear is as impressive as you hope it will be, but the problem is that you simply don’t have a moment to compute what’s really going on. The bewildering acceleration gives way to what now sits before you. The road narrows into a slippery right over crest.
A right over crest I would have thought well worth knocking some speed off for.
Apparently not. Not only is he not slowing down, he’s actually going faster. Seriously, we’re still accelerating?
Flight right, flick left, a brief feather of the throttle as a crest becomes a jump and again, before I can take it in, the car’s settled and pulling another gear towards another corner.
It’s been a very long time since I was this impressed in a car. The i20’s ability to deal with so much is mind-blowing. It has a comprehensive answer for every one of Thierry’s questions.
Under the trees, traction is even more limited. Coming down the hill towards the bridge in question, I simply can’t see how the physics of this one is going to stack up. Now it genuinely doesn’t make sense.
Not even on a sticky slick on dry Tarmac could you make this one work. One corner of Hyundai is about to be forcefully introduced to some stocky looking Italian ARMCO. It’s inevitable.
With more of that left-foot fiddling, Neuville gets the car slowed down at precisely the point of turn in. Off the brake, he threads the eye of a barrier-road-barrier needle beautifully. Again, I try to register what he’s just done, but he’s already back on the throttle and pulling a slight slide straight.
Out of the woods we’re into the vineyards for a faster section, possibly the only place we see top gear. These are the higher-speed sections where the current World Rally Cars’ aero has changed the game so radically.
The Hyundai generates exceptional mechanical and compound grip even in such compromised conditions, but it’s the top-end of the gearbox where the downforce really puts its back into it. This is next level stuff. It’s up here, in these super-fast sections where world champions are made. And wannabes busted.
At nonsensical speeds, now more than ever, WRC drivers rival their Formula 1 counterparts in the ability to make split-second decisions and calculations differentiating between good and great. And, let’s be honest, life and death.
And Neuville’s mind, body and brain is working at a frightening rate to keep balancing the equation between outrageous pace and landing the pair of us the trees.
“Are you enjoying it?”
Astonishing. The bloke has a buffer. He’s not at full capacity. Nowhere near. He’s juggling all this insanity and now holding a conversation about how bad the cuts have become. And how dirty the road is.
Coming out of the stage, I ask the inevitable question about how hard he was going?
“We were going quite quickly,” he said, “I have been up and down this road a few times, so I know where I’m going and how hard I can go.”
Neuville wins Rally di Alba
The Belgian's competition return was an instant success
There’s a shocking brutality to these cars. More than ever, I understand the questions asked about who gets to drive them. Fingers won’t just get burned here, they’ll be ripped clean off. It’s a monster. In a good way. A very good way.
Trying to take in what’s just gone on, Neuville offers even more context and perspective.
“You thought that road was narrow and difficult, now imagine you are on gravel and you have the dust coming. That’s when it gets really bad.
“Honestly, you drive these cars hard and then you come to the place where the dust is hanging and the feeling in your stomach is so bad. You honestly think: ‘I could die now’.
“I fly the helicopter and it’s exactly the same when you fly into the cloud. You lose everything, you lose the feeling, the sense, everything. But in the helicopter, you have something telling you there’s nothing around. In the rally car, you are going at the speeds we were just at, but you don’t know where is the side of the road. You can’t see it.
“You know you have to turn, but where is the turn. Am I too far this way or that. You know nothing. It’s the worst feeling. I hate it.”
In the last 60 seconds, Neuville has raised the level once more. Just when I thought this world couldn’t get any more insane, he’s tipped it upside down and given it another shake.
Thierry’s world is now so far removed from mine, it’s beyond comprehension. I’ve given up trying to get what him and his mates do.
I am, however, really starting to feel the part in the Hyundai suit.
Easing my way out of the car, I’m told I’m looking very much like Daniel Elena. I like that. I can live with a comparison between my efforts alongside Neuville and those of a nine-time world champion co-driver.
The effect is spoiled slightly when that same person – a person I used to like – taps my tummy and asks how many breakfasts I’ve tucked into the blue and orange overalls.
Just the two. As usual. Stupid question.
My appreciation of Neuville, Elena and anybody who works in this world of making Rally1 cars do what they do has never been higher.
But especially Thierry, the special one.