Johnston and Kihurani on flying US flag in WRC Esports

In the absence of the real Rally Portugal, Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani took on the virtual WRC instead


When it comes to Esports, the jury’s decision is really dependent on who is sitting on that jury. Some of us absolutely love it and can fully appreciate its wonders, while others remain less convinced and perhaps stubbornly refuse to accept its existence.

But if the last few months of COVID-19-enforced lockdown has proven anything it’s that, like it or not, Esports is here to stay in motorsport and is only likely to grow and grow as the years roll on.

American rallying fans will certainly be thankful for the platform as the GT Academy is what launched Sean Johnston into the world of real-life motorsport.

Now, almost a decade on from his initial success, Johnston has been back in the saddle challenging the very best in his simulator. On the same weekend as he should have been tackling Rally Portugal in his Saintéloc Racing Citroën C3 R5, Johnston was competing on its virtual equivalent in the WRC Esports shootout.

And he had a rather familiar opponent in the quarter-finals: Alex Kihurani. A man Johnston is more used to having in the adjacent seat of his car, as opposed to the opposite car.


Photo: Citroën Racing

“I really, really enjoyed having a competitive outlet again and to have something where you only get the one shot,” Johnston tells DirtFish.

“There’s not the same physical consequence for a mistake like there is in a real car but there is consequence in terms of the end result. I really enjoyed that and almost felt like I had more adrenaline in the sim than I do in the real car!

“Of course I felt pressure to beat Alex, he’s super quick! I love how competitive he is. There were some weeks in the Chris Ingram Rally Challenge where he was the quickest rallying professional, beating all the drivers in the UK.

“While I trust in my experience and abilities in the sim, I certainly knew I was going to have my work cut out to beat him.”

Johnston was right to trust himself as he beat Kihurani to progress into the semi-final against Marco Bulacia. But both were a little disappointed they couldn’t have met later on in the tournament as Kihurani, despite being knocked out, set the second-quickest quarter-final time behind Johnston.

“I’m happy with how it went,” Kihurani says. “It would’ve been fun to be racing Sean later on, like in the finals – that would’ve been quite funny. In the quarter-finals I was about a second quicker than the other finalist, Rhys [Yates], so it was feasible.”

Despite being the fastest driver in the quarter-final and comfortably edging Bulacia in the semi, Johnston eventually lost out to Yates in the final by just over a second.


Photo: Citroën Racing

After running slightly wide, Johnston rolled his C3 R5 and couldn’t quite claw back enough time to take the crown from Yates, who made it back-to-back successes following his win in Argentina.

“I was bummed but I think I showed I had good pace,” Johnston says. “On the first stage I was almost five seconds quicker than him [Yates]. In WRC8, you’ve really got to watch out for the boundaries of the stage because it can end your fun quickly. Sadly I was just caught out.”

Johnston was also caught out in last week’s Finland round of the Solberg World Cup in association with DirtFish. He was running inside the top 50 before a mistake on stage six put paid to his rally.

Unlike the WRC shootout, which was on the championship-licensed WRC8 game, Solberg World Cup uses Dirt Rally 2.0. That switch between platforms mirrors aspects of reality, according to Johnston.

“When you’re jumping back and forth on different software it’s almost the same as hopping back and forth between two different cars; it’s just a practice in adaptation,” he says.

“I think it’s good for the mind and the motor control neural pathways to practice adapting so quickly, and definitely has been keeping me sharp in these times when we can’t go and do the real thing.”

Kihurani fared better however in the Solberg World Cup as he finished 34th overall, just a few spots behind Oliver Solberg and Saintéloc team-mate Alexey Lukyanuk.

Ahead of the final round in Wales, Johnston and Kihurani have set a mutual target of finishing as the top Americans and are looking forward to achieving something similar in the #PlayWithC3R5 series that starts this Wednesday.

But there’s more than just pride on the line for Kihurani. He believes knowing how to drive fast helps him when he’s co-driving too.


Photo: Citroën Racing

“When I watch Sean take different lines or use a specific technique in different scenarios [in real life] I can try them out in the sim and that helps to build my understanding,” Kihurani explains.

“I’m not as good on the brakes, and I’m not quite as quick on the wheel in terms of physical reaction times; I know my natural ability isn’t quite at the same level as top-level drivers.

“But having the knowledge and understanding that I do have allows me to be competitive and does help in the co-driver’s seat. You need to understand whether the driver is doing things properly and be able to visualize how it should be done.

“Having a comprehensive idea how the car will be driven through the stage helps when creating pacenotes together and being able to advise the driver in certain situations can be really, really beneficial.

It won’t be long before the pair can put that expertise to good use.