There are worse drivers to try and emulate than Sébastien Ogier. A lot worse, if we’re honest. American WRC3 driver Sean Johnston has recognized this and is using the six-time World Champion as a benchmark in more ways than one as he relentlessly tries to better himself.
In a sport where calculated risk is everything, Ogier is undoubtedly the master. Over the years he has perfected the art of knowing when, where and how to push; adjusting his pace accordingly. This has come through a decade of WRC experience and a supreme natural talent that was perfectly in evidence in 2018.
At the halfway point of the year, Ogier was getting mugged by Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville – think that epic final stage shootout in Sardinia which he lost. And come the second half of the year, Ott Tänak’s Toyota became untouchable and Ogier’s title reign looked to be over.
That was until the second pass of Sweet Lamb Hafren in Wales. Tänak’s Yaris spluttered to a standstill and gifted Ogier the lead. It was then up to Jari-Matti Latvala to help his team-mate out and take points off Ogier. And with two stages to go, he was on course to do so, leading by 0.2 seconds. But sensing the gravity of the situation, Ogier destroyed him to win by 10.6s and ultimately claim a sixth World Championship in Australia.
This is the kind of driver Johnston wants to be: supremely fast but also cleverer than his opposition. He says “increasing the threshold of our pace so that we can choose where we want to take that risk in a calculated and comfortable way but still having that pace be faster than everyone else” is “what we’ll be shooting for.”
But this is the kind of driver Johnston is already rapidly becoming according to 2018 European Rally Champion Alexey Lukyanuk, who worked with Johnston on his very first Citroën C3 R5 test.
“Sean is a very focused driver,” Lukyanuk told DirtFish. “He’s developing himself pretty hard and he has the resources for that; he has good sponsorship, he has the time and also the passion so I would say this is a very good pace for success.
“He can drive pretty fast when he knows the road, when he’s confident with the car and the conditions. His approach and his attitude should deliver a good result in the future and we see how he is getting better and faster [already].”
But Johnston isn’t resting on his laurels. Not only is he trying to drive like Ogier, he’s training like him too. As lockdown measures have begun to ease in central Europe, Johnston has been down to 321 Perform in the south of France – the same training center Ogier uses – and working with Xavier Feuillee to get himself ready for the season’s restart.
I'm fit. I'm ready to go rallying and I can't wait!Sean Johnston
“The bulk of the training that I really enjoy doing the most is the motorsport-specific proprioception, coordination, balance, perception, speed and reaction stuff,” he explains.
“The way I understand it, we can imagine there are links in a chain as to how we respond to visual inputs; so a good example we can use here is me picking up a rock in the racing line. First off, we train my ability to spot small and hard-to-see things quickly. Then once I have that visual information, there’s a speed in which that information goes from my eyes to my brain.
“Next comes the speed in which my brain can make a decision as to what to do with this information, followed by that signal being sent from my brain to the muscles once a decision has been made. The final link is the speed and the precision that my muscles can then fire to respond appropriately to the situation. Xavier has ways to isolate and test these links individually and has many different exercises to improve them all as well.
“We also learn how to do a certain task and shortly after Xavier starts adding confusing factors which we’re supposed to adapt to and ultimately integrate this new thing in that’s changed and then start performing at a high level again, all within a short period of time.”
Physical fitness is also a huge factor in that, so Johnston and Kihurani both work with Dr Rade Djukic from Spartamedic to ensure they’re both on top of this area too.
Johnston: “For me, it was wonderful to see that after several months of quarantine that my cardiovascular fitness has stayed at a good level, and that I’d only dropped a tiny bit in my overall strength, but most importantly from a neurological standpoint, my mind and perception was still very, very much on a high level and we were able to make some good jumps, some good progress during the training camp.
“I’m fit, and I also have plenty of time to keep improving my fitness further, but it’s nice to know that from a neurological standpoint I’m ready to go rallying already, and I can’t wait!”