Thierry Neuville has a penchant for getting four wheels off the ground. Earlier this year Hyundai’s World Rally Championship driver achieved the longest-ever jump at the famous Colin’s Crest in Sweden, flying 44m through the air and smashing Ken Block’s 37m record from 2011 in the process.
It’s often the money-shot of a rally stage, but behind the spectacle of a jump there is a precise science that relies on perfect synchronisation between driver, co-driver and machine.
Talking to Neuville in Finland, where he’s testing for the 2016 season, the secret to his Colin’s Crest success sounds fairly simple: “I stayed flat on the throttle”.
But the Belgian explains there’s a lot more to it than a heavy right foot, and not every jump allows a hell-for-leather flat-out approach at 120mph.
Indeed, Neuville describes how each jump has its own characteristics, and the greatest challenge is what comes before and after it; the approach and landing are key to the jump’s success.
“As soon as you brake the car goes down on its dampers,” Neuville explains. “When you get up to the crest and release the brakes the car comes out of the dampers and the springs push the car up as you take off, so you get a really big jump.
“But you’re not aiming for this, you don’t want the highest jump,” he warns. “You have to be very careful to be off the brakes before you jump. This is the main thing, if not you can have high jumps that lose you time.
“Don’t brake too late, and don’t brake too early,” he emphasises.
Slower jumps and crests are taken in gears two to four, and the rule of thumb for them is simple: the less time your wheels are in the air, the faster you go. That’s because you need to get traction back as fast as possible to pick up speed again. But for the fast jumps that are tackled in sixth gear, you need to be low and you need to be fast, and well-timed braking is still crucial on landing.
One of the many dangers is damaging the front of the car. “If the nose is pointing down in the air you can land on the front and damage the radiator,” he says.
“If you keep on the brake as soon as you lift off the throttle and take off, the front goes down and you will hit the nose when you land.
At WRC level drivers get to recce the stages before the event to make pace notes, and making accurate descriptions of the jumps is of paramount importance.
“You have to have very good pace notes with your co-driver from the recce to help you get the car on the correct line before you go over the jump so you can land on the right point afterwards. Especially when there are corners straight after the jump, because you want to land on the right line into the apex,” says Neuville.
The driver can only do so much, though. Suspension settings are key to jumps, and that’s what helps the car land flat without bouncing. Neuville’s Hyundai i20 WRC may bear some resemblance to the road-going version, but that’s where the similarities end. The 300bhp rally car features a host of changes, the main ones being stronger, oversized competition dampers and a more rigid chassis with a roll cage.
It was engineered by Hyundai’s WRC team boss Michel Nandan, who says that calibrating the suspension is a difficult balancing act: “In rally cars, what you are looking for is to have as much traction as possible.
But if you want a good landing with good absorption from a jump, the damping has to be quite efficient and stiff, which will not give you good traction in normal driving.
“There has to be a compromise between having a good landing while still offering good traction.”
WRC regulations are quite open for suspension settings, Nandan says, but there are still some mandatory rules.
All cars must use MacPherson strut suspension with Reiger shock absorbers, for example, as well as conventional dampers with no active system and no special bushes that could create less friction.
After the car has been homologated, the main dimensions of the dampers cannot change, but lots of other things can be altered throughout the course of the season and even during rallies, such as the lengths of struts and the damper settings.
“You really need a lot of damping force, but you have to make sure the car doesn’t bounce when it lands,” Nandan says. “The work we do is on the damper settings, the spring rates, and the balance in the springs front to rear. We are trying to get as much travel as we can.
“We have to see how far we can go to be soft with the damping and springs and still have good absorption on landing.”
Obviously, there’s a lot of risk attached to each jump, and when things head south the driver is helpless.
“Testing in Finland last year, I had my biggest crash ever,” Neuville says. “It was a huge jump and when I landed I was already out of line. I couldn’t do anything, just wait.”
The view from the co-driver’s seat
Neuville’s co-drover, Nicolas Gilsoul, has been working with the Belgian since 2011 and has special marks in his pace notes to identify the jumps.
“In the relationship between a driver and a co-driver, confidence is very important. He has to trust in what I tell him, and I have to trust in his driving.
“For jumps, the driver knows exactly where they are on the stage; I just have to read the pacenote at the right time at the right rhythm.
“My notes give simple directions like a distance, which side of the road you must be, how long the corner is, what speed you should be at, and what the jump is like. I use four lines of pace notes on a page, and that covers around 1km of the stage.
“It’s important for me to tighten the seat belt before the jump, because it can be painful on the landing. Sometimes you don’t land flat so you are thrown around in your seat and it can be really painful for your neck. There’s a danger that you might miss a pace note if you don’t prepare yourself for the jump.
“Each jump is different and sometimes you have to find some special tips yourself.
“For example, there is a jump in Sardinia where we have to follow the mountains that are 200km away from us to help land the jump properly. When we’re airborne we can only see the sky, so we have to just follow the mountains to find the right line.”