The inside story of a WRC debut

Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani offer DirtFish a behind-the-scenes look at their WRC3 debut in Estonia

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Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani have done it. It may have come on a completely different event and much later in the year than they expected, but they have entered – and completed – a World Rally Championship round in a four-wheel-drive car.

DirtFish decided to get the inside track on the Americans’ weekend which yielded eighth in the WRC3 class and 21st overall in their Saintéloc Racing Citroën C3 R5.

Speaking to Johnston and Kihurani at various points throughout the weekend to get a feel of their emotions as the event progressed, here is a behind-the-scenes look at a WRC debut that highlights why there is always more to a rally than the timesheets suggest.

Recce & shakedown

Because of COVID-19, Rally Estonia was a more compact event than a usual WRC round. As a result, the entire schedule was condensed and shifted to a later point in the week. Shakedown was therefore on Friday morning instead of Thursday and pre-event recce was on Wednesday and Thursday; not Tuesday and Wednesday.

DirtFish caught up with Johnston and Kihurani back at their hotel after shakedown had ended, just a few hours before the rally got underway with the start ceremony and the Tartu superspeical stage on Friday evening.

“Recce went well,” Johnston reflects. “On the second day we had quite a bit of rain which already meant the road was deteriorating even just from cars recceing.

“I’m curious to see what the state of the road is going to be like for us when we finally arrive with a whole field of world cars and 30 something R5 cars here this weekend. We’re here to learn and adapt so such is life.

“The roads on the first day looked absolutely gorgeous and the stages themselves: amazing, so fast, huge jumps.”

Shakedown was a fact-finding mission as the duo looked to bed themselves into the conditions in Estonia.

Ruts were to be a big feature throughout the weekend, particularly on the second pass of the stages and especially for an RC2 crew that will be running after several others have already attacked the stage. Johnston and Kihurani were seeded at car 50.

Kihurani explains what the pair were looking for from shakedown: “We specifically wanted to see how the car worked in the ruts as our test was a private test, so we didn’t have the World Rally Cars digging up the roads ahead of us.

“We had made some ruts but we didn’t make those kind of ruts so we wanted to see if our set-up worked in those ruts and get comfortable with driving it. Also the jumps, we didn’t have any big jumps in our test.”

Johnston and Kihurani would attempt three passes of the shakedown (the third attempt you can watch above) and managed to shave 6.8 seconds from their time on the second run. But third time the road was in such a state that the time was actually 0.3s slower.

“The road just deteriorated immensely,” Johnston says. “I think we drove better on the third pass but by the time we came round again there were such crazy ruts and I’m still building my confidence of how to drive those.

“Hopefully the third pass of the shakedown was unrepresentative of what we’ll find in the rally,” he adds. “I think we can expect the conditions we saw on the second pass but the third one the road was just that little bit more destroyed.”

At this point DirtFish terminated the call to let Johnston have a quick pre-rally nap before getting the laptop out and starting to study onboards and refine the pacenotes. They then headed out to the superspecial and set the 10th quickest time, 1.8s shy off Jari Huttunen’s benchmark.

Day 1: Saturday

Rally Estonia’s first day was a bit of a monster. With a competitive distance a whisker under 91 miles, the day comprised 10 flat-out tests with just one service halt punctuating the two loops of five.

That wasn’t going to deter American’s top rally crew though. Johnston and Kihurani successfully threaded their C3 R5 through all 10 stages to end the day 11th place in class, tucked just 8.1s behind Yohan Rossel’s Citroën.

Here’s a breakdown of their performance, stage by stage:

StageDistanceStage TimeStage Pos / GapOverall Pos
SS2: Prangli 112.57 miles10m56.4s14th / +27.2s13th
SS3: Kanepi 110.50 miles9m10.2s9th / +18.3s9th
SS4: Otepää 15.97 miles5m35.0s14th / +13.6s9th
SS5: Mäeküla 19.17 miles8m39.7s16th / +24.6s10th
SS6: Elva 17.28 miles6m38.7s14th / +11.9s11th
SS7: Prangli 212.57 miles10m57.9s17th / +30.9s13th
SS8: Kanepi 210.50 miles9m04.8s9th / +17.5s12th
SS9: Otepää 25.97 miles5m30.4s13th / +11.1s12th
SS10: Mäeküla 29.17 miles8m34.3s12th / +16.9s10th
SS11: Elva 27.28 miles6m40.4s11th / +16.9s11th

