- Peter MacKay
Tenacious: How Craig Breen fought back into rallying royalty
Following a troublesome run to a distant 7th place in the season finale Kennards Hire Rally Australia, a dejected Craig Breen despaired over his lack of fortune through a rollercoaster season of hard knocks in 2018. From the outset, the infectiously likeable Breen delivered for his PSA group paymasters with a measured drive to claim second place behind championship favourite Thierry Neuville on Rally Sweden. Nevertheless, Craig’s path towards WRC career obscurity had already been laid out for him. Prior to the start of the 2018 season, a deal was agreed for 9 times world champion Sebastien Loeb to return on selected WRC rounds of his choosing in a Citroen World Rally Car. Sadly, this meant that Breen and his co-driver Scott Martin would have to be prized out of “their” Citroen C3 WRC for the next 2 rounds, despite their triumph between the Scandinavian snow banks. This premeditated snub of Breen clearly diminished any momentum that he had gathered in Sweden. Eight months later, fourth place in the happy hunting ground of Wales Rally GB was all that Breen and Martin could muster but by this point their fate was sealed. A few weeks earlier, news broke that another French world champion joining the Citroen stable would again leave Craig Breen out in the cold. Only this time, it would be permanent. Sebastien Ogier finally relented to the lobbying of team manager, Pierre Budar, who had not only secured the 6 times world champion’s signature but also the necessary finances from the PSA board to obtain the services of the best in the business. A relatively small fry deal compared to the groups acquisition of Vauxhall/Opel for £2 billion in 2017, but a clear sign of the brands desperation to finally return to the top of the world’s premier off road motorsport category. News of Esapekka Lappi defecting from the leading Toyota team to Citroen followed, effectively sealing Breen’s fate. Running a 3rd car would be a step too far for Budar’s political posturing, no doubt the coffers were left empty following the decadent expenditure required to poach Ogier. As a result, Breen would spend Christmas in Australia with his family in the knowledge he would not be competing in the WRC in 2019, at least on a full time basis. A heartfelt video was released on the 2011 WRC Academy winners Facebook page, with a solemn Breen noticeably devastated by the situation he found himself in.
Breen’s co-driver, Scott Martin, forged a new partnership for the 2019 WRC season. Martin now calling paces notes for the promising young Welshman, Elfyn Evans. To date, their partnership has been a resounding success, yielding podium finishes before Evans suffered a back injury during Rally Estonia.
For a professional rally driver, spending the festive period trying to process the reality of not lining up at the start of the iconic Monte Carlo Rally at the end of January