It’s always pleasing to see rally drivers clock in their best World Rally Championship result to date on their rise to the top, but it’s extremely gratifying when it’s a character as infectious as Sean Johnston who’s just achieved it.
He and co-driver Alex Kihurani brought their Saintéloc Racing Citroën C3 Rally2 to the end of last weekend’s Monte Carlo Rally in 11th overall and fourth in WRC2. It was quite clearly their best WRC performance to date, and Johnston wasn’t about to disagree.
“I’m certainly feeling like my expectations for the weekend were exceeded,” he tells DirtFish.
“There was always a part of me that hoped if we had a good, clean event and drove smart that we’d be able to do a top-five result. But to then finish with some really promising stage times as well and some really fast splits – even though we haven’t quite brought a string of these kinds of splits together into a whole stage performance yet – it’s certainly the most competitive that we have ever been in this equipment.
“I’m really proud of our collective performance and I think it’s a good step in the right direction for us.”
The Monte has always been a special event for any driver but Johnston has a particularly close affiliation with it as he claimed his first-ever class win on a rally in 2020 with a Peugeot 208 R2.
“And for me being a mountain kid to be rallying up in these gorgeous mountains in the French Alps, I love it,” he added.
But despite its alluring nature, the Monte can bite. It’s one of the toughest events on rallying’s global tour and yet Johnston followed the Monte-specific advice from Raimund Baumschlager – “sometimes you have to have the courage to go slow” – and produced a “smart” performance that was also pleasingly quick.
“Last year we finished the rally 13 minutes off the lead and over three seconds per kilometer slower than the leader,” Johnston says, comparing his times to WRC2 winner Andreas Mikkelsen who drove the same Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo to victory in 2021 and ’22.
“This year we finished three minutes off the lead with only six tenths of a second per kilometer deficit. For me that’s the most important metric to look at. That’s the most promising thing, as we only really had Rally Spain as the one Tarmac experience in between Monte Carlo last year and this year.
“It’s a fun and inspiring data point for me given the ultimate lack of experience with this car on Tarmac, so we made a very, very big and good step forward.”
There were changes behind the scenes though that provided an additional challenge for Johnston and Kihurani to overcome. Working with a new engineer and a new route note crew with neither Leonid ‘Crazy Leo’ Urlichich nor Michael Gilbey able to make it meant plenty of adaption had to be done.
“We had a really good test. Looking at the sunny forecast for the rally, it felt like we had representative conditions and took the right approach,” Kihurani explains.
“We knew our speed was quite close to our team-mate [Eric Camilli], and we felt like we really had a great car, a great set-up and a great relationship with our new engineer Lewis Allen – who worked with Mads Østberg last year and is very familiar with the Citroën and making it go fast. We really felt like we could be a bit more competitive than we were before.
“But we also had a lot of stress coming into the event with an entirely new route note crew and a new engineer as I mentioned. Jon Armstrong joined us with only a week-and-a-half’s notice and Gilbey had to cancel the day before he was supposed to fly.
“Fortunately, we found Cameron [Fair] who did an amazing job on one day’s notice, but there was a lot of uncertainty as we had never even spoken to each other before.”
“I’d never met him before but James Morgan recommended him and he took to our fruity notes very quickly, and anything I did want to change it was immediately done and remembered for the next time. Both Jon and Cam did a great job, especially as it was their first time doing this role.
“However before the event it did leave us thinking ‘we have this whole new crew and team to try and integrate at the most difficult event and all-new stages where we’re not able to leverage our experience as much, is it going to be a big challenge? And with it being drier, is it just going to be a sprint with very little attrition like Spain?’
“But that wasn’t the case at all and we ended up having good pace and also being able to stay out of trouble. It worked very, very well with our new team members.”
After such a promising start to the season, efforts are now focused on raising budget to complete the rest of the planned WRC2 program. And of course, recording a personal best WRC result is “good ammunition for that challenge of raising more money” as Johnston explains.
“Most signs are pointing to Portugal being the next event for us. There’s been a change in the agreement with my sponsor so at the moment we’re not certain that we’ll have the budget to do all seven rounds this year, but we’re hopeful that at least we’re going to have enough to do six European rounds. But Alex and I aren’t letting this update change anything for us.
“We’re pushing full-speed ahead and we really feel, especially after the result in Monte, that we belong in WRC2 and that it’s the right place for us to be competing. So now it’s just a matter of fighting and busting our asses to raise the money to make the rest of the season happen the way we want to see it.”
“This year is sort of going to be a two-pronged approach: focusing on the sporting side as well as the commercial side and figuring out how we can keep this program going into 2023 as well as it’s feeling like now we’re finally getting to the point where the pieces are starting to fall together and we’re able to show the first glimpses of what we’re capable of.
“We’re absolutely pushing! Giving up is not an option for me, so we’re going for it.”