Achieving a career-best finish in the World Rally Championship is something to savor. Whether the crew is competing in the top class or on their way up the ladder, it’s always an important moment in their careers.
For Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani there was celebration last week when they equaled their best finish of 11th overall, but topped it up with second in WRC2 on Safari Rally Kenya – their first ever podium finish.
But that was equally mixed with a sense of relief to have just seen the finish line, as believe us when we tell you they did it the hard way last week.
The Safari was always going to be a big event in Johnston and Kihurani’s WRC2 campaign. Not only was it their nominated ‘overseas’ round, but it was a homecoming for Kihurani who is half-American, half-Kenyan.
It’s also obviously a supreme sporting challenge that Kihurani had predicted “was going to be 30-40% more brutal than in the past”. Little did he know how true his words would prove.
Their problems began on the recce when Johnston began to feel rather sick. That’s never a good situation to be in, but to be feeling awful just ahead of the biggest and toughest WRC event of the season was far from ideal, to say the least.
“From Sunday to Monday I was up all night vomiting and evacuating my bowels as well, it was incredibly uncomfortable,” Johnston told DirtFish.
“So on the Monday, the first day of recce, I had the grand total of three granola bars throughout the whole day, starting in the early afternoon just because I was so nauseous and sick, it was the most uncomfortable recce I think I’ve ever driven in my entire life.
“My stomach never really recovered in terms of feeling good and happy, but I don’t know what it was on Friday evening – I was feeling quite hungry after the day of rallying so I ate a bunch, but then my stomach pain just kept growing and growing and I kept getting more and more nauseous.
“And then there was a music festival going on right across the street from our hotel, and it was so loud I was able to literally feel the music in my skeleton, and I think it was around 3am that they finally toned down the music festival.
“Between the noise and just feeling immense stomach pain and nausea I only got a few hours of sleep that night, I woke up in the morning and tried to vomit but at that point, it was just dry heaving, so not great.
“I came to service and was in tears just from how intense the stomach pain was, but luckily the chief medical officer was great and had one of the doctors on-site give me a shot of Omeprazole directly into my arm about a minute before getting into the rally car. That helped with the nausea but I was still just in crazy pain in the car.
“On Sunday I felt a little bit better, still not good for a normal rally but I felt a million bucks compared to how I felt on Saturday.”
In true Safari spirit, Johnston soldiered on. It was uncomfortable, it was never easy, but he and Kihurani made it to the end of what was a hugely important weekend for Kihurani in particular.
“It meant everything just going over the start ramp, let alone finishing and achieving a podium,” Kihurani told DirtFish.
“That whole start ramp at the Convention Centre in Nairobi is really historic and it’s something that I’ve seen all of my heroes do over the years. I know it’s something my dad always dreamed of doing and it’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing, so just sitting there realizing how many decades have passed and how long that journey has been from before even I was born to get to that point, I think it finally hit me when we were pulling up to the ramp.
“It made me even teary-eyed, and that’s not something that happens so often! It was very, very special just to make that start and be competing”
“I’m going to jump in and say it was one of my favorite moments of our working partnership so far,” said Johnston.
“Sharing that moment going over the ramp and to see Alex clearly so moved and so grateful to be there, it was an absolute honor to bear witness to generations of rally passion coming full circle as we drove up the ramp.
“It was truly something special and it was a gift for me to even just be there and witness that. It was a super beautiful moment.”
Once out on the stages though, the plan was simple: survive.
“On the recce it just seemed so, so rough,” Kihurani explained.
“It’s hard when you’re competing and losing time to believe that attrition will come, but after that recce, we knew others were going to drop out. We just had to try to do our best to avoid as many problems as possible, and not worry about losing some seconds with a compromised setup with maximum ride height and a lot of extra weight in the car for additional tools and spares.
“I think our approach was really sound and I think that was proven during the rally.”
Despite the crew sticking to task and avoiding any trouble, the harsh conditions of the Safari would begin to take their toll – specifically the final stage of Friday: Kedong 2.
Johnston and Kihurani were fastest in WRC2 on the stage but their Citroën C3 Rally2 had ingested some fesh-fesh dust that would have a knock-on effect for the next day.
“The team had to repair and replace so many components at the end of any day of the Safari Rally that they weren’t quite able to get to the bottom of the engine issue at that service, and short 15-minute service the following morning wasn’t enough either,” Kihurani explained.
“The problem was carrying on and because the team wasn’t sure exactly what the problem was, we weren’t sure if we were doing some damage to the car by continuing to run it.”
Eventually, with the car not improving and actually losing brakes plus the driver still feeling sick, a strategic call was made to retire ahead of Saturday’s final stage and incur a 10-minute penalty. The gap behind was sufficient enough to safeguard their second place in class, and retiring would give the Saintéloc team far more time to repair the car.
The president of Kenya handing us our trophies at the end, that was a pretty ridiculous way to come home after being away for over 10 yearsAlex Kihurani
“Once we realized we didn’t actually need to do the last stage in order to keep second position, and we could basically have a new car for Sunday if we retired before the last stage, we wisely agreed to return back to service rather than subject the car and Sean to the second pass of Sleeping Warrior. It was such a great choice because we were able to have a car that we knew could finish on Sunday,” said Kihurani.
“I’m certainly very happy that my first WRC2 podium could come in Kenya,” he added. “It would’ve been nice if we could’ve gotten our first WRC points as well, but it’s the reality of having so many greats wanting to come back and do a rally like this like Sébastien Loeb and Ogier, and I wouldn’t ask for them to stay at home just so I could get a point,” he laughed.
“But the president of Kenya flagging us away at the start and then handing us our trophies at the end, that was a pretty ridiculous way to come home after being away for over 10 years!”
Johnston, naturally, feels similarly accomplished to have made it to the end – and with a podium to boot – given everything he had to deal with.
“I’m certainly proud of having made it to the end of this crazy rally all things considered, and for it to be a podium as well I think Alex and I earned it,” he said.
“I hoped it would have been more of a fight but given everything that we had to deal with, I’m kind of glad that we were able to just survive in our little Rally2 car.
“It was a massive, massive challenge on so many levels this event, and so I feel to be rewarded with a career-best finish is deserved.”
There’s no rest for the wicked though as Johnston and Kihurani will be back at it in just two weeks’ time when they tackle Rally Estonia – the event they have the most experience of in a Rally2 car.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Johnston. “Obviously we had the big crash last year which was a bummer but it’s time for some redemption.”
“It’ll be interesting going switching between events that are polar opposites,” added Kihurani.
“On Safari you have to get your head into a mode to drive slower than you’d ever think imaginable, and in Estonia, you’ve got to go crazy-fast everywhere.
“It’ll be interesting and fun to make that transition and at least we have quite a bit of experience at this event, so it should be nice to go flat out again flying through the air and just trying to maximize the speed and go for it.”