Five seconds mean a lot in rallying. At the end of Rally Turkey’s first day for example, that was enough to cover the top seven drivers in the overall classification.
But for Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani, competing in the WRC3 class in their Citroën C3 R5, those five seconds were of more grave importance.
“It was pretty sudden,” Kihurani tells DirtFish. “We were just driving along in a decent rhythm and then just flames everywhere, fireball.”
In an instant, the Americans’ weekend had turned on its head. A superb third fastest on the opening stage – 11 seconds slower than leader Marco Bulacia and 4.9s adrift of eventual class winner Kajetan Kajetanowicz – they were looking for more of the same on the Gökçe test; Friday’s last.
Being confronted with a wall of flames changed the game entirely. Suddenly it wasn’t about how many seconds the pair could take from their rivals on the stage, it was about how quickly Johnston could get the car stopped and the engine off so that they could jump out of the car.
Mercifully, Johnston did this in five seconds and both driver and co-driver were OK. In the circumstances, the C3 R5 came off relatively well too with the damage restricted to just the engine bay. But Johnston and Kihurani’s Rally Turkey hopes? They were long gone.
“Unfortunately there was too much damage in the engine compartment to restart the rally,” Johnston says, “but we’re just very, very grateful that the whole car didn’t burn to the ground. That would’ve been a much bigger job for us and the team. So we’re gutted that it happened but we’re also able to see the silver lining that it could’ve been much worse.
“Luckily the fire happened in a relatively slow corner but it’s a very, very disconcerting thing to be strapped into a rally car at any speed and then to see those flames. We stopped as quickly as we could, got the engine off and got out to do our best to contain the fire to just the front of the car.
“It’s a high stress scenario for sure but I think we responded well enough. From the time the fire started to the time that the car was stopped and the engine was off was five seconds, so our engineer was very, very happy with us.”
The crew couldn’t be happy though. Turkey was shaping up to be a very positive weekend for Johnston on just his third gravel rally in an R5 car, with its rough and demanding nature playing to his strengths despite his inexperience with those types of roads.
“That’s what’s so heartbreaking about this is that that first stage we were in a clean rhythm and actually felt we were too conservative in the middle sector where it was more fast and open,” Johnston says.
“We felt we did well on the tight and twisty corners that make up the vast majority of the stages in Turkey, so it was just that middle bit where we felt we gave up time. So to get to the end of the stage and see how competitive the time actually was was very, very satisfying and we were looking to keep a good thing going on that second stage.”
Kihurani adds: “I think we were faster than Kajto [Kajetanowicz] in the first and last split on that first stage so that was a really good sign. We were taking it a little bit easy and thinking about the long game because so many things can and did happen in Turkey. It’s such a lottery but we were hoping to have a bit more luck!
“I said to Sean on Friday, OK the stages today actually aren’t so rough and they won’t be reused, so just go in and enjoy them. You don’t have to push hard at this rally, just settle in and enjoy these first two stages as much as you can. That’s what we were doing, and we were competitive, so it was really encouraging.
“Our notes also felt much better. It didn’t feel like we were having consistency issues with them like we were in Estonia, so everything felt really comfortable. Sean was able to fully rely on his new notes from the first pass. We were settled into what felt like a nice rhythm for a tough rally, but it just wasn’t to be.”
A potential result was lost, but much more than that went with it. For Johnston, who has stepped up to WRC3 for the first time this season, learning is everything. The fire – which was ultimately determined to have been caused by a rogue rock in the engine compartment combined with a stone strike to the sump guard – robbed him of the chance to truly get to grips with the Turkish terrain.
“That’s what’s also so heartbreaking about this as well because for sure we were feeling like we were in a good position to get a result but also for me at this point, I’m still very, very clear that I need to be getting experience of all these different types of events.
“Not being able to take more experience away from the weekend is a total bummer for sure. Conserving the tires and the car is something I have a bit of experience of from my endurance sports car racing days so I feel like we had the right mindset, approach and skill-set to be competitive on an event like this.
“Putting our thinking caps on was going to be just as important as simply driving fast, you have to be able to drive a really smart rally. But as Alex said, it just wasn’t meant to be for us.”
The consolation was an opportunity to watch the world’s finest do what they do best on Saturday and Sunday – and being able to avoid the notorious stages on Sunday and instead just enjoy it on WRC’s All Live service.
“For me, through my childhood and teenage years, it was my dream just to be able to spectate a World Rally Championship event so I try not to take those opportunities for granted,” says Kihurani, who was able to observe the rally due to being COVID-19 tested and having credentials for the event.
“We enjoyed watching the skills and the performance of the car and the surroundings as much as we could on Saturday and Sunday even though it wasn’t in the ideal circumstances.”
As Johnston concedes, “it hurt” watching the stage when the gap in the field he and Kihurani should’ve filled was of course filled by one of their WRC3 rivals.
“When life gives you lemons, go and spectate rally!” Johnston says, before conceding that “it hurt” watching the stages when the gap in the field he and Kihurani should’ve filled was of course filled by one of their WRC3 rivals.
“That’s when the spectating became less fun.”
But there was a far more serious point to it. Johnston was able to observe how the WRC drivers approached the corners and catch a small glimpse into how they set-up their cars; information he can put into practice himself in Sardinia on October 8-11.
“We found a really great place to spectate where it was medium speed but slow enough where you could actually look into the car and see the guys working which I love, absolutely love.
“It was a great experience to watch the top guys do what they do, and Alex and I used this opportunity to watch the various driving styles and the range of handling attitudes of the cars. It was clear to see who had different set-ups as the cars were being driven with a different approach and were responding to those inputs differently as well, so it was a fascinating experience.
“We just wish we could’ve been driving the whole thing, but we’ll take whatever bits of learning we can get.”