Do you believe in luck? Aaron Johnston does.
“Yeah of course,” he says, “I’m a great believer in luck, especially being Irish as well.”
Johnston is also “a great believer that everything happens for a reason,” so I wonder what this poor soul ever did in another life to deserve such a torrid and bruising 2021?
As the tired old cliché goes, if he didn’t have bad luck he’d have no luck at all.
Johnston started nine rallies in the World Rally Championship this season. This is his results card:
|Monte Carlo Rally||Oliver Solberg||Hyundai i20 R5||DNF|
|Rally Portugal||Oliver Solberg||Hyundai i20 R5||11th (5th WRC2)|
|Safari Rally Kenya||Oliver Solberg||Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC||DNF|
|Rally Estonia||Oliver Solberg||Hyundai i20 R5||DNF|
|Ypres Rally||Oliver Solberg||Hyundai i20 N Rally2||DNF|
|Acropolis Rally||Oliver Solberg||Hyundai i20 N Rally2||DNF|
|Rally Finland||Takamoto Katsuta||Toyota Yaris WRC||37th|
|Rally Spain||Takamoto Katsuta||Toyota Yaris WRC||40th|
|Monza Rally||Takamoto Katsuta||Toyota Yaris WRC||7th|
Of that rather uninspiring collection, only the Monza result of seventh appeals – and even that was somewhat spoiled by a misjudgement through a chicane from Takamoto Katsuta that left him crawling off one of the stages, dropping down from sixth.
A crash on the powerstage of the Monte, just after Johnston and his then driver Oliver Solberg had climbed to fourth in the RC2 class, really set the tone for what was to come.
Portugal was relatively drama-free in context, but Safari Rally Kenya was anything but after a mistake from Solberg on the first proper stage led to their retirement.
Engine issues ruined Estonia, electrical issues hampered Ypres (when leading in class) and then suspension trouble blighted the Acropolis.
A switch to Katsuta and the Toyota team from Solberg and Hyundai didn’t improve Johnston’s fortune either as the pair broke their suspension on the second day of their debut together in Finland.
Their Spanish challenge then ended head-on in an Armco barrier on stage one.
But the real sickener was Arctic Rally Finland. Notice how it’s not included in the table above? That’s because Johnston wasn’t there. Well, he was initially, but a false positive COVID-19 test forced him to fly home – missing out on his first ever start in a World Rally Car in the WRC.
“Arctic was tough,” Johnston tells DirtFish. “It was hard to accept and for sure it was a massive blow for me and my career at that point because it was my and Oliver’s first rally together in the top category and on a surface that he was obviously extremely comfortable on.
“I did the COVID test, as per normal life for traveling in the last 18 months, at home before my flight over there and it was negative, and arriving there 12 hours later and doing the test in Finland to get into the high density area of the service park, for it to come back positive was a real shock for me.
“Of course at that point I was thinking [about] the bigger picture and the people that I had met and been in contact with, not to pass it onto them but in general when I did the second test in Finland the same day and it came back negative I thought ‘OK something has happened’, anything could have happened, and clearly it was a false positive.
I am really, really looking forward to starting 2022 with zero points on the board because ’21 wasn’t so kind from my sideAaron Johnston
“But even when I did get the negative result that same evening – and I did a third one the following morning and it was negative as well – I was thinking ‘OK I’m bound to be clear now from everybody’s point of view to start the rally’ but that wasn’t the view that was portrayed from the FIA.
“And in hindsight now, 12 months or thereabouts down the line, I can accept the fact that as a complete precaution I wasn’t allowed to start the rally but at the time this was happening it was an extremely upsetting situation to be in.”
Of all the various unlucky moments Johnston has had to endure over the past 12 months, this was the low. He won’t be wanting a repeat run once the clock strikes midnight and the new year is welcomed, that’s for sure.
“It’s been one of those years that you look back on and to be honest it’s hard to even remember the last time we had an absolutely trouble-free, clean, no-drama event,” he says.
“But the year before we had a sensational year so I guess you have to take the rough with the smooth and the good with the bad, and what makes the good times so good is getting through the difficult ones.
“It’s fair to say that I am really, really looking forward to starting 2022 with zero points on the board and going again from nothing because ’21 wasn’t so kind from my side.”
That seems like an appropriate moment for us to shift gear and look at things in a far more positive light too.
Because yes, Johnston’s 2021 has been demoralizing at times, but look at it from a fresh perspective and you’ll soon discover that it could, ironically, actually act as the launchpad to his ultimate career goal being realized.
Alongside Solberg, it was always going to be an important year as the duo signed for Hyundai and were afforded shots in a top car. You have to go some to trump that, but Johnston has done just that; spending his winter preparing for a full 2022 season in a Rally1 car alongside Katsuta.
Had he remained in the Solberg camp, he’d only be up for a part season.
“When I started this adventure with my father 10, 15 years ago now doing night navigation rallies, it was always the dream to get to the world championship and now that I’m there and have a full campaign next year with the biggest car manufacturer in the world, it’s a real pinch-me moment, a dream come true and it’s one that I will do my absolute best to achieve the absolute maximum that we can,” Johnston proudly reflects.
