Aspiring American pair’s “challenging” WRC2 year

Johnston and Kihurani tell DirtFish how their WRC2 step-up didn't go to plan and how they plan to be back stronger in '22

Sean Johnston

“The general feeling is it’s been a challenging year,” Sean Johnston laughs. “I’ll be the first to say that.”

Hopes were high for America’s World Rally Championship crew Johnston and Alex Kihurani ahead of 2021 – their second season in a Citroën C3 Rally2 – as they stepped up from WRC3 to WRC2.

But their season didn’t quite go to plan, for a number of reasons.

Johnston/Kihurani’s 2021 WRC2 results:

Event Result
Monte Carlo Rally 5th
Arctic Rally Finland 7th
Rally Italy DNF
Rally Estonia DNF
Acropolis Rally 6th
Rally Spain 5th
WRC2 championship 13th
Sean Johnston

On the Monte Carlo Rally, Johnston was still recovering from COVID-19 over the winter and was “certainly not fit yet”, on Arctic Rally Finland a trip into a snowbank cost them valuable time while the less said about the SS1 Rally Italy accident that ruined their entire weekend, the better.

Rally Estonia was no better as the duo also crashed, but this time more violently. However the recipe was similar – a small mistake that had rather big consequences.

“After the crash we had conversations with several Junior WRC crews, several WRC2 and 3 crews and even Kalle Rovanperä,” Johnston says, “it was like seven different drivers who told us they had the exact same moment there.

“Kalle said he was just grateful he had the power of the WRC car to bring the car back into the corner and not be hanging out there on the exit.”

The severity of the accident meant Johnston and Kihurani skipped their planned trip to Ypres to recuperate, and the Acropolis Rally was compromised too as they “needed to just get to the end no matter what the pace was”.

Sean Johnston

And on their final WRC round, Rally Spain, Johnston “had certainly hoped we would be a bit quicker off the bat” but discovered he needed to work on committing to hanging the car halfway off the road in the several cuts that punctuate that event.

“There’s been some good micro progressions there, but not the trajectory we wanted to see over the course of the season,” Johnston admits. “But as I’ve shared, there are a lot of other factors that we’ve been managing and dealing with.

“It’s been a bit of an ass-kicker but I guess everyone needs a good character building season every once in a while, and we’re certainly looking forward to this break from rallying – taking a nice in-breath and doing some fitness camps at 321Perform and with Dr Rade [Djukic] before the season gets underway again next year in Monte.

“But first we’ll go get some time at home with family, we’ll reset and come out swinging next year where we’ll finally be able to show up with notes that we’ve rallied on to most of the rallies. So that’ll be fun.”


Kihurani adds: “There’s definitely a bit of frustration with this year. At the beginning of the season we were trying to re-establish ourselves again after the accident in Sardinia in 2020, and also Sean was coming in not quite fully recovered from COVID. So given that, I feel like we established a good, consistent pace with a clean run.

“Sardinia and Estonia were the two events we had experience on and we could roll forward our notes from the previous year, so we worked hard to figure out where we can be faster to really try to be on the pace.

“And then both of those were, as Sean mentioned, quite disappointing which is not only frustrating but knocks the confidence again when you have two DNFs like that. You then need to re-establish a baseline of consistency again and have a clean run before you can really progress more. Otherwise, you’re digging yourself further and further into a hole.

“It seemed a bit like we were playing catch up in that way this year which was a bit frustrating, but at least now we established a good base of finishes and clean rallies through the end of the year so that next year we can work again to make that big push and start closing that gap to the guys at the top.”

Sean Johnston

But before they work on that masterplan, DirtFish decided to catch Johnston and Kihurani on the hoof and launch some quick-fire questions at them on their season.

Here’s what they came up with:

What’s your favorite moment of 2021?

SJ: “For me, it might be the Friday evening stage of Greece. I was really happy with our run, it was a stage that was only going to be run once and it was such a beautiful road, there was a gorgeous sunset and for me just in terms of the pure enjoyment and satisfaction of driving a rally car, that was one of the highlights of the season.”

AK: “Hmm, I’m trying to think! I’m actually going to go for Arctic Rally Finland, the Friday night. I’d always wanted to do that rally but thought it would never happen because it’s normally a national rally way far north in Finland, and there’s never many English-speaking drivers that get to do it with the exception of Colin McRae rather famously in 1992. I’ve watched that VHS tape of his onboards over and over and over again when I was a kid.

“So the Friday night stage that we repeated was awesome, really technical jumpy stuff and twists and turns and it was really, really cool and enjoyable. I absolutely loved every kilometer of it.

Alexander Kihurani

Photo: Damien Rosso/Red Bull Content Pool

“And then we went back out in the dark and unfortunately stuffed it in a snowbank and got stuck. However, it was one of the most surreal experiences. There were no spectators were allowed – they were controlling it by drones during the day – but people snuck in under the cover of darkness, and within 35 seconds there were like 12 Finnish dudes shoveling us out.

“They literally took the shovels off me, so I was of no help after the first 20 seconds, and they were able to lift the car out of several feet of snow and allow us to continue which I thought was really cool. That is one of the special parts of rallying that seemed like maybe it would disappear because of COVID, but somehow it still happened.”

SJ: “Good choice Alex, that was a great moment!”

DF: And we didn’t even mention Mexican food either…

SJ: “Haha! That’s not a highlight of the season of rallying but that’s the best restaurant of the season, if that was a thing.”


