Henning Isdal has made a career of rally. He often attends 30 rallies a year and has been involved in rally for over 30 years. From a Saab at a hillclimb to staying on pace with Solberg’s world record time on Ouninpohja, Henning has done it all.What’s your name? Where are you located? What do you do for a living?
My name is Henning Isdal, I’m 54 years of age, living in Norway. I am educated as a journalist, but currently work as CEO in a small television production company, specializing in motorsport productions. As I am also working as a reporter and commentator on our programmes, I am very much part of the production crew attending rallies and other forms of motorsport something like 30 weekends per year.
What got you interested in rally?
21 years of age and working as a journalist in a small local newspaper I was invited to a hillclimb race by one of the legendary figures in Norwegian rallying. The race was very close to the town we lived, and we actually used the rally car – a Saab 96 V4 – to drive to the event. It was the first time I had ever sat in a rally car, let alone seen them driven in anger. It was a miserable October Sunday, rain pouring down, but I stood beside the hillclimb track taking pictures with my camera – and I was completely hooked! Little did I know that rallying and racing later should be my main occupation.
In rallying I have mostly competed as a codriver, and currently I have no competition car(s). I used to own a couple of Volvo 242s – mostly used for trackday events – and I did use one of the cars in a short (sprint) rally a few years ago. During five years I was partner in a company offering trackdays and we also had a fleet of five Opel Corsa racing cars for our customers to use. It ended up being a major headache, because lots of customers coming to drive looked upon themselves as great racing drivers and wouldn’t behave as told. Standing by the side of the track, with full responsibility and ownership of the cars that were being driven by morons and monkeys, was indeed a tough strain on the nervous system.
I have also owned a couple of Honda Civic tarmac racing cars, and during ten years from 1990 I did quite a bit of roundy-roundy driving, including entering and finishing the famous Nürburgring 24h race in 1994.
Did you buy your rally car or build it?
What challenges did this cause? What benefits did you realize as a result?
I have never built any rally or other competition cars. I am of absolutely no use as a mechanic, and simply haven’t got that interest.
What’s the most rewarding part of being involved in rally? The most challenging?
Rallying has been not only a hobby but also my occupation, at least for the last 15 years. As such It has also been an extremely important part of my life in general. That’s not to say that I haven’t got other interests, but being part of the rallying community has resulted in many friendships that also extends beyond the sport. The challenge of the sport has been adapting to ambitious drivers with very quick cars. To codrive a quick driver in a WRC car – and to do that job as free of mistakes as possible – is a challenge in itself. I have found that the adrenaline rush reading the pacenotes and finishing a demanding stage in a rally is just as high as when I have driven circuit racing myself.
How many events did you enter last year? Is that trending up or down? Why?
After 30 years of codriving my decision was to put my helmet on the shelf after the World Championship event Rally Norway in February last year. I codrove a guy named Bernhard Kongsrud in a Mitsubishi Evo IX N4 car in the rally, and we finished in 34th place or something like that after a very eventful three days of rallying. I thought that would be a fitting end to a long career. Anyway, Rally Norway was officially my last rally, but I can’t guarantee that I will never sit in a rally car again. This sport is highly contagious and addictive, to say the least.
From 1990 to 2006 I was very active, codriving the full Norwegian championship every year and on top of that quite a few international events. I have competed in World championship rallies in Norway, Sweden and Finland – as well as international rallies in Luxemburg, Estonia and Germany. During these year I sat in Group A, 4WD Group N and WRC cars, mostly with top drivers.
When Cato Menkerud, the codriver of Henning Solberg, got married in august 2001 I stepped in for him and codrove for Henning Solberg in a Toyota Corolla WRC. It went well, btw, we won the rally. I have also sat in Ford Focus WRC, Mitsubishi Lancer WRC, Peugeot 206 WRC and Skoda Fabia WRC, as well as all the Celica GT4 Group A-cars, the ST165, ST185 and ST205. All fabulous cars, but my absolute favourite throughout my career has been the Toyota Corolla WRC. It was a very loud and macho kind of rally car and of course very fast in the right hands.
