Aaron Johnston will start a World Rally Championship event in a top-level car for the first time this weekend. Of all the rallies to make his debut, Tyrone’s high-flying navigator is doing it on the illustrious Safari Rally Kenya.
It will be yet another “pinch yourself” moment for Johnston and his partner in crime Oliver Solberg. Oliver follows in his father Petter’s footsteps who competed on the Safari Rally four times before it was pulled from the WRC calendar 19 years ago.
While one hopes they get a chance to savour the moment, as Johnston explains, the Safari Rally will demand absolute focus even before Thursday afternoon’s opening stage.
“The pacenotes are going to be critical with literally all the roads looking the same,” explained Johnston. “It will be extra important to have all the detail in the notes but Oliver likes to have his notes wordy so I think we will be okay.
“It is unfair to compare it to the Safaris of old with 100 kilometre stages over five days but back then the cars were solely for the Safari Rally. They were custom built, strengthened, and reinforced for that rally.
“Now, all the manufacturers are going with the cars that they brought to Sardinia. These cars are extremely high tech and high performance so it will be a happy medium between speed and car sympathy.
“We won’t have any snorkels or bull bars so we need to keep that in mind. It is especially something that we will have to pay attention to on recce.”
Safari’s desolate plains and bushlands made it tricky to prepare any pacenotes at home using the stage videos supplied by rally organisers. Solberg and Johnston will hit Nairobi with a blank canvas ready to note every potential hazard that could trip them up over the weekend.
It’s a massive leap for the young crew but it seems the Hyundai juniors know nothing else. They have regularly encountered new challenges in the past year; this is just another to add to their ever growing list.
A debut World Rally Car win together on Rally di Alba earlier this month at least gives Johnston some foundation of what to expect when Solberg launches the Hyundai i20 WRC into shakedown on Wednesday.
“To go to Alba and not have the media attention that the world championship brings, it was good to have a bit more freedom to focus on the rally.
“Even though it is completely different to the Safari at least we have the seat-time and are going into it with a win under our belts which is quite good for the confidence.”
Johnston is set for an intense Safari Rally experience with new pacenotes, unique surroundings, and potentially fragile machinery. But when the clocks stop on Sunday he might just realise that a childhood dream has become a reality.
“The last time the rally ran, Colin McRae won it so I think that tells you all that you need to know.
“We all remember the helicopter shots passing giraffes and elephants so hopefully we get to see some of this at a length that they don’t get in our way.
“To be going to the Safari Rally in a WRC+ car, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport