Aaron Johnston’s rise through rallying’s ranks has been swift

When Fintona’s Aaron Johnston parted ways with Oliver Solberg last September having spent the best part of three seasons together, his involvement in the FIA World Rally Championship was thrown into doubt.

Incredibly, five days after the news broke, he was handed a lifeline by Toyota Gazoo Racing protégé Takamoto Katsuta. Having lost Keaton Williams – his stand-in replacement for the injured Dan Barritt – to personal reasons, the Japanese driver turned to Johnston for the deciding three rounds of 2021.

And while the transition did not go as smoothly as both had hoped, Johnston clearly impressed enough in Finland, Spain and Italy to convince Katsuta and Toyota’s Team Principal Jari-Matti Latvala to stick with him for 2022 – a decision made easier after Barritt announced that he would be stepping aside.

Their journey began on last month’s Rallye Monte Carlo and Johnston tells Drive NI he is confident that with a solid result in France and a productive pre-season test programme completed, they are headed in the right direction.

Drive NI) Many who follow the WRC were surprised to learn that you and Oliver would be parting company. Did it come as a shock to you – or had it been on the cards for some time beforehand?
Aaron Johnston) It wasn’t a shock and it wasn’t on the cards for any longer than the Sunday evening in Greece after we had finished the Acropolis Rally. The decision was made to go our separate ways but before that it had never been discussed and it hasn’t been talked about since.

DNI) When you realised you were going to be without a seat in the WRC following the announcement what crossed your mind – and did you always believe the situation would work out in your favour?
AJ) 2021 was a truly crazy year for the co-driver merry-go-round in the World Rally Championship. The market was incredibly active and things were happening very quickly and as soon as I made the other drivers aware that I was available, it didn’t take long to get something sorted for the rest of the year.

Katsuta’s confidence with the Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 car grew as Rallye Monte Carlo wore on

DNI) Are you still on good terms with Keaton and Dan considering how events have developed since you were drafted in to the Toyota squad to call the notes for Takamoto?
AJ) Yeah, for sure. It’s fair to say we co-drivers are friendly and support one another. Through no fault of their own – Dan was injured and Keaton had personal reasons – they couldn’t continue with Takamoto. I have been in contact with both of them, Keaton even travelled over to my place just before Christmas for a meet-up, so there are definitely no hard feelings there. I’m still very friendly with both guys.

DNI) The three rallies you started with Takamoto were a real baptism of fire. Was it as bad as it seemed from the outside looking in – or are there lessons that can be gleaned as you get ready for 2022?
AJ) I don’t think it can be classified as bad, especially as we were actually leading Rally Finland after the opening stage. OK, it didn’t end that way and we ran slightly wide [on stage 8] and touched the outside of a corner and broke the rear suspension, but at this level it’s millimetres, very fine margins. There’s a lot of ‘ifs and buts’, but it was a small error of judgement and it put us out of the rally. That is part and parcel of the sport but you have to remember Taka is still very young, so the experience we have gained together over the last three rallies puts us a step ahead moving into a full season in 2022. The three rallies were challenging, they were character building – a bit like my whole 2021 season – but the time we spent together on those three events will help us to get the jump start we need for 2022.

DNI) You are both still relatively new to the WRC – this is only Takamoto’s second full WRC campaign and your first, so what are the priorities over the next thirteen rounds?
AJ) As competitors, everyone wants to do the best job they possibly can, but for us we need to do all the rallies, finish all the rallies, and build our experience for the years to come. And now that we have joined the manufacturer’s team with the next generation Rally1 car, we will be looking to take some points away from our rivals and help the proper Toyota factory team retain the manufacturers’ title this season.

DNI) As if your job wasn’t difficult enough already, this year sees the introduction of new rules and hybrid cars. Do you feel sufficiently prepared – and how valuable has pre-season testing been?
AJ) I think we are moving into a completely new generation with these hybrid Rally1 cars – it’s probably the fairest the Championship will have ever been; it’s new for everyone. Whoever can adapt the fastest to the different driving techniques and the various driving styles will get off to a good start, but going by the testing we have done, we are feeling comfortable in the car and are confident we can be successful.

Katsuta and Johnston finished eighth overall on the season opening Rallye Monte-Carlo

DNI) Speaking of the car, what are the key differences inside the Rally1 car compared to the Yaris World Rally Car?
AJ) At the beginning, when you launch the car off the line, you can feel the extra 135hp of electric boost. That’s also true as you head out of tighter sections and hairpins – you do feel the massive boost in acceleration from the electric motor. Apart from that, and the fact there is a five-speed sequential gearbox instead of paddles that will take some time for the driver to get used to as they have to take their hand off the steering wheel to change gear, the old cars are quite similar to the new ones.

DNI) So, can we assume it is a busier environment for both the driver and co-driver?
AJ) It will be busier inside the car for sure. There are more things to learn and adapt to at the start but it’s like anything in life: the more you practice the more comfortable and the more natural it will be. After a few rallies it will all be second nature.

DNI) A lot has been said and written about how the hybrid system works. Are you and Takamoto clear in your own minds how to get the best out of the extra power – or will that take time and stage miles?
AJ) It will take some time, but again, if you prepare properly then straightaway it will help you going into the first few rounds. I think, in general, it’s new for everyone and everyone is doing their own homework to be as prepared as they can be, but with change comes unknowns and an element of surprise.

DNI) How has pre-season testing gone – and how have you spent that time to be ready for 2022?
AJ) As soon as I joined Toyota and it was clear it was going to be a long-term thing, I was straight in the car with Takamoto. We have to thank the team for giving us the opportunity to drive the car on Tarmac and gravel at different times since September. We got to drive the car at the pre-event test before Monte Carlo, so we started the season with a lot of kilometres under our belts. The atmosphere and camaraderie in Toyota is superb. Everyone is working together. It doesn’t feel like a team – it’s more like a family. It’s a really nice place to be, a nice environment to work in because all of the drivers, the co-drivers and mechanics are working together. The whole process is a huge collective effort.

DNI) Let’s fast forward to the end of the final event – Rally Japan, Takamoto’s and Toyota’s home event. What would you like to have achieved over the course of this 11-month campaign?
AJ) The aim is to do the best job we can. Being realistic, we still don’t have the same level of experience as the rest of the guys – I’m thinking our Toyota team-mates Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanpera and Hyundai’s Ott Tanak and Thierry Neuville – but Taka finished sixth in the Championship standings last year, so maybe the goal is to go one better this year and end up in the top five.

Next up for Katsuta and Johnston is Rally Sweden in a fortnight’s time
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