What kind of cash prize structure would entice you to enter more rallies or push the car harder?
There are not cash [prizes] in the Norwegian championship – and very little in European events, if at all.
Should rallies be run as for-profit corporations?
Most rallies in Europe and Scandinavia are run by motor clubs based on free and volunteer personnel. Sometimes you would wish that events were organized in a more professional and commercial way, but rallying competes with a host of other sports and the commercial possibilities are not very great as it seems. WRC rallies are of course run by companies, but even these great events are seldom big money earners. In fact Rally Norway has had red figures both years they have run as a WRC-event, both in 2007 and 2009. I feel it is very difficult to estimate the full commercial value of rallying, and in my country no companies are queeing up to run it as a business.
What do you think about recce vs pacenotes?
We started with pacenotes in Norwegian rallying in 1991, and all championship rallies after that has been run with pacenotes. In the beginning it was nearly only organisers’ safetynotes/pacenotes and no recce, except in the European Championship event, rally Finnskog. Today all rallies have a one-day, two throughfares recce, and you can of course write your own pacenotes. The organisers still offer their readymade pacenotes, and approximately 60% of the competitors are still buying and using those. But still you will prefer to do the full recce, to correct and prepare the pacenotes for your own preferences. In my opinion its silly not to do that, but then again I understand that some drivers wish to save money. Anyway you will always find quite a few competitors driving just for fun, and then it won’t matter that much. But if you are driving with ambitions, either to win outright or to develop yourself as a driver, you need a good codriver and proper pacenotes. It goes without saying that the codriver is the most intelligent party in the car…!
On spectators and critical issues:
People spectating at rallies in my country are normally well behaved. As a competitor of course you want lots of spectators, but you don’t want to see them in stupid places. There has been a couple of incidents I have experienced myself, especially a couple of drunk guys falling out into the road both in Rally Sweden and Rally Finland. The guy in Finland was actually jumping down on the road, but he didn’t take into account that we came closer to the car in front of us than one minute. In fact we were only ten seconds behind. The guy jumped from a bank down onto the road and fell down on his knees. I bet he was a bit stunned – not to say shocked – by the rally car bearing down towards him in 130 km/h, because I could only see the whites in his eyes! Sitting on his knees he had no chance to get away, but luckily we missed him by a few inches.
On a more general note spectator incidents and accidents are the sports biggest challenge. There are just too many accidents involving spectators, quite a few regrettably with fatalities. In 10 minutes browsing through YouTube or Motorsportmad.com you will find numerous videos with fatal accidents involving spectators. In some countries (southern and eastern Europe) they just don’t seem to care, it’s looked upon as “part of the game”. It’s certainly not so in Norway, but still we have had our share. In 1996 a drunk guy fell out in the road and died after being hit by a rallycar that had no chance avoiding him. Worse was an accident during a Norwegian championship round in September 2009. One of our most promising drivers (indeed maybe one of the worlds most promising talents), Andreas Mikkelsen, left the road with his Subaru in a tarmac event, and tragically he hit a 10 year old girl sitting in a camping chair not far away from the road. [Mikkelsen’s car pictured below. – Ed.] She and her father shouldn’t have been in this spot, and she certainly shouldn’t have been seated in a chair, but still this was a tragedy for all involved. It has also been a challenge for the sport and its continued existence – especially as the community and authorities started asking questions about safety measures in the sport. As a sport we absolutely needs to be viewed positive in public opinion. We can’t afford being “stamped” as a dangerous sport for people spectating.
For the rallying community this has been the most critical issue needing to be addressed, and will continue so in the future. On short terms we have upgraded spectator safety plans and bettered information to and education of spectators. We have also increased the number of safety officials and a rescue helicopter has now been made compulsory during the Norwegian championship rounds. More work with safety issues shall and will follow.
Another issue for global rallying in the future are the environmental questions. They will need to be addressed, but I really can’t see rallying being very spectacular with electrical cars… But then again, maybe I’m completely wrong.
If you could enter any WRC event, which rally would that be? Why?