What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned across the year?

SJ: “For me it’s the practice of resilience. Even when it’s not going well, to show up and do the best job you can even in a compromised state and even with some of the circumstances stacked against you. It’s been tough at points to trust the process and to keep that motivation up but I think it’s been a really, really powerful year in terms of resilience training.

“I know that we’re going to need some more years of experience before we’re really super competitive, as just looking at the guys we’re competing against and the amount of rallies and years that they’ve been practicing this art, this sport, we’re just not there yet.

“But it’s something that I trust and know that we can do, and having a season like this to learn how to manage the disappointment of getting our asses kicked while still working to progress and learn has been powerful training.”

AK: “I guess I’ll have to follow that! What I’ve learned this year is that the support category, the Rally2 class, is the most competitive it’s ever been and this sport never stops progressing.

“To stay even the same speed, you have to continue to get better and be faster. You have to learn how to be more effective at testing and getting the absolute most grip out of the car, without any compromises, and you have to get the absolute maximum out of pacenotes to really do every corner perfectly – nothing less than perfection, every braking point, every entry, every exit in particular is critical just to be in the fight. I never appreciated that it was actually going to be this precise.

Sean Johnston

“Even with these fairly long rallies, it’s still like circuit-racing levels of precision. I guess Sean can actually vouch for whether it is that level of precision, but it feels that way now. There’s no ‘we’ll just sort it out when we get there’ type of attitude – you really have to be perfect everywhere.”

SJ: “Comparing previous seasons of WRC2, the amount of crews that were there and the time differences between them, it seems now the number of crews all fighting at the top is crazy, like I’ve never seen. It’s great, it’s amazing, it’s the best school that we can ask for and I would totally agree with Alex.”

What’s the best thing Sean has done all year?

AK: “[Laughs]. I’m thinking, there’s definitely some good stuff from Monte. I would say in Greece, one of the biggest things – it seems quite small, but my mechanical aptitude isn’t the best.

“We had a stage in Greece where we boiled the brakes, and the very next stage had a really long, steep descent at the end, so there was no way we’d be able to make it through quickly and safely. In addition, the road section was really tight, so tight that the organizers had to add five minutes that morning just to make the road section achievable, but Sean insisted we should still bleed the brakes.

“We practiced bleeding brakes on the R2 [Rally4] car a few seasons ago but not on the Rally2 car, as traveling to the workshop during COVID has been difficult. Sean was able to work through some of the rounded off bolts and deal with the nuances really quickly, and covered for my ineptitude.

“Still, we were able to do a good enough job on a dirt road on the side of a mountain in five minutes, and actually had a good stage and set a good time.”

SJ: “And we made the time control with five or 10 seconds to spare!”


AK: “Starting the stage almost out of breath, Sean still drove a very good stage, it was probably one of the best stages of the loop and significantly better than the one before. That’s the one thing that jumps out in my mind as being quite great this year, and then also that drive on that second-to-last stage in the dark [on Rallye Régional du Haut Pays Niçois] so that we could get the podium, that was pretty fire I must say.”

What’s the best thing Alex has done all year?

SJ: “I’m always just continually amazed by Alex’s performance as a co-driver, but particularly so on the Monte. It’s so much work on the notes and working with the gravel crew, trying to integrate all their changes while navigating me on the road section when it’s dark – it’s absolutely nuts the job that Alex does on the Monte.

“To manage so many variables at once, and to stay calm, focused, and precise while doing it is an art that Alex executes so well. I’m grateful to have him in the car next to me!

“And another thing I’m proud of Alex for is how tight he held onto those notes during our Estonia crash haha.”

AK: “Oh yeah! And they’ll survive to be leveraged for another year. That’s a good one Sean.”

SJ: “The centrifugal g [force] from the speed of the roll flung my hand up to the ceiling so hard that I sprained my wrist against the cage, but Alex held those notes low and tight ‘like a boss’ and didn’t lose them while we were rolling at 140kph [86mph].”

AK: “Oh wait that reminds me! One thing I was proud of Sean about this year is in Sardinia when we rolled and landed on the wheels, he put the clutch in and kept the engine going. It was just unfortunate where we were, we should’ve been able to just drive straight out. It would’ve been even more of a bad-ass roll-and-continue than last year’s Sardinia.”

Sean Johnston

What are you looking forward to most in 2022?

AK: “Ooh. There’s lots of things. There’s some events that might be on our schedule that we’re really, really excited about… like maybe a Safari Rally…”

SJ: “It’s a wish, it’s an intention for sure.”

AK: “That’s a bucket list event for a few generations of Kihuranis, so that for sure. But a lot of the events in general, I’m just looking forward to being back to normal, and I’m also looking forward to the first night of Monte Carlo doing the Col de Turini in the legendary configuration on the first night. Really, really looking forward to that. There’s actually so much to look forward to. Portugal: finally doing it!”

SJ: “I’d say I’m looking forward to hopefully our first podium, if we do the right work and the right prep and the right progression throughout the season. But for sure I’m just looking forward to really visiting some of these rallies again finally with a good depth of experience, and also as Alex said there’s a few events that are going to be really exciting – kind of legendary events – that we’ll be visiting for the first time.

“To be a part of the growing history of those events like Safari, that’s just something really, really cool and really special. I’m looking forward to it and also looking forward to coming into the season in a much better state of health, mentally and physically. I think that’s going to help.”