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GP Week : Issue 134
T HE past three seasons have been intense for Thierry. He comes from St. Vith in the south-eastern corner of Belgium, a special region in a country that is already divided into French and Flemish speaking communities, close to the borders with both Germany and Luxembourg. In the St Vith region, however, the people speak a dialect of German instead! As well as being close to the famous Formula 1 circuit at Spa-Francorchamps, St. Vith is a region already known in the rally world, being the home of another famous Belgian, the Ford, Subaru and Skoda team driver Bruno Thiry. Choosing a career in rallying was not an easy step for Thierry: “ When I was young I would go with my father to look at rallies and I was always impressed about the cars, the drivers, how they work their cars and I think I should try it. But it was never a possibility because it was expensive. Of course if I won’t be a rally driver I should not be happy because that is what I always wanted to be. “Before working full-time in rallying, I was working in Luxembourg on machines, but that was never what I wanted. Then in 2008 I was quite lucky. I had the chance to participate in a rally driver talent contest in Belgium and I won. It was a good start. It was organised by Ford in conjunction with the Belgian federation (RACB), and open for young drivers between 18 and 21 years old. “I had participated in 2007 but I was not in the final because I didn’t speak French. So for 2008 I learnt French. My interview now was good, my driving was good, my physical training was quite OK ... at the end I was in the final and I won. So I had one season in Belgium with the Ford Fiesta Group N car and we finished quite well – the pace was there so we impressed a lot of people.” Has Thiry helped Thierry’s career? “In the beginning I did not know him personally. I knew the name, I saw him driving and I realised he was from my region. Quite early in 2008 I had a contact with him personally. He gives me tips, gives me ideas to help.” Then came another step forward, the BFGoodrich drive. Through the 2009 IRC season, BFGoodrich and the Kronos preparation team invited journalists from the region where the next round of the series would be held, to decide which local driver should have the chance of an all-paid drive in a competitive S2000. “At the time I was driving a Citroen C2 in Belgian rallies. I had two races and we won both these. My third race should have been in Ypres but then I was nominated for the BFGoodrich prize-drive which I won. I got a drive for Ypres in a really good Peugeot S2000 car. It went not so good because we went off on the fifth stage but we were fourth overall and the pace was good. To be on the pace with the fastest cars was a good start for my future. “Comparing a four-wheel-drive car with the cars I had driven before was completely different. There was much more going on in the braking, the speed on the corners was much higher. I was really impressed that the difference was so big.” This opportunity also brought Thierry into the chance to work with the Kronos international rally team: “Kronos are based at Namur, not so far from St Vith. I had some contact with them even before. And I think their chief Marc van Dalen liked my way of doing things, how I work and how I prepared for my races and he pushed Peugeot Belgium to take me on as one of their regular drivers.” How did things go from there? “There was now a lot of rallying going on. In 2009 I was competing in Belgium where we won the Citroen Racing Trophy atthewheeloftheC2R2Max.In2010I was involved in two championships, the JWRC series in the world championship in a Citroen C2 S1600 with the French Automeca team and also the IRC with Kronos and Peugeot Belgium Luxembourg in a Peugeot 207 S2000.” Highlight was winning the JWRC category in Bulgaria: “In the Juniors the pace was each time there but I had only one victory because of a lot of puncture problems. In IRC the season there was a lot of ups and downs. Sometimes the pace was there but each time we went off the road my feeling was not so good. I lost the confidence in myself even though deep inside I knew I could go faster. “I had not had enough testing. I needed my own set up because I always had to use the set up of some other drivers. So it was really difficult to drive the car for me. I had a lot of tests before this year’s season and it seems to work. Now I feel much better, the car was changed a lot, it is better than last year.” The Skodas and the Peugeots are fighting each other closely in the IRC these days. Do you think they are equal? “Yes definitely. But earlier in 2010 there was a big difference between them. Peugeot had the new engine modification for Ypres last year and then came the homologation upgrade in Sanremo. At the beginning of this year I did a lot of development, we tried some new dampers with the new wide bodywork and the Peugeot is now much Thierry Neuville, Belgium’s future Every way you turn in rallysport, young drivers are coming to the fore. Meet another one – 23 year-old Thierry Neuville. The young Belgian sat down to chat with Martin Holmes 40