“It’s quite surreal to be honest because I’m still very young, I don’t have a lot of experience at this level but I think what I have shown over the previous couple of seasons is [strong as] the team have put their faith in me to be there and to be a part of the organization.
“So I’m very thankful to be there, it’s just phenomenal for me and for my whole family because this was my dream, it is something I have given my all to my whole life really and now to be there and to be doing it, it’s just incredible.”
Nobody can deny the 26-year-old Irishman this shot. It’s one that’s been earned through hard work on and off the stages, and that’s included all the relevant networking too.
It’s to Johnston’s credit that when he and Solberg split following the Acropolis Rally in September – a decision that was made “quite rapidly” but one Johnston describes as “completely amicable” as “our relationship is still there, we’re still good friends” – he didn’t just have a new plan in place quickly, but such a strong plan at that.
2021 has been a tumultuous one for the WRC co-driver in general, but in this strangest of seasons Johnston did, in the end, benefit from a twist of good fortune as Katsuta had a vacancy in the right-hand seat of his Toyota for the second time in three rallies.
Dan Barritt had been injured in Estonia and his replacement, Keaton Williams, had stepped in to do Ypres and was set to contest the Acropolis too before having to fly home on the week of the rally for a family emergency.
“It’s fair to say that it’s been a very interesting year for the co-driver, I don’t think we’ve had a year before this where there has been so many changes – especially throughout the season,” says Johnston.
“Me and Keaton are very friendly, he actually came over to Ireland before Christmas and we met up and spent a couple of days together because as I say, on a personal note, me and Keaton are very good friends so I’m very sorry that the situation arose that Keaton was unavailable then for the rest of the year as he is a sensational co-driver, he deserved a chance at the highest level.
“Unfortunately again it comes down to what we spoke about earlier, sometimes luck can work for you or work against you and unfortunately in his case it just wasn’t meant to be at that time. But I know for sure Keaton will be back and he can succeed at that level so I’m looking forward to competing against him again.
“Myself and Taka, OK everyone in the sport at this level, we’re all friends. I think it’s fair to say every time we have a regroup or in the service park or the powerstage waiting area, everybody can socialize and have a laugh and a joke, and that’s one of the best parts of this sport because you’re not racing anybody else, you’re only racing the clock. That’s why the camaraderie and the relationships are so nice in the top level.
“Of course in these situations I have been speaking to Taka as another English-speaking person and when we’re waiting in these areas we’re all talking, and of course I’m quite friendly with Dan and even more so now over the last three months making the transition to Taka.
“I had got to know Taka through Dan and of course with Dan’s unfortunate injury again in Estonia, through no fault of his own – same like Keaton – he was unavailable for the rest of the year.
“With the decision that I made with Oliver it left it that I was available with immediate effect and it just happened to click, and Toyota and Taka was the best opportunity that I had and one that I really wanted to commit to, and thankfully now it has led to a full season in 2022 with both Taka and Toyota Gazoo.”
The partnership evidently works too – Katsuta wouldn’t have kept Johnston on, with Barritt returning to fitness for 2022, if it wasn’t.
Yes there have been some low points already as Katsuta’s sensational 2021 form waned (understandably given his ever-evolving circumstances) in the back half of the year, but it’s rather promising that Johnston won his first ever stage in the WRC on his first ever event alongside Katsuta.
After Taka got his first podium in Safari this year, the hunger is there to try and achieve that again for 2022Aaron Johnston
“OK it was only a superspecial around Jyväskylä, but again it was nice to get a stage win on our very first competitive stage together,” Johnston admits.
“We had a fantastic test before the rally and actually I stayed out in Finland for 10 days between our test and the actual start of the recce just to build a relationship with Taka and do some recce practice, go through onboards and things and discuss and talk and get into the feeling.
“It worked very well, we set some really good times in Finland. Unfortunately on day two we ran slightly wide and again touched the rear and broke the suspension but we were penalized very, very hard for a very, very small error running slightly wide.
“But again it’s fine margins at this level, it could have all ended on the second stage of the rally when we did have this reasonable speed spin. But yeah, it was a good start to our partnership there’s no doubt about it.
“OK we had to go into SuperRally but we left Finland both very happy with how it had gone and then obviously the decision was made then to continue for the future. We’re happy and we’re just building on the experience for the future.”
But what does that future look like? What are the targets for this exciting young pairing?
“The most important thing for the two of us is experience,” Johnston cautions. “Taka’s only going into his third full year in a World Car so we have to remember that most of the guys at the very top have been there for many, many years longer than that.
“The plan is of course do the best job we can and we now have to think as well from the team perspective [as] Toyota has given us the opportunity to be in a factory entry of our own with the Toyota Gazoo Next Generation, and of course we will be looking to score points on every rally for the constructors’ as well.
“So we will do our best, as competitors we want to achieve the maximum that we possibly can and I think it’s fair to say that after Taka got his first podium in Safari this year, the hunger is there to try and achieve that again for 2022.”
Nobody really deserves that more than Johnston. Let’s just hope that somebody, somewhere upstairs, agrees.