Little Ilka goes big
Ilka’s career is a rollercoaster of feelings - ups and downs, coming and going. Here’s how a little quiet girl became the worldwide number one co-pilot.
It begins with silence. Little Ilka lived in a small village in Carinthia - the south of Austria - but she doesn’t talk until the age of 4. „I don’t know why, I can’t remember. But I’ve been told that I didn’t talk until I was 4.
Maybe I simply didn’t want to? “
When asked, Henning Solberg said the only thing he didn’t like about Ilka was that „she is a little quiet in the non-competitive road sections“
Manfred Stohl on the other hand says „There’s no better match for me when it comes to that“. He couldn’t even name anything negative about Ilka. „When others prepare for a Rally one day ahead, Ilka has prepared for weeks in advance. She is highly professional, there are no bad sides. Except maybe, when we had to push a car quite far once, I wished I had someone stronger by my side. But not even that is really true. Ilka trains regularly, she is top fit. “
Jumping into cold Water
15 year old Ilka meets Achim Mörtl - who is five years older than herself - at HTL Ferlach and falls in love with him. Mörtl wants to be a rally pilot and is prone to extreme exercising.
When other young couples are at the movies, Ilka and Achim are at the gym or climbing a rock face. Ilka watches Mörtl’s premier as his girlfriend, but when he crashes the car into a tree at his second rally, his co-pilot quits.
Mörtl remembers „Even back then diligence and accuracy were Ilka’s strong points. I just took her into the car with me. “
When first looking at the car, Ilka felt sick. But at her first test drive Ilka read the directions perfectly. Ilka and Achim pushed each other to be at the top of their game and soon they achieved first successes. The relationship unfortunately literally fell by the wayside and they split up after seven years.
Addicted to the speed
What stayed was the need for speed. Ilka says „I’ve never tried drugs. For me rallying is a drug, like a dream in another world.“
Ilka switched to David Doppelreiter’s cockpit and they have several crashes.
In 1998 she drives with Manfred Stohl for the first time. When his co-pilot Peter Müller got injured, Ilka took his place in New Zealand. After that Ilka and Manfred occasionally did assignments together. Like 1999 in Greece and then Lebanon.
While Stohl made history as a World Champion in Group N in 2000, Ilka tries his father Rudi Stohl’s seat and rally’s at the Austrian Championship with Markus Mitterbauer and the German Championship with Niki Schelle.
In 2001 Ilka Minor and Manfred Stohl officially become a team - the plan is to do 4 World Championship rallies together. When they are in Greece for the Acropolis-Rally, things take a turn. Ilka tells „After a show start in Athens, we drove to Delphi with a regular car. On our way there we got off track and the car overturned. “The painful consequence: A broken femur. The surgery took place in Greece, the bone was pinned. Not long after that Ilka went home, but she couldn’t stand staying there. „I wanted back to rally ASAP.
That’s why I started training soon after the accident. I was told that I could train my leg with about 30kg. “But the pins that Ilka got screwed into the bone in Greece weren’t as secure as expected. „The pins broke at the gym. At first I just felt a little dizzy, but then I saw that the bone was bent. “Ilka had to get surgery again and after weeks of hard rehabilitation training, she was back on track at the season ending in Wales, next to Manfred Stohl.
Ford & Hyundai
In 2002 Minor and Stohl contest the Austrian State Rally-Championship in a Ford Focus WRC. With that World Rally Car they also participate in the World Championship in Cypress and Wales. Almost as an aside they took part in 2 World Championship runs in Group N - Stohl’s favourite rally in New Zealand and the Australia-Rally, where they win the Group N contest.
The following year compete in the OMV Hyundai Accent WRC at the Acropolis-Rally and in Germany as factory pilots plus the world championship runs in Corsica and Wales in a Peugeot 206 WRC.
Back to the PWRC
In 2004 the focus is on contesting in the then called PWRC in Group N. The OMV World Rally Team assigns three Mitsubishi cars and competing along with Stohl / Minor are the Finn Jani Paasonen and the German Sebastian Vollak. Stohl/Minor was very proud to win second place in New Zealand. The only times back in a World Rally Car are in Greece and Wales and the outcomes with the Peugeot 206 WRC, assigned by Bozian Racing, are quite good: They achieve sixth place at the Acropolis-Rally and eighth in Wales.