And here’s how the leaderboard looked after 11 of Rally Estonia’s 17 stages:

PosDriverCarTime
1Oliver SolbergVolkswagen Polo R51h20m11.3s
2Egon KaurŠkoda Fabia Rally2 evo+17.8s
3Kajetan KajetanowiczŠkoda Fabia Rally2 evo+28.9s
4Jari HuttunenHyundai i20 R5+43.5s
5Marco BulaciaCitroën C3 R5+1m20.7s
6Nicolas CiaminCitroën C3 R5+2m02.4s
7Grégoire MunsterHyundai i20 R5+2m21.3s
8Rainer AusŠkoda Fabia R5+2m38.4s
9Raul JeetsŠkoda Fabia Rally2 evo+2m 44.2s
10Yohan RosselCitroën C3 R5+2m48.7s
11Sean JohnstonCitroën C3 R5+2m56.8s
12Karl KruudaVolkswagen Polo R5+3m01.3s
13Jan SolansFord Fiesta Rally2+3m10.3s
14Gustav KruudaVolkswagen Polo R5+3m18.4s
15Koik PriitFord Fiesta R5+4m09.5s

On the transit back to the Tartu service park, DirtFish received a call from Kihurani through the Stilo intercom aboard Johnston’s Citroën to unpack just what all that data means.

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Photo: McKlein Image Database

“I think it was way more up and down than maybe our times show,” Kihurani tells DirtFish. “The first stage didn’t feel good, it was so tricky. The second stage was good and we made a decent chunk of time, there we jumped up to ninth.”

Johnston then takes up the tale: “On the third stage we had one spicy moment where I turned in a little bit too early and I sort of opened the wheel up to avoid touching the inside but then the rear hooked up in the rut and shot us off the road to right and we tagged a berm and were like 45 degrees on two wheels and almost rolled the car.

“I just wasn’t gelling with the notes, wasn’t driving well, and I don’t think I did a very good job on the recce in that stage. I was just incredibly frustrated and exasperated at the end of the stage. There were a few corners where I had too much information and others with not the right information.”

“I’m still learning how to make notes for the R5 car,” he adds. “I think those notes would’ve been fine in the R2 car. It just wasn’t working in the faster equipment, and then when I lose the confidence and I’m not committed then the car doesn’t work and it’s just trash.

“I was super, super frustrated after the first loop of stages and I was also starving, I didn’t have a good enough breakfast, so I just wolfed down a ton of food at lunch and then that fueled me through the afternoon.”

Aside from adequately feeding himself, Johnston spent the service break along with Kihurani watching as many onboards as possible – even doing so on the longer road sections – just to fine-tune the system and make sure they were as prepared as possible.

It seemed to work as Johnston was generally faster on the second pass of the stages despite the deep ruts that had formed; only going slower on SS7 because of a half-spin and SS11 because of adverse weather conditions.

AUTO - ERC - RALLY LIEPAJA 2020
If there had been a tree on the outside of that corner, we’d be calling you from the hospital right now. Sean Johnston

Johnston provides context: “And on the second pass of the Arula stage, there were two big holes in a rut and we skipped out the first one and hit the lip of the second one and it put us at a 45 degree angle. Seriously it was so close to rolling.”

Kihurani gives his take: “The second-to-last stage in the loop, we did really well and I think we took 10 seconds out of Yohan [Rossel] and Jan [Solans] in there. The last stage we did do well but we got heavy rain in the stage on the last bit that was Tarmac and it was so slippery.

“So even though we did the stage horrifically the first pass and had so many mistakes, we were still a second slower on the second pass because of the heavy rain, so that was a bit frustrating.

“We had gotten ahead of Yohan on the previous stage and up to 10th but the conditions dropped us back behind Yohan as he was seeded far enough ahead to complete the stage before the rain started.”

The plan for Sunday’s final six stages?

“It’s going to be tough without service so we’re going to have to play it smart but I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” Johnston offers.

“We only have three individual stages, we’ve already reviewed the stages and we’re going to do another big review tonight so I hope with a bit more prep I can relax and flow a bit more in those.”

Day 2: Sunday

For a WRC Sunday, Rally Estonia was incredibly intense. Six stages with no service was a unique challenge, and with the powerstage at 1:18pm local time to fit TV requirements, the gap between the stages was small.

Johnston and Kihurani got through and met their objective of passing Rossel once they were racing on more equal conditions, passing the Frenchman on Sunday’s second test and edging him by 11.4s at the finish.

