WRC pilot Thierry Neuville on flying

A World Rally pilot doesn't even notice how high his car flies, because he concentrates too much on driving. Hyundai WRC driver Thierry Neuville explained to us what else he ignores during the race and what character traits a professional must have.
Text Natalie Diedrichs
Photo Hyundai

We met the Hyundai World Rally Championship driver at the Nürburgring. A rather unusual place for Neuville, as his races are usually held elsewhere. But today, for PR purposes, he started as a guest at a round of the German Touring Car Championship TCR Germany - and without further ado clinched the day's victory. Just like that.

Is it really that easy to take part in another race series and win there as well?
Yes and no - we didn't come here completely without preparation. I had a few days of testing with the Hyundai Motorsport team, including Luca Engstler and Gabriele Tarquini. They were able to give me many tips that helped me a lot. Especially when you have little experience in circuit racing. If you come here unprepared and just jump into the car, it's not possible. Besides, the weather conditions were dry. If it gets wet, it will look different again.

Didn't you miss your co-driver on the circuit?
Oh, that was actually quite okay. Of course I was on my own in the car, but you're connected to the engineer by radio and can ask a few questions here and there. For example, what is the time gap to the competitors and how much of a lead you have.

If you compare WRC and TCR, how do the racing challenges differ?
The challenges in WRC are much higher, because you always drive a bit in the dark. You know the track because you've driven it twice before, but the conditions are always changing. On the circuit, the conditions are usually the same from start to finish, maybe apart from the weather. But you know the track inside out, you can memorize every curb, every stone, every bump on the road. That definitely helps. The challenge in the circuit is to drive constantly. That means to brake, steer in and accelerate out with great precision. In WRC you drive more by feeling.

What character traits do you think a good rally driver should have?
He must be very hardworking. It's a lot of work and it's even more important to gain experience and put it into practice. And for that you have to prepare yourself well, work hard. Otherwise, you need a certain talent - like any sportsman. And then you have to be a little crazy here and there.

»The challenge in the circuit is to constantly drive. That means to brake, steer in and accelerate out with great precision. In WRC you drive more by feel.«

Is it easy for you to give up control? In some situations you have to trust your navigator blindly…
It's always an interplay and when everything is going well, it's great. But of course there are also weekends where the harmony might not always fit or one of the two might not deliver the full performance. Then the whole thing is naturally more difficult. On the one hand it depends on both of us, but on the other hand it also depends on the car and the whole team. In the end, however, I have the steering wheel in my own hands and decide how fast I can go and what risks I take.

Is that why you became a driver and not a navigator?
Navigating has never interested me. It was always very clear that I wanted to remain a driver.

Have you ever tried it?
Yes, but just for fun. I wasn't really into that.

What's one situation in the cockpit you'll never forget?
The rally co-drivers have a time control card that they always have to have with them. We lost it a few years ago. So we had to go back and look for it. That was a huge stress, because we were again on time for the next WP (red. Note: Evaluation stage) had to be on time again. We couldn't find the map, but we drove the other way again - I was going pretty fast. And when I braked sharply, the map came out from under my feet. So the whole rush was in vain. Fortunately we still made it.

Where do you like to ride most, in the forest, in the desert or on the ice?
Preferably on asphalt.

Do you have a favorite route or country?
Every rally is specific, interesting and varied. The highlights for me are always the Rally of Finland and also the Rally of Germany, because it is close to my home town in Belgium. Mexico is also an exceptional rally and Sardinia is beautiful. When I think about it, all the tracks are actually cool.

»In the end, I hold the steering wheel in my own hands and decide how fast I can go and what risks I take.«

The jumps, for example in Finland, look really spectacular. Do you notice that in the car too?
You notice it, but you're so concentrated that there's little time for emotional outbursts. You take off, wait until you've landed again and try to drive on as fast as possible. Nothing else matters at this moment.

Have you ever washed your car yourself after a really muddy rally?
No, fortunately not. But at the England Rally there is always a lot of mud on the cars after each stage and then we try to remove the worst dirt from the cars. That's quite a lot of weight, sometimes up to 80 kilos and of course they have to be removed before the next stage starts. We have to do that ourselves then. But we have special tools for that, with them it works quite well.

What would have been plan B if you hadn't become a rally driver?
I never thought about that before. It was clear that I wanted to become a rally driver. The chance to achieve this goal was very slim, but somehow it worked out.

And when you're not participating in a TCR Germany race, are there other race series that appeal to you?
A Formula 1 test would be interesting. Otherwise, I would like to drive the 24 hours at the Nürburgring and in Spa sometime.

**Hyundai is also participating in the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring. So it doesn't sound unrealistic. **
Absolutely. I'm sure it will happen sometime.

»You take off, wait until you've landed and try to drive as fast as possible. Nothing else matters at that moment.«

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