Aspiring Young Stars
Highly motivated the OMV Kronos World Rally Team forms in 2005 - the Belgian Rally forge Kronos is seen as one of the best in the scene at that point. Manfred Stohl and Ilka Minor are the aspiring young stars and they drive the same car as the new World Champion Sebastian Loeb - a Citroen Xsara Word Rally Car.
Ilka remembers „It was the same type of car of course, but Sebastian Loeb was driving a factory car, when we were driving a customer car. At the season’s opener in Monte Carlo Stohl/Minor win sixth place. While Stohl has to get used to the car mid-season the team creates a stir in Cyprus „Everything worked perfectly. We won second place, which is our best achievement in the WRC. Only Sebastian Loeb was faster than us at this weekend Ilka says while smiling. After fifth place in Wales, Stohl and Minor are on the podium once again as third in Australia.
The best year
In late 2005 Bozian Racing took over the team after Peugeot’s factory retreat. Ilka tells „It was a huge advantage that we could basically choose freely from the pool of the former Peugeot factory team. It was definitely a lucky choice. Manfred could handle the Peugeot 307 WRC better than any other car ever. He still says it’s his favourite car. “
Additionally a friendship with Henning Solberg, which was another pilot in their team, formed. At the „Monte“Stohl/Minor win fourth place and third in Mexico, followed by two fifth and two fourth places. The big coup occurs at the end of the season in Australia (third), New Zealand (third) and Wales, where they achieve second place and therefore were closer to the long desired WRC victory than ever before. „With a little luck we could have won the WRC, as leading Marcus Grönholm had unexpected troubles with his factory Ford. But in the end he saved his well-deserved victory and it was still one of the best days of the season for us. “In the overall ranking they placed fourth, which was their best achievement so far.
With the new Go Fast World Rally Team Solberg and Minor start in Monte Carlo and Sweden in 2012 but then problems with the sponsors and Solberg hopes in vain that the programme is continued. Once again Ilka competes with Stohl at the Austrian Rally Championship and doesn’t have to wait for long to get back to international rallying. The following season Ilka enters Stohl Racing’s IRC-Project next to Andi Aigner in a R4-Subaru. „We did really well at the Barum-Rally but then we unfortunately narrowly missed the Production Cup.“ In Summer Denis Giraudet - Evgeny Novikov’s co-pilot - contacted Ilka after he had been injured and asked her to take his place in a rally in Wales, where Ilka and Evgeny get to know and appreciate each other. Ilka enthuses about him „Novikov has an exceptional talent, I’ve never experienced a rally pilot like that and I’ve sat in top rally pilots cockpits“ Novikov „Ilka is the first person to sit in a car with me without being terrified - I want to thank her for that“
Novikov and Minor compete in the last three World Championship-Rallies of the 2012 season and in Sardinia they achieve second place.
Disappointment 2007 - 2008
Another change of team and car happened in 2007. Ilka „We were afraid that we could lose out at Bozian with the Peugeot as the 307 stayed at its level of late 2005. Due to the French’s World Championship exit it wasn’t developed any further. At the same time we had the opportunity to go back to Kronos Citroen, the Xsara simply was the better WRC at that time. “ Newspapers in Austria wonder what „Stohlito“ was going to achieve with this car and hopes for the first World Championship victory were high. Unfortunately like in 2005 Stohl has trouble handling the setup and finds the Xsara a lot more complicated than the Peugeot. That was why a lot of people were let down in 2007.
Austrians aren’t the only shocked when OMV - a long active sponsor - pulled the plug. Stohl thanked them for their support and focused on his Rally forge Stohl Racing. For Ilka too, 2008 was a quiet year. Stohl and Ilka do get invited to participate in the Portugal-Rally with a Peugeot 207 S2000. At the end of the year their home win at the Waldviertel-Rally with a natural gas fuelled Mitsubishi was later withdrawn due to unintended acts that weren’t in accordance with the regulations. Ilka admits „In 2009 I had put my international Rally career behind myself. I thought I’d just stay in Austria and participate in a few rallies here. “ But then Stohl Racing got invited to the „Rally of Nations“ in Mexico, which they win in a Mitsubishi Evo IX and Andi Aigner with his co-pilot Daniela Weißengruber, who also competed for Stohl Racing got second.