I have been so lucky to have participated in a number of WRC-events, but only in Norway and our neighbouring countries. Rally Norway is a fantastic winter rally for those who want to do something special and enter a WRC rally as an adventure. It has proper, cold and snowy winter conditions and very challenging and great stages. It’s more technical and not so overall fast as Sweden, but its plenty fast enough in some places. Just enter Rally Norway, Mountain stage on YouTube and you will find some great inboard sequences. The stage is like a very fast toboggan run, where you constantly use the snowbanks to “correct” the cars direction.
Finland is rallying. It says a lot when a whole nation puts rallying on top as their favourite sport – together with ice hockey. The Finns are just crazy about their rallying and Rally Finland is of course, as everybody knows, the fastest rally on the planet. It’s a forest race, pure adrenalin with all the jumps and average speeds on some stages above 130 km/h. The most famous stage in the World rally Championship is the 34 km Ouninpohja. In a survey among WRC-drivers a few years ago, nearly all the most famous drivers put Ouninpohja on top of their list as the most daunting and challenging stage. During the last years Ouninpohja has been reduced and split up in parts, because it has become too fast according to FIA rules. Anyway I had the chance to sample the full might of Ouninpohja in 2000, and we did it twice in the same day. In my pacenotes for the 34 kms I had 58 jumps and “kicks”! The car was flying absolutely everywhere, and some jumps were really big. Even in a Group N Mitsubishi we did the 34 km stage in less than 17 minutes, that’s quite fast on a gravel road in the forest.
A fairytale story
My country, Norway, is a very small country with only 5 million inhabitants. Still we have a number of drivers on a very high level – and lots of talents popping up to eventually replace the Solberg brothers. The story of Norwegian rallying has been a fairytale story, and I have been lucky to be a part of it since 1979.
Actually rallying was banned in my country from 1972 to 1985. In 1979 we had our first rally in “modern times”, but the whole event had to be staged on roads inside a closed military camp, and without spectators. Eventually the sport got going again with small events in restricted areas, but the ban wasn’t formally loosened until 1985. This was when we actually had the chance to start building the sport properly again. In 1996 Henning and Petter Solberg popped up on the scene after a couple of years with rallycross-racing and hillclimbing. They were a sensation, and especially Petter who soon passed his older brother Henning in development. In 1998 Petter won his first (and only!) Norwegian Championship in a Toyota Celica ST205. The same year he also finished 2nd in Rally Lebanon, a result that made the teambosses in WRC aware of him. The rest is a well-known storsy, really. Petter got an offer from Ford in the autumn of 1998 as a “third driver”. He soon advanced to second driver, left Ford for Subaru in 2000, took his first WRC victory in Rally GB 2002 and won the world title in 2003.
Getting a world champion has made a tremendous boost for Norwegian rallying – as other young talents was shown that it was actually possible to become a world class driver. In the ranks behind Petter and Henning Solberg Norway now has great talents like Mads Østberg, Andreas Mikkelsen and Eivind Brynildsen taking part in the WRC. Especially Mikkelsen is rated as a possible future world champion.
I have been lucky to take part in this since I first sat in a rallycar 31 years ago. Competing directly against Petter Solberg in 1998 was a high point. The first championship rally that year, me and my driver Per Engseth ended five seconds behind Petter and his (at that time) codriver Cato Menkerud. All in all I have sat in all kind of cars, front-, rear- and four-wheeldriven. The slowest car was a 1300 cc Lada Samara built in Russia, but it was by no means least fun! In total I have codriven more than 30 drivers, some of them really fast guys close to worldclass level. I can sincerely say that rallying is a great sport. Sitting beside a fast driver in a WRC car, reading the pacenotes, is a mindblowing experience. If that doesn’t keep a person young, I really don’t know…
Rally Gearbox Magazine would like to thank Henning for taking the time to share so many of his rally stories with us in this interview. We would also like to thank John Vanlandingham for reaching out across the language barrier to help us find Henning.
So what’s your story? How long have you been rallying? How does your regional rally series mitigate the risk to spectators?