Was 2020 the season Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani were expecting? Absolutely not. But 2020 wasn’t the year anybody on this planet was anticipating, meaning that everything must be taken in context. And with this in mind, both of America’s rising World Rally Championship stars acknowledge that they’ve actually had a pretty solid 12 months.
The year started in perfect fashion with a commanding class victory on the famous alpine tracks just above Monaco. Not only was this a massive boost to Johnston and Kihurani’s confidence, but it was also the perfect way to end the ‘R2’ chapter of their career as they prepared themselves for the next step.
WRC3 and a four-wheel-drive Citroën C3 R5 beckoned. Or at least it should have.
By mid-March, COVID-19 was beginning to spread rapidly around the world and it brought all sport to a complete standstill. Johnston and Kihurani’s planned four-wheel-drive WRC debut – after one appearance in an R5 in the European Rally Championship on Rally Hungary in late 2019 – in Portugal was put on hold, and a new plan was required.
As September rolled around, a revised WRC calendar had been formed and Rally Estonia became that debut event for Johnston and Kihurani. As a warm-up, they squeezed in an ERC return on Rally Liepaja three weeks earlier and scored a solid top 10 finish.
Estonia ended up yielding the best result of the year despite some scary moments over the numerous jumps. The performance in Turkey had looked to usurp the eighth in class Johnston and Kihurani scored on their Estonia debut, as they went third fastest on the opening stage. But an engine fire on the very next test wrecked not just their C3 R5’s engine bay but also any hopes and dreams of a mega result.
Rally Italy in Sardinia proved to be the third and final of Johnston and Kihurani’s three WRC3 appearances in 2020 as they elected to skip the final round at Monza, and it was a rally of more lows than highs.
Rolling towards the end of a stage in a rallycross section and landing back on their wheels may have earned them good air time, but it wasn’t quite the media exposure they had planned. Their rally would end on the final day after first a radiator issue and then an accident caused by a missing detail in the pacenotes on the event’s penultimate stage that ultimately cost them a top-five finish in WRC3.
Usually, Johnston and Kihurani would’ve fixed the detail in the notes after the first pass but were robbed of the chance as they had to discuss how to repair the radiator with the team. It was a tough one to take, but is sure to serve them well in the future.
“I think there’s a lot of positives to take from the year for sure,” Johnston tells DirtFish, summarizing his 2020 season.
“I definitely wish we could’ve spent more time in the car but I think we can be happy with our pace on our first outings in the R5 car on gravel. I think we’ve shown good development and had a lot of really critical and important learning experiences.
“It would’ve been nice to have the result from Turkey which we felt we had the pace to achieve and then for sure the mistake in Sardinia, we threw away a top-five finish there. I think the championship would’ve looked a lot different had these things not happened but as my old team manager from Wright Motorsport in the US used to say ‘if my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle’. There’s no real point in having that conversation.
“For us, we were very clear that this was a learning and development year and we haven’t had any big pressure on us to produce big results, this wasn’t a make or break year.
“Having said that, I’m frustrated that my level of consistency wasn’t quite up to the standard it traditionally has been in the last two years, but this year has also been a steeper learning curve and not just because of the step up to four-wheel-drive.
“It was a big experience to prepare for three world championship events within five weeks, that was a big push. We had a crazy schedule between ERC and Junior WRC last year but preparing for world championship events and ERC events are two different ball games.
“The nice thing is we delivered some good performances while being clear that there’s still a lot of potential and pace there that we haven’t shown yet. I haven’t always had the most patience regarding my own development, so it’s been hard at times knowing that we’re still leaving quite a bit of time on the table, but I trust that with that bit more experience, confidence and therefore commitment, we’ll be taking many strides forward with our performances which only bodes well for the future.
“We certainly don’t feel like we’re anywhere near our limit yet and we’re not doing poorly, so that’s a very good sign.”
Kihurani is similarly satisfied with the pair’s progress in 2020, describing the result back in Monte Carlo as “a dream come true”.
“It’s probably the most historic event and is a rally I always dreamed of doing and never thought I’d actually get to do, so to go there and really be dominant, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” he tells DirtFish.
“And of course, it was really nice to get to compete on a fair few events in the new car despite COVID-19. It was also nice to see that everyone that outpaced us in two-wheel-drive cars, we’re now on pace with or generally a bit quicker than in the R5.
“The results maybe weren’t quite there but we weren’t looking for results this year. We still haven’t been able to roll our pacenotes forward from one year to the next on the same event to build on our experience, but it’s been that kind of year for everyone. We have to be appreciative that we’re able to do this at all and compete in the WRC regularly despite the current global situation.”
Competing in the WRC even more regularly next year is the target, where Johnston and Kihurani will line up in a Saintéloc Racing-prepared new Citroën C3 Rally2. Full focus is now on Monte Carlo just next month, but there have been some speed humps to overcome recently.
“The last month-and-a-half has been difficult,” Johnston explains. “I’ve been dealing with concussion symptoms after our accident in Sardinia and I also ended up contracting COVID-19, so that totally knocked me but luckily it wasn’t a super serious run of it.
“But definitely my fitness is completely wrecked and the combination of that, plus my concussion symptoms meant I have been slightly been a bit compromised both mentally and physically. It was therefore absolutely the right call to sit out at Monza, especially since it’s not on the calendar for next year at this point.
“So I’m absolutely focused on Monte right now and am starting to watch onboards already.
“It’s now a process of taking a step back, looking at everything that we’ve done this year and examining what went well, what we need to be better and then just making a nice slow build towards a comeback in Monte, that’s the intention.
“But for me the biggest priority is rebuilding my fitness. On the spin bike, I’ve been riding with 20 watts less but with a heart rate 30 beats per minute higher than my pre-COVID-19 condition. My cardiovascular efficiency and output through COVID-19 has been impacted by about 50% so there’s a lot of work to do. I’d like to encourage my fellow competitors and all rally fans to continue taking precautions to prevent getting and spreading this thing. Even with quite mild symptoms it’s still kicked my ass, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody!
“A thank you to Saintéloc for their support and understanding and working with us in this strange, crazy season and we look forward to next season with them! And for sure a big thanks must also go to Driscoll’s for their continued support and to DirtFish for covering us and helping us get our story out there.”