Sean Johnston was in a buoyant mood when DirtFish called him this week. And why wouldn’t he be? On just his second event in an R5 car and first on gravel, he had bagged a top 10 finish and a top five stage time on Rally Liepāja, the second round of the European Rally Championship.
But Johnston and co-driver Alex Kihurani’s trip to Latvia was about so much more than putting a smile back on their faces after lockdown. The WRC’s rising American stars were here to test. Test for the big one: that four-wheel-drive WRC debut on Rally Estonia in September.
“I think for the first gravel event in the R5 car, all the objectives were more than met,” Johnston tells DirtFish.
“It was an incredible learning experience and I’m definitely very, very grateful and glad that we did this event before going to Estonia. To have that first day of struggle out of the way before we’re at a world championship event was crucial.
“I don’t have a ton of experience in the car on any surface at all so there was tons to learn and I feel like we did a good job of doing exactly that.”
Kihurani interjects: “It’s a more drastic difference between front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive on gravel than vs Tarmac,” he says, referring to the pair’s 2019 season in R2 machinery and their R5 debut on last year’s asphalt Rally Hungary.
“So Sean did very well to be just as competitive so quickly.”
It all started with an encouraging test a few days before the rally, where Johnston clocked in over 100km (62 miles) in the Saintéloc Racing Citroën C3 R5.
Here, he bedded himself back into driving a rally car after seven months away and on the test road managed to keep within half a second per kilometer of team-mate and ERC points leader Alexey Lukyanuk.
But, as Johnston referred to earlier, the first day of the rally wasn’t as smooth with a difficult road position of fifth and a puncture waylaying progress.
“The first few stages were tough. I was not the happiest of campers to say the least,” he reflects.
“I just wasn’t driving with enough commitment. I wasn’t getting the car in the performance window and when you’re not hard enough on the brakes the car doesn’t turn, and when the car doesn’t turn you’re slow in the corner and you have to wait to get back to the power, everything is just trash when you’re not in that window.
“We really then picked up the pace after service on stage three and had a good jump but then we got a puncture so we weren’t able to really show that.
“And then on Sunday with the better road position and a night to sleep on it, plus all the learning from the day before, we were really able to come out and start showing a bit of the potential that’s there.”
The highlight unquestionably was that top five stage time on Sunday’s third stage, just 6.8 seconds shy of Citroën works driver Mads Østberg. But more encouragingly for Estonia and beyond, Johnston knows he could have gone even quicker.
“I watched the video back,” he says, “and I’m already seeing half a second here, a second there. There’s areas where without big changes, just a little bit more commitment, more experience, more confidence in the car, I know that we can go faster.
“You’ve got to walk before you can run, so for sure the goal is not to be pushing to go flat out and then stack it, we want to be taking smart steps and building the experience and kilometers in a wise, measured way so we can have really sustainable, confident pace that we can trust and rely on.”
Kihurani once again proved to be a reliable pair of hands too, even if adjusting back to being an international co-driver was a “shock to the system” after lockdown.
He explains: “The notes were fairly easy to get back into. It’s coming a lot quicker in an R5 car, and sometimes you have to be pretty far ahead on gravel with the amount of time you need to kill the speed from fast sections to slow corners.
“However, when you’re getting it right, there’s just so much rhythm and all the power and acceleration means that even a slow chicane doesn’t upset the rhythm on the stage.
“But what was a bit of a challenge to get used to again was the constant intensity of being an international co-driver. As a co-driver at these international events, you work as quickly and efficiently as you can from the moment you wake up in the morning until you lay down to go to sleep at night.
“You’re always just trying to maximize the time that you have and maximize every minute of sleep that’s possible to get. Relaxing or decompressing at the end of the day just isn’t a priority.
“When you’re at home all day in lockdown, you just don’t have to operate at that sort of level.
“Even the European Championship events like Latvia, which are not as busy in comparison as, say, Rally GB where you’re working-flat out just to get four hours of sleep, it was still quite a shock to the system to have so many things to be thinking about all the time and to be responsible for so many things all the time.”
For a behind-the-scenes look at Johnston and Kihurani’s adventure in Latvia, keep an eye on DirtFish for an exclusive documentary from the rally, filmed and produced by Des Foley.