Text Message from Henning
A few days before Christmas in 2009 Ilka can’t believe her own eyes when she got a text message from Henning Solberg, requesting her to be his co-pilot in the World Championship 2010. Ilka can’t help but smiling while she tells „That was the best Christmas gift ever! Of course I accepted I had to take the chance. “ Also Manfred Stohl wants to contest in the Austrian Championship (ÖM) with Ilka in a natural-gas car.
So Ilka competes with Henning Solberg in a Ford Focus WRC at the gravel rallies of the season and in a Ford Fiesta S2000 at the asphalt rally plus the runs in the ÖM with Manfred Stohl. Time was running by really fast - until the Austrian Rally in Admont - when a seemingly minor accident turned out to be disastrous. „We ran into a mound of earth, and it felt like a compression that pushed me into the seat. At first I didn’t really notice anything; I got out of the car and just felt a little weird. But with the France Rally with Henning coming up, I wanted to be sure that everything was fine, so I went to get checked in the hospital. I was shocked when the doctors told me that I had a fractured vertebra and should lie down immediately.“
The fracture had to be screwed to be secured, which was done at the SMZ Ost hospital in Vienna.
„Doctor Michael Kilga, who I know personally, because he himself had a try at being a rally pilot, did the procedure. He is highly professional and I’m still very grateful.“ Once again, Ilka had to undergo hard rehabilitation training. While doing so, she met Melanie Brandstätter in a gym, who was her trainer there. „Melanie put a lot of time and effort into my rehabilitation. We became close friends and still often work out together.“ Melanie is the founder of Flexyfit and cooperates with a lot of gyms all across Austria so that travellers can train anywhere with customary standards. Due to her dedication to getting better, Ilka is already back on track with Henning Solberg at the season ending in 2011.
Michael Park Trophy
When OMV also shut down the natural-gas project, Manfred Stohl was left with a run at the Judenburg-Rally with his Subaru which he had competed in at the IRC. Then the natural-gas project got revived by the association „Gas & Wärme“and Stohl/Minor were able to celebrate their grand comeback with the overall win at the Schneebergland-Rally.
At the end of the year something very special happened in Wales:
Ilka was given the Michael Park Trophy for rally co-pilots.
She was the first woman to ever get that Trophy. Sebastian Loeb’s co-pilot Daniel Elena was one of the former award winners. „I felt so happy to see my work - which I sometimes doubt myself - being honoured internationally“says Ilka. In Wales Ilka and Henning achieve third place.
As a precursor for a lot of female co-pilots she gets a little shy when asked about her ultimate goal „Of course I think about the World Championship title, but that’s more like a dream. I don’t want to be pretentious. “
But this dream could actually become true. Novikov wants Ilka on his side again in 2013 - they both start their first season as full factory pilots for the new Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team.
That dream clearly manifested in the Russian Evgeny Novikov for Ilka - looking back Ilka is convinced that she’s never been closer to her career as a professional factory co-pilot in the World Championship.
Up until now 2013 was the only year in which Ilka competed as a factory pilot. The season opening was good: but then Novikov loses a wheel and they don’t get to the finish line. Ilka remembers „Evgeny was criticized a lot; he had the image of a crash pilot.
Even though believe it or not we finished 11 of 13 World championship runs“But in the course of the season Novikov seems strangely reserved. Although the duo reached good places (fourth in Argentina and Portugal, fifth in France and Spain), they can’t take another spot on the podium.
Ilka reflects „Evgeny failed because he was too straight forward - unfortunately our dream didn’t come true. Our friendship wasn’t well received, but I’m sure we could have been a way more successful team in the WRC“
At least they win the Moscow Rally Masters Show in a Ford Focus WRC.
At Citroen factory pilot Mikko Hirvonen’s side Ilka experiences another extraordinary run „We drove a historic Citroen Visa Group-B car at the Legends Boucles de Spa, but right in the first stage the car burnt down.
At the Sweden-Rally Mikko and his co-pilot Jarmo Lehtinen joked around that Jarmo was too tall for the Visa, so I first thought he was joking when he called and asked me to take Jarmo’s place, because he had been sick.“
Ilka tells about another special run. This time with journalist Reiner Kuhn, also known as the „Kuhnqvist“„We competed at the Russian Dmack Rally Cup in a VW Polo R1 and did quite good up until the point when the drive shaft broke“
Shortly before the season ending in Wales, Ilka already knows that it would be the last time racing on Novikov’s side. „When we said goodbye, I knew that this was the end“ But that shouldn’t be the end for Ilka as she already knew that she was going to contest with Henning Solberg in a few runs at the World Championship in 2014.
