Nobody will forget the lead up to the 2021 Monte Carlo Rally in a hurry. Least not Nicolas Gilsoul.
Remember the stampede of World Rally Championship co-driver swaps and announcements that punctuated last year’s season? It was Gilsoul’s sudden departure as Neuville’s co-driver that got that ball rolling.
That’s all firmly in the past now. But, prior to this new chance alongside Pierre-Louis Loubet, Gilsoul’s WRC career looked under real threat of being in the past as well.
With Martijn Wydaeghe drafted in to call the shots for Neuville, and with precious little time to pitch himself for another seat, Gilsoul was arguably the biggest loser of 2021’s musical chairs.
A run with his mate Paul-Antoine Santoni on Rally Sanremo broke the silence, but that was Gilsoul’s lot for the year. A far cry from travelling the world with a professional team, winning rallies and challenging for championships.
Rallying had stung Gilsoul, and for a while he wanted no part in it. He was, in his words, “not disinterested but disgusted” with rallying. But then he came back – partnering with rising star Gino Bux in a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo for a full Belgian Rally Championship season.
It was the perfect way for him to rebuild. A professional enough program that allowed him to get properly stuck in again alongside a driver he rated, but without a high pressured envirionment where the entire rallying world would be scrutinizing his every move.
“Actually with Gino the season worked very well,” Gilsoul tells DirtFish.
“We were not able to catch Stéphane Lefebvre who is far too experienced compared to Gino and I. I mean he was very quick the whole season, he is a former factory driver, still now he’s paid to drive for Citroën in Belgium but it was a really nice season.
“I feel really impressed by the skill of Gino, he has the speed really quick so finishing second, just behind Stéphane, is like a victory.
“So for the first time in a four-wheel-drive car with limited experience it was a proper, proper season.”
But Bux’s program unfortunately (for him) hasn’t quite been enough to fully stimulate Gilsoul. An old friend was tapping him on the shoulder and refusing to let him go.
But why now? Why not 12 months ago?
“Honestly at the beginning of the season I was still at the end of my recovery,” Gilsoul explains.
“It was nice to get back… it was like a medium step. But immediately after a few rallies, I felt like I was missing something, I wanted some more you know?
“And then I started to follow much more the WRC rounds from home, following everything like before and I say ‘yeah I realize that I was on the way back’.”
Gilsoul did have chances to return to the WRC in 2022. He actually had the chance to join the very driver he’s now linking up with for next year – meeting Loubet properly for the first time in a training camp in the 2021/22 off-season.
But he was selective with what he wanted. He didn’t want to just feel ready, he wanted to be jumping into the right program. And what Loubet has offered him for 2023 is very different to 2022.
“I read in the media that Vincent [Landais] was leaving to [Sébastien] Ogier and for sure in my mind I say ‘ah, it’s a nice opportunity for me’ so I’ve been quickly in contact with Pierre-Louis,” says Gilsoul.
“He sent me a text and we’ve been already in contact last year and we were just exchanging sometimes together.
Pierre-Louis has fought like hell to get a full program and has managed to get what he wants - a full season in a top teamNicolas Gilsoul
“I felt it was completely different compared to last year because it’s a different car, it’s a different program, it’s a different target, he improved a lot in one year because one year ago he was in a not so good position, he was a bit stuck with the private Hyundai of 2C Competition and it was complicated at that time.
“But we have seen that he is quite strong mentally and he’s been able to come back during this season. It’s impressive I think.”
The opportunity to do a full 13-round season – which Loubet will be embarking on for the first time in his WRC career – was another key factor influencing Gilsoul’s decision.
“When you are not doing all the rallies it’s complicated to keep the speed because you need to practice as often as possible,” Gilsoul explains.
“When you are missing already some rallies, when you come back for sure you are missing reaction and you need to get back a little bit the speed and the confidence and it takes time, and you are already losing why you’re starting so it’s complicated.
“Pierre-Louis has fought like hell to get a full program and has managed to get what he wants – a full season in a top team, and for sure M-Sport and the Puma is a top team.”
It’s a step up for Loubet, but a reunion for Gilsoul who last worked with M-Sport some 10 years ago now. That 2013 season was one of his best with Neuville as they firmly established themselves as WRC frontrunners.
“That season was amazing because it was the first time we finished second actually, vice-champion, in WRC and it was an amazing season.
“We did great results, no first place but often nearly all the time on the podium and just behind Sébastien Ogier with the Polo which was a brand new car and very strong car.
“With the Fiesta and the handling of the car was amazing, we were really, really quick. I enjoyed a lot that car and I took a lot of pleasure and we achieved great results with the team.
“So very good memories and yeah very happy to be back in this… it’s a special team. Everybody is like a family at M-Sport.”
All the ingredients appear to be in place. Loubet has the full season he craved, and the co-driver he wanted in Gilsoul: “From my side I just call him. He’s the only one co-driver I called.”
And Gilsoul has the chance to fight again in the WRC.
“For sure it will be a learning year, a learning curve,” he adds. “The idea if you want to learn, you have to get to the finish first so it’s important.
“A nice target would be to be in the top five at the end of the championship and for sure if we can achieve some podiums it would be great.”
But what must feel even greater to even be in the position to be contemplating that. Welcome back to the WRC, Nicolas Gilsoul.