“I always said before that I would never do rallying. I thought, I either race or I become a secretary in some office. And I didn’t want to become a secretary.”
Amid all of the tension and constant title permutations bound to dictate the mood on next weekend’s World Rally Championship season finale at Monza, one competitor in particular will be driving with the sort of ease and lack of pressure that Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans can only dream of.
That driver is Italian-born Swiss, Kevin Gilardoni, who will pilot a Škoda Fabia Rally2 alongside co-driver Corrado Bonato in the WRC3 class. A former Italian Rally Championship competitor, Gilardoni plies his trade in circuit racing and won the one-make Lamborghini Super Trofeo Europe title at nearby Misano last month.
Circuit racers having a go at the distinctly unique challenge of rallying is nothing new of course, with the likes of Robert Kubica and Kimi Räikkönen as well as GT ace Maro Engel taking on the best over the years. But none of the above trio actively forged a career out of necessity like Gilardoni had to.
“I moved to rallying [from circuit racing] purely for economic reasons,” he tells DirtFish.
“The thing is, when I was in circuit racing until 2013 in the Eurocup Mégane Trophée, my father told me: ‘OK, we stop financing you now, or you go and find a normal job to pay for your racing’.
“I did some short track NASCAR racing [in the Whelan European series], and it was there that I thought: ‘if I was a sponsor of a driver, why would I spend €10,000 to put a sticker on a car?’ because the cost of this is so much. So, I thought if I could give back something to my sponsors, and by that, I mean, give them business by [exposure] on my car, they will be a lot more loyal to me if I race locally than if I was racing elsewhere.”
Having worked his way up the circuit racing ranks from karting to cars, the move to rallying was a surprising one for a young Gilardoni, particularly given his ambivalent feelings towards the discipline.
I am a maniac with details. And in rallying, you cannot really calculate as much as you can in circuit racing, you are more like a SpartanKevin Gilardoni
“You never forget your first love, and for me that is circuit racing,” he explains.
“That is why I am still doing circuit racing and not rallying full-time. I enjoyed it but I never fell completely in love with it, because I love details, I am a maniac with details.
“And in rallying, you cannot really calculate as much as you can in circuit racing, you are more like a Spartan.”
Despite his first love lying far away from the unique demands of stage rallying, Gilardoni took to the discipline with aplomb, showcasing his fundamental talent behind the wheel and, above all, bravery.
A native of the Lombardy region in northern Italy, Gilardoni’s first experience of rallying came at the Monza Rally Show in 2012, where he finished sixth in the R3C class at the wheel of a Renault Clio R3 alongside co-driver Alessandro Cingano.
From there, the machinery remained the same, but the goals began to change significantly. With the circuit racing career seemingly out of reach, Gilardoni turned his attention more seriously to rallying, entering a number of national rallies before striking up a relationship with current navigator Bonato. A season’s best of second in class on the Monza Rally Show preceded a first full season in 2015.
Although the speed was there from the start, Gilardoni admits that he was very much out of his comfort zone, coming from circuit racing to rallying.
“I was like a fish out of water in my first year of rallying. I was asking: ‘where is my motorhome?’ and they’re like: ‘you don’t get motorhomes in rallying!’
“I arrived to rallies with a big bag and they would always ask me why I brought so much stuff to the events, so it was a completely different environment for me. But I’m happy to be back and I do this for fun because I still enjoy doing occasional rallies, so for me, this is a nice experience.”
After his initial foray into rallying, Gilardoni achieved his first title in 2014, winning the Lombardia Ronde Cup R3T championship before securing the Under 23 title the following year. In 2016, a third title came in the Under 25 championship after three victories; one of which came on the Rally Ronde Internazionale del Ticino aboard a Hyundai i20 WRC.
For Gilardoni, it didn’t matter that he was not competing in his favored discipline, it was motorsport, and he was quite happy avoiding the secretary position he so feared earlier in his career.
“I wanted to race and so this was the reason why I made the move to rally. I won the Renault Clio R3T Cup in Italy; I have been Junior Italian Rally Champion in 2016 and I have had some great results in rallying, I won like 10 events, so I ended up enjoying it because it was racing.”
A further title came the following year, in the Trofeo Rally Clio R3T Production class, winning 33 stages and claiming two victories. At the same time, he started to dabble in larger machinery, sampling a Ford Fiesta RS WRC for three events in 2017, before switching to a Fiesta R5 for a full attack on the Italian Tarmac Championship in 2018.
Alas, this didn’t produce any victories or titles, and before long, Gilardoni finally found the circuit racing opportunity arose at the end of 2019.
That opportunity was perhaps as distant from rallying as you can possibly imagine. Racing a Lamborghini Huracán Super Trofeo Evo at speeds of up to 150mph at tracks like Monza or Spa-Francorchamps, is a far cry from jinking around hairpin bends on public roads.
But in returning to his first passion, Gilardoni showed the sort of adaptability which brought him success on the stages, placing second in his maiden Lamborghini season and winning the title after four victories alongside former single seater driver Leonardo Pulcini.
Now, with the title secured and the pressure well and truly off, Gilardoni is looking forward to capping off the season with “a bit of fun for my sponsors” at his local rally.
“I used to do the Monza Rally Show with guys like Valentino Rossi, [recently retired Motocross World Champion] Tony Cairoli and so on, but now we are in the World Rally Championship, so I wanted to take the opportunity to compete in the WRC at Monza,” Gilardoni says.
“Last year I was on the entry list, but I couldn’t start because of a problem before the event, but this season is probably the last chance to do the WRC round at Monza because, normally without COVID, they will go to Japan and not Monza.
“So, I said to myself, it is now or never, and it is good for my sponsors for me to compete close to my home, on this rally. The drive is all paid for, I just need to go out there and enjoy myself and just to say that I have raced in the WRC there.”
It’s the first race this year where I will have no pressure, so this is also niceKevin Gilardoni
The irony about Gilardoni doing Monza Rally is that, despite his significant circuit racing experience at the Grand Prix venue, he will not have anywhere near the experience of the gravel stages that the WRC regulars got last year.
Indeed, the circuit stages at Spa-Francorchamps used during the summer’s Ypres Rally would have been more advantageous to Gilardoni, but the Italian is not concerned about the lack of stage knowledge next weekend.
“I have some experience of the Monza Rally Show but only when it was fully asphalt, so I don’t actually have any experience of the gravel parts of the stages and the grass with full slick tyres, so this will be a bit crazy, I think,” he adds.
“And the Rally Show is nothing like the WRC rally because it was like, let’s say, Monza circuit with more chicanes. Now, it’s a real rally so I don’t go there thinking I will win.
“Of course, I will push as hard as I can and try to do my best, but it is just for some fun at the end of the season and thank my partners, who are from the nearby area of Lombardy. It’s also the first race this year where I will have no pressure, so this is also nice!”
No pressure? Sounds like a luxury to those up at the sharp end of the WRC field but make no mistake, Gilardoni won’t be taking it easy. You see, he’s a racer at heart if that hasn’t been totally obvious so no pressure might just help pull off a giant-killing performance or two around the Autodromo di Monza.