Eighth in class and 21st overall was a superb result on just their second-ever gravel rally in the C3 R5 and first in WRC3. But it was a bruising affair with the countless jumps making them feel battered come the finish, and Johnston was furious with himself for what he called a “dangerous” moment on the second loop.

Before we hear Johnston and Kihurani’s final thoughts, here’s a breakdown of how they performed on Sunday’s six tests:

StageDistanceStage TimeStage Pos / GapOverall Pos
SS12: Arula 14.33 miles3m36.0s8th / +6.9s11th
SS13: Kaagvere 19.61 miles9m24.1s7th / +16.8s9th  
SS14: Kambja 112.46 miles11m50.3s17th / +45.8s11th
SS15: Arula 24.33 miles3m34.9s7th / +7.2s10th
SS16: Kaagvere 29.61 miles9m23.0s8th / +19.3s9th
SS17: Kambja 212.46 miles11m28.4s8th / +28.2s8th

And here’s the final WRC3 leaderboard, indicating positions gained or lost since Saturday:

Pos+/- DriverCarTime
1Oliver SolbergVolkswagen Polo R52h07m32.2s
2+2Jari HuttunenHyundai i20 R5+59.0s
3-1Egon KaurŠkoda Fabia Rally2 evo+1m47.8s
4+1Marco BulaciaCitroën C3 R5+2m36.6s
5+7Karl KruudaVolkswagen Polo R5+4m04.9s
6Nicolas CiaminCitroën C3 R5+4m12.7s
7+1Rainer AusŠkoda Fabia R5+4m44.5s
8+3Sean JohnstonCitroën C3 R5+4m52.6s
9+1Yohan RosselCitroën C3 R5+5m04.0s
10+5Koik PriitFord Fiesta R5+6m24.7s

As the times show, pace wise it was a much better day. Only one time was outside the top 10 fastest and their deficit to the pacesetter – usually Oliver Solberg – reduced. But it wasn’t the perfect day. DirtFish called Johnston and Kihurani on Sunday evening as they unwound with a beverage in the hotel reception.

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Photo: Citroën Racing

“Looking at the timesheets and at the state of the car at the end, we seemed fairly consistent and measured – the car didn’t even have a scratch on it – but the reality is we had some massive moments, flying off the road over a jump in fifth gear one two occasions, jumping into a field on another, and nearly rolling the car the ruts,” Kihurani says.

Johnston adds: “There were two big holes because we skipped out the first one and hit the lip of the second one and that’s what put us at a 45-degree angle. Seriously, it was so close to rolling.

“I had the opportunity to interview Walter Röhrl earlier this year and he said that if you have a big moment it’s not something that you should shake off lightly.

“This isn’t a game, crashes in rally do have consequences. Nowadays the cars are much safer than they were in his day but I still have big respect for that philosophy and approach.

“Moments are always going to happen in rallying but preventable things like pacenote issues, getting caught out by a crest on the recce which turns out to be a jump in the rally is just a rookie mistake so I’m kicking my own ass a little bit because I think it’s important to really learn these lessons now.

“If there had been a tree on the outside of that corner, we’d be calling you from the hospital right now.

“The notes are what’s really holding me back right now,” Johnston adds. “This rally has shown me how much I need to improve with my pacenotes and that we still have a long way to go there.

“It’s not like all the corners, it’s just a few corners we had issues with the notes but at this level they lead to big moments and we can’t have it. I just need to keep having patience with myself and this process and recognizing that this is only my second gravel rally with this car.”

Kihurani highlights the positives: “The driving in the car and the feeling has been really, really good. It’s been easy to work with the car and for Sean to drive with decent commitment. However, there’s still some kinks that need to worked out to adjust to the speed of the new car,” he said.

“The competition here was absolutely insane with 22 R5 cars in our class. But benchmarking ourselves to our competitors who were beating us last year in R2, such Yohan Rossel, Jan Solans, and Roland Poom, we were consistently quicker throughout the weekend, so that was really encouraging.”

And despite his self-criticism, Johnston was still grateful to have been able to finally make his WRC debut in an R5 car. He will get to do it all again in Turkey just next week.

“These events have such great atmosphere even though there weren’t as many fans as normal, still just to have these absolutely spectacular stages to get to blast down and to know we’re just a bit behind the road from the world guys it’s just a different level, it’s a different feeling,” Johnston concludes.

“This weekend just showed where our weak spots are on the notes so we know what we’ve got to work on ahead of Turkey.”

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