Final preparations are being completed. Previous onboards are for breakfast, lunch and dinner; perhaps a test is being analyzed or arranged. Phone calls are being made and logistics sorted. Rally Portugal is next week and Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani are making sure they are more than ready for their R5 debut in the World Rally Championship.
Except they’re not. Sadly, for the all-American crew, their planned WRC 3 campaign has been cast aside as the world looks to recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Undoubtedly, it’s a shame for Johnston and Kihurani to have to wait a bit longer to make their four-wheel-drive debut in the WRC but it’s also a shame for the WRC. Because on their last competitive outing in Monte Carlo, they blew everyone away.
Driving a Peugeot 208 R2, the pair became the first American crew competing away from home to win their class in the World Rally Championship. On what was also Johnston’s Monte debut, it was an imperious performance.
“The stages were just amazing,” Johnston says.
“The history there, you feel the history in the mountains; it’s truly a special thing to drive there.
“And the conditions are just so tricky so it was a hell of a lot of work for Alex and I and Crazy Leo and Gilbey who were operating as our gravel crew. Everybody was doing it for the first time.
“It was just sort of a flat-out blur for me the whole time. I think something that actually helped is we just showed up on the weekend with zero expectations,” he adds.
“We had thought about jumping up and doing it in the R5 car, but we felt that it would be better to do it in the R2 to just take it a little bit easy and have a lower financial consequence if something were to go wrong. Because if there’s a place where something could go wrong, the Monte is that place with the conditions being as insane as they are.”
So often the Monte can be decided by selecting the right tires, and Johnston and Kihurani made what they thought was a bold call on Thursday night. Running slick compound tires on the front and winters on the rear for the first stage, two more winters were thrown into the trunk of the Peugeot and were bolted on before the final, much snowier, test of the evening.
Johnston recalls: “On that first stage, it was fantastically scary and sketchy. [There were] many moments where I had to check my pants afterwards but we got to the end of the stage and I just instantly was saying ‘wow that was a load of sh*t.’
“I felt like it was an absolute trash stage and then Alex and I were both quite surprised when we saw we had won the stage by over 20 seconds, so we were like ‘aw OK maybe this can be something exciting’ and we ended up winning the second stage as well so that was the first time that we sort of realized ‘hey this could be a spicy result for us, this could be nice.”
It certainly got spicy on Friday afternoon’s first stage when Johnston and Kihurani picked up a puncture and dropped to second behind Damien Obarti. But over the next three stages, Johnston whittled down the 1m17.5s deficit to just 20.4s until Oberti retired on La Bréole – Selonnet with mechanical failure. That paved the way clear for Johnston and Kihurani, who took victory by a shade under four minutes.
“For me what was then important were the last two stages of the rally, even with a three-minute gap we ended up winning both stages and won the powerstage as well,” Johnston says.
“Starting the third year in this sport, I feel like I’m starting to understand note making, what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to achieve, the line, how I’m driving; it was the first rally where I feel like all the pieces were beginning to click into place.
“It was a beautiful weekend [and I] definitely will always have very fond memories as that was the first rally win of my career as well. It is a special one and will remain a special one for me.”
As Johnston puts it, that was to be the perfect “closing of the R2 chapter” as he and Kihurani will step up into a Citroën C3 R5 with Saintéloc Racing for the rest of this year. Johnston drove the car in Hungary last year – the final round of the ERC – to acclimatize to four-wheel-drive and bagged a strong eighth overall and a third-fastest time on the final stage to boot.
This year’s plan was a four to five round predominantly gravel-based WRC 3 program with a few national rallies chucked in; all behind the wheel of the same car that’s already taken Eric Camilli and Marco Bulacia to category glory in Monte Carlo and Rally México in 2020.
“It was going to be a year of learning and development and getting to grips with all-wheel-drive rallying, especially on gravel because I haven’t done that yet,” Johnston says.
“Having the rear wheels help out on Tarmac actually felt quite natural to me as already from Rally Hungary, the driving in the R5 car felt more natural. I felt like my sportscar hands and feet just came back to me in terms of rotating the car a little bit on the throttle and opening the wheel up and it just felt better and I enjoyed it. It was a hell of a lot of fun so I can’t wait.
“We had a nice schedule lined out which I was really, really excited about but then this is the thing with life, there are things that always happen that you can’t plan for so now we’re all here, riding out this same storm.”
Once the storm has been ridden, Johnston and Kihurani will be hoping to create a storm of their own up against Oliver Solberg and co in WRC 3.
Keep tabs with what Sean is up to by following his across social media @seanjrally.