For over a decade, the World Rally Championship has headed to Sweden in February before traveling west for the first long-haul event, Rally México, in March. While Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani won’t be doing that this year in their WRC2 quest, they will in fact be combining elements from both trips.
With Sweden canceled due to the ongoing pandemic, Arctic Rally Finland has joined the WRC schedule for the first time. That brings the snow. The Mexican twist comes from the pair’s pre-and post-rally sustenance. But more on that later…
Johnston’s and Kihurani’s 2021 season is already one rally old, and it was a solid start for the Citroën C3 Rally2 crew: fifth in class and 17th overall on the Monte Carlo Rally. For just the American pairing’s second asphalt event in a four-wheel-drive car, it was ultimately “mission accomplished”.
“What a crazy, crazy stressful, intense, humbling and ultimately positive experience for Alex and I,” Johnston told DirtFish at the end of the rally.
“For our second Tarmac rally in this equipment we definitely feel like we’ve been thrown in at the deep end with so much to learn and adapt to all at once.
“We definitely didn’t have the commitment to really go for it in many of the places just because after having the crash in Sardinia I needed to have a rally where I just got to the end so mission accomplished there..
“We definitely weren’t as fast as we wanted to be but very, very grateful to be here at the end. It’s been a challenging week but we’re stoked on the experience.”
A month after that onslaught, Johnston’s eyes are fully focused on the Arctic Rally and another new challenge it will ultimately bring. Although he has done one snow rally – Rally Sweden 2019 – it was in a two-wheel-drive car, so this will be Johnston’s first in all-wheel-drive machinery.
“We’re really excited for this rally,” he tells DirtFish. “It’s going to be my first time in all-wheel-drive with these studded tires and only the second time ever so it’s obviously still going to be a process of adaptation and lots of learning but what I’m really excited for is the consistency of the road conditions.
“Throughout the course of the rally I’m excited to be able to progress and adapt and gain some more confidence as that’s what was so tough about Monte: the conditions were changing so rapidly from morning to afternoon and from day to day. It was like we drove three different rallies over three different days, and I never really felt like I had the opportunity to properly explore the limit having so little experience
“We’re entering Arctic Rally in the same boat with very little experience but I at least know that I can expect some consistency so I can take those steps forward and then hopefully in the second half of the rally can actually be pushing a bit more.
“For sure, I think snow is a surface that hopefully is going to remain a staple of the WRC at least once a year so it’s important that we learn it, and the dynamic is similar to gravel although it’s maybe even higher speed.
“When the opportunity to get some experience on the snow and ice came up it was clear to us that we needed to jump in and go for it!”
A snow rally is quite comfortable as long as everything is going wellAlex Kihurani
Johnston will once again call upon Kihurani’s expansive experience from the co-driver’s’ seat.
“Alex is a winter rally expert, he has all the experiences one could possibly make!”
“It was the 2018 Perce-Neige Rally with Crazy Leo and the second loop of the rally was quite long, about 56 miles of stages that takes about four hours to do,” he tells DirtFish.
“About two kilometers into that 56-mile loop, we lost control at 87mph and rolled into the snow. It broke my window, and as we were dragged upside down all the snow just shovelled into the car. It was -4F.
“We landed upright, and I was up to my chest in snow. Leo realised the car still ran, so we quickly fired it back up and kept going. We were trying to shovel snow off the dashboard and windshield, but I just had my bare hands, so they went completely numb up past my wrist.
“Fortunately on the road section I had mittens and hand warmers so I was finally able to get a feeling back into my hands. After shovelling snow out of the car on the road section, we won the next stage, but with no side window, it was very cold!
“The pacenote book was so snowy/wet I was peeling the pages apart as I was turning them. It was very, very exciting but we ended up finishing second so it was alright!”
Naturally, he will be hoping for a smoother run alongside Johnston in Finland.
“A snow rally is quite comfortable as long as everything is going well,” he laughs. “I’m quite looking forward to it, I enjoy the snow rallies.
“It’s nice having the big snow banks that you can lean on a bit, and with these studs the speeds are really, really high.
“The fun thing about that grip is that it’s more lateral grip, so you can be a bit more sideways than on gravel. It should be quite fun and quite spectacular!
“We don’t have a ton of experience in these conditions so we’ve got to keep our expectations in check, but we’ll try to push and will definitely do our best to enjoy it as much as we can.”
And that brings us back to the Mexican flavor to Johnston and Kihurani’s voyage to the Arctic Circle. A couple of years ago they were both in Rovaniemi for some ice driving and testing ahead of the Junior WRC season, and they came across a sensation.
“I think Rovaniemi is just an amazing city, it’s gorgeous up there,” Johnston begins to explain.
“And the bonus of Rovaniemi is it’s got the best Mexican food I’ve eaten in all of Europe!
“It’s a small but very, very important detail of why I love going to Rovaniemi, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about that.
“When we were there doing some coaching with Max Vatanen before the start of the JWRC season I spent a week in Rovaniemi between the ice driving school and the two days of testing I think I ate at this restaurant five nights. It’s so good!”
Kihurani agrees, saying: “We’ve been waiting for an excuse for two years now to get back and eat that Mexican food.
“Restaurants are open there, and hopefully, they’ve started doing deliveries during COVID-19, so we can have tacos delivered to our door as we work!”
In an incredibly strong entry list for WRC2, Johnston and Kihurani are, as always, going to be doing everything they can to make sure those tacos will be well and truly earned.