He’s back, and this time for good. Nicolas Gilsoul has started just one rally since the 2020 World Rally Championship season finale at Monza alongside Thierry Neuville, but now he’s energized, motivated and ready to throw himself at his career once again.
Co-drivers rarely make the headlines, but Gilsoul’s name was everywhere on the week before last year’s Monte Carlo Rally as he and Neuville suddenly split after winning 13 rallies together for Hyundai across a 10-year working relationship.
This kickstarted what transpired to be a whirlwind of co-driver moves but unlike some of his counterparts who lost seats but then reobtained another one, Gilsoul’s career was stopped dead by the split.
Aside from an appearance alongside Paul-Antoine Santoni on Rally Sanremo last April, the now 40-year-old Belgian was stuck at home on the sidelines while everyone else went rallying.
“I’m always making parallels,” Gilsoul tells DirtFish, “and when we compare rallying to football [soccer], when you have a problem in your club when you are playing football and you are a top player, you can easily move from one club to another.
“But in rallying it’s a tiny business and at the end there are only a few of us. If there is no space [you have no job].”
Gilsoul did have “several” conversations with some WRC and WRC2 drivers over the last 12 months “but unfortunately something was always missing and I wasn’t able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together”.
A veteran of over 100 WRC starts, Gilsoul wasn’t going to accept any offer. He needed something that motivated him.
“For sure I like to be at the very top but at the end I need to live, I need to enjoy life and I cannot wait, wait, wait until something happens,” he says.
“I don’t want to focus only on the WRC with a bad plan with the wrong car and not the proper package, for me it’s not interesting because I’m sure I will be frustrated and this is not what I’m looking for.
Just thinking about rallying was turning my stomach. It was really difficult for me, I was absolutely not disinterested but disgustedNicolas Gilsoul on 2021
“When you are young you are happy and you are impressed already when you are wearing the shirt of the factory team. I’m not impressed anymore by that, I need to be happy, to feel happy how I’m working, why I’m working and to want to give the maximum.
“I’m not focusing on being with a factory team if the team is not at the level, there is no interest.”
But the kind of program that does interest Gilsoul has now presented himself. This year, he will partner Gino Bux in a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo back home in the Belgian Rally Championship – and Gilsoul is delighted about it.
“Yes I am,” he says. “Honestly it’s been a difficult year last year. I cannot really speak about it but it was unexpected and sudden, so you can imagine what it was like for me. It took me quite a lot of time to sit down and to get back the vision, the view of OK it’s done, here’s where I am, where is my next target, what is it possible to do on the market and what is making sense for me?
“I was living the dream, being 100% all the time committed, involved day and night 365 days a year, obsessed by the world title and then when it stopped, it was such a high that I needed a bit of time to readjust the vision.
“Just thinking about rallying was turning my stomach. It was really difficult for me, I was absolutely not disinterested but disgusted by it so a bit of time was needed just to let loose of this spike of emotion. This is the best way for me to explain.
“At the end of the season it was already getting much better and for Monte [last month] I spent four days on the sofa spectating from home the live [feed] and split times and trying to understand [what was going on].
“Now I’m properly back.”
Bux is the one that’s set to benefit as he prepares for his first ever season in a four-wheel-drive rally car.
Bux’s career momentum has fluctuated a bit after being thrust into the European Rally Championship in 2015 by the Belgian federation when he had minimal experience, but he dominated last year’s Stellantis Cup in Belgium to remind everyone just what he can do.
After first discussing things after last year’s Ypres Rally, it’s this potential, Bux’s attitude and approach to rallying and his aims for the season that have convinced Gilsoul that this is the right program for him.
“It’s never easy to handle a normal life, I’m a dad with a five-year-old daughter and I’m separated with her mum, I have to manage that life and this is really something that is a priority for me. So I don’t want to miss that, so it means it’s a bit complicated to make a calendar,” Gilsoul explains.
“All in all Gino’s proposal was really nice to do first of all the Belgian championship, maybe if it’s going very well maybe we will get some opportunity to add one or two extra in another country, we don’t know yet but for example the European championship or maybe the WRC.
“It’s good because the package is nice,” he adds. “The guy is quick, he’s young, we know the potential of the car and I can also bring all my experience [in the car and with] promotion to help him get to the top level as quick as possible.
“This is a project that is making sense to me. I’m convinced that he will be at the level very soon.”
Gilsoul still harbors ambitions to return to the world championship under the right circumstances – but “it has to be realistic”.
“I can tell you I’m still working flat out. Physically, mentally I’m ready to race. If needed I can jump on the plane with my bags in two hours and be absolutely committed to do great things, but it cannot be one-way, it has to be a two-way deal.”
But this ambition doesn’t mean he isn’t excited by his new challenge back home in Belgium. As he reiterates “what is sure is I need to enjoy what I am doing” and the chance to sit with a talented driver on some challenging rallies back in Belgium for the first time since 2010 has left Gilsoul “motivated like hell”.
“It’s been so quick with Neuville, I was doing the national championship with a friend of mine and suddenly, bam, I switch with Thierry and straightaway in IRC at that time, and it was going very quickly.
“I progressed quite quickly and suddenly I left Belgium, so now having the opportunity to come back home it’s cool as well because we have some very demanding and specific rallies that I would be very pleased to do strong performances on.
“And secondly, sometimes you hear people say ‘national championship, the level is poor’ and this is absolutely not the case. In our national championship the level is very high, we have seen in the last year always four or five guys with a very close battle with [Grégoire] Munster, [Adrian] Fernémont, [Ghislain] de Mevius and even when WRC rising stars like [Yohan] Rossel, [Stéphane] Lefebvre are coming they are not one minute ahead at the end, they are just driving flat out and OK they win the rally but with 10 or 15 seconds which means a lot actually.
“It’s a really quick pace and I think we should be in the top five, but already when you want to be top four, top three and even more you need to be really strong. So it will be really good.”
Gilsoul is keen to let go of what he describes as “bad energy”. The events of the last year certainly left him disillusioned at times but he’s fallen back in love with rallying again and is relishing the chance to not be sat on the sofa once more spectating Rally Sweden next week.
Instead, he’ll be climbing back into a rally car with his name on the side window on Rally van Haspengouw.
“I had to learn some resilience, that’s what I had to learn last year and now I’m really focusing on the present, on the moment and on the short future and what is the past is the past,” he says.
“I am stronger, I feel already that I am stronger.”