“Anyway, I knew that if I wanted to make a career out of rallying, do it in a professional way, and try and get to the WRC, I needed to start immediately over in Europe. The level is so high, and the depth of competition so great, that’s where you learn to get to the limit and stay at the limit consistently. So, it made sense to move back to Germany and start this new challenge.”
Two weeks out from his first ADAC Opel Rallye Cup event, Johnston was still scrambling to find a co-driver, then heard of Kihurani through a teammate.
“He was already booked for that first weekend, but said, ‘Hey, I’ll absolutely do the rest of the season,’” says Johnston. “He was stoked on the idea of partnering with an American driver because, like me, he loves rallying and wants to see Americans succeed in it, so why not try and help this sports car driver out…
“It’s so good to have Alex by my side, with all of his experience – I mean, he’s 34 and he’s been co-driving for half of his life – and he’s just a super-intelligent, hard-working, amazing, hilarious guy.”
The pair finished the 2018 season sixth in ADAC Cup points and also added a couple of loose-surface events to their schedule, albeit with a disastrous debut…
“ADAC Cup is all on asphalt, so we added two gravel rallies,” explains Johnston. “On the first, the South Swedish Rally, I had the first crash of my rally career. Final stage, I took a cut and a big rock that had been exposed on the second pass broke something on the rear suspension. The car went straight on instead of turning and we hit a tree dead on at 60mph. Three broken ribs, compression fracture of my T12 vertebrae, crazy bruising, and dizziness for two months.
“It was such a bummer, because I’d been building the pace, getting near to fastest stage times, and then to have this massive reality shock on the final stage… But the truth about the sport of rallying is that there aren’t gravel traps or tire barriers; there are trees and rocks and houses. Anyway, that was a baptism by fire – Alex thinks it’s one of the most violent crashes of his career – but it’s given a bit more context to crashes we’ve had since then, which haven’t been quite as bad, thank God.”
Not quite as bad, but certainly season defining when it comes to 2021. After a fifth in WRC-2 on the opening Monte Carlo Rally and seventh in class on Arctic Rally Finland (above) – Johnston’s first true snow and ice event – a crash on the gravel of Sardinia was followed by a much bigger one on the super-fast dirt roads of Estonia in July.
“We rolled eight times in the Estonia crash and it was like a human centrifuge with our heads pointed out; a big amount of G force sustained for a long time,” recalls Johnston. “My head was just super-sensitive for a long, long time, although the worst pain came from spraining my wrist pretty bad from it hitting the roll bar. But right now, I’m feeling like my fitness is just about back to where it was pre-Estonia.”
Skipping Belgium’s all-asphalt Ypres Rally to recover from the beating he’d taken, Johnston returned to competition in September on the gravel of Greece’s Acropolis Rally, finishing sixth in WRC-2. While that was an event to ease himself back in, Johnston feels he’s making progress on mastering the art and the dynamics of taking a car to the limit on the loose surfaces that make up a majority of the WRC schedule.
“The transition to pushing a car on gravel has definitely been a challenge,” he says. “Coming from sports car racing, where you’re always wanting to correct everything as soon as it starts moving, to letting the car be really free, letting it move, and then to use that momentum to sort of dance back and forth has been a big change. Retraining my mind and my hands to not instantly correct, but to let it move and get a bit sideways has been a big process, but it’s one where I’m feeling quite comfortable now.
“Playing with the car, trying to keep it active the whole time, linking all of the corners together, one into the next, is just ridiculous amounts of fun,” he adds. “For the pure joy of driving, trying to be fast on gravel is one of the most fun and intense experiences I’ve had in a car. For me it’s the purest pursuit of driving perfection. It’s the feeling that you maybe get during qualifying in a sports car race, just going for that ultimate lap, but it’s like that all the time in rallying. It’s striving for your own perfection.”
So will the experience gained in sports car racing give Johnston any sort of edge in a stacked WRC-2 field on Rally Catalunya this weekend?
“Well first of all, it’s kind of weird, but Spain is going to be our first proper asphalt rally in the R5 car,” he says. “Our first asphalt rally in 2019 was a mud bath, then COVID meant we didn’t even do an asphalt round in 2020, and Monte this year was absolutely insane with the mud, snow and ice, so we’ve still yet to experience a proper completely dry asphalt rally.
“A successful Catalunya will be getting to the end without issue. For sure, this is a surface that I know well, but rallying is a completely different world. It’s a different approach, a different line, and I’m very aware that I still have a lot to learn. I know that I can be competitive [in WRC-2], but I’m not aiming to be on the podium or anything like that this weekend. I want to get the experience, build the level of comfort in the car, but do some driving and take some steps toward our own limit, too.”
With the season-closing Monza Rally not on Johnston’s list (“We want to focus on events that we think or know will be on the calendar next year so we can take the notes and roll them forward”), Spain will wrap his 2021 WRC campaign. The details still need to be finalized, but expect to see Johnston and Kihurani back in WRC-2 in ’22 – which is when the push can really begin.
“In our fourth season of rallying, to be in WRC-2 and scoring top-five finishes, we’re happy with that,” says Johnston. “But 2021 was always a developmental year. We wanted to build our experience with the car, build experience on the different surfaces, and build our notes for as many rallies as we can, so that we’re not starting every event in 2022 with a blank sheet of paper.
“Next year, it’s definitely the bigger push. We’re the only American crew on the international scene, so we’re stoked to be flying that flag, and we want to show the people back home what we’re capable of in this amazing sport.”
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