Unfortunately 2015 turned out to be a cursed year from the beginning. There were big plans with Henning Solberg, but the outcome was rather disappointing. They did compete in Monte Carlo and at the Sweden Rally but Solberg had a hard time getting sponsors, so a lot of World Championship runs were called off. Ilka doesn’t like to think back „ It was a hard time for both of us. I couldn’t do any other project as I had committed to this one. “In addition to that the project Tamara Molinaro seemed uncertain as the next test runs were taken only midyear.
Like in the previous year Ilka visits the Rally in Weiz at the Austrian Championship but Andi Aigner and her again don’t get to the finish line due to break failure.
For the first time Ilka is scared for her international career „When all cockpits are taken, of course you think about if that was it. “
Her calendar is empty, which calls for something new. Ilka decides to complete a course to become a Personal and Functional Fitness Trainer. During that time she also completes runs and extreme challenges like the „Wild Boar Run“. Towards the end of the year Ilka can already feel the updraft that was about to come in 2016.
From Naught to Sixty - 2016
Ilka and Solberg had already made plans for a few World Championship runs late 2015, but what she did not see coming was the rush of requests she should get within January 2016.
Ilka laughs „Well I wouldn’t say I was rushed but there were quite a few calls, of course from Solberg but then also from Martin Prokop“
The successful Czech asked her to join her on his project: he wants to participate in the world-famous Rally Dakar in 2017, where Ilka will not only use the pace notes but also a compass.
The project start was planned for mid-2016.
At first however Ilka and Solberg compete in five World Championship runs. Soon it is clear that the new technological developments don’t make it any easier for the privateers. Ilka explains „We soon noticed that the custom WRC felt like an old lady. It’s hard – there weren’t many cars from the current WRC generation available as the teams were focussing on the new developments of the 2017 generations. As privateers we automatically fell behind. “
In order to turn things around, Solberg switched to a Ford Fiesta R5 at the legendary Finland-Rally. But the efforts weren’t rewarded „We had problems with the power steering in addition to Solberg not having the right driving style for a R5“
In summer Ilka breaks new ground when she completes the Baja Poland as a test drive with Martin Prokop. „It was a complete new start and we did quite well as we achieved sixth place in the overall ranking even though the intercom system failed at kilometre 80 out of 175km and I had to navigate per hand signs“
Later in 2016 they take more desert test drives and after the rally in Liezen Prokop and his girlfriend Andrea join Ilka in a training camp in Kaprun. Ilka smiles „We get along well and the atmosphere is comfortable but also very focussed. “ That’s certainly very important to be a good team out in the desert.
What Ilka likes most about the new environment „Martin’s team is a small but fine one. Almost like a family. We all sleep in the service park and that’s good for team building. We sit down together to barbecue; it’s almost like bonfire romantic. I like it. “
Ilkas calendar is now completely full due to the Tamara Molinari project. Tamara and Ilka take the Opel Adam R2 as a course car and at the rally in Liezen shall be the first competition run in the Austrian Championship. Soon after that they tackle the 3 Städte Rally in Germany where they hit 23 out of 139 participants and second in their group. In Liezen they were 13th overall and third in their group. „Tamara is a good driver, even though asphalt isn’t her preferred type. She sure has great potential. “
At the Waldviertel-Rally Ilka navigates the young pilot through their favourite terrain: gravel. They hit rank 30 total and 7 in their class.
The motto for 2017 is set in stone - the journey across the desert will soon begin
As Privateers Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor race in six World Championship Rallies and achieve five top ten spots. Ilka says „That’s as far as you can get as a private team“In Wales they shine again until their car leaks fuel.
Mid-year Ilka gets offered to be part of another very interesting project „Raimund Baumschlager requested me to be part of a start-up project with a young Italian girl“At that time Tamara Molinaro was only 16 years old, a very welcome challenge for Ilka: „It was new for me, we had a few test runs and her talent seemed to be very promising. In order to give her time the project was construed to be long term. The difference the projects I had done before, was that she was so young and nobody could know how she would react“
At the end of the season in 2014 Ilka got the chance to get to know another area as she acts as a driver’s representative at the Waldviertel-Rally for the first time which she was going to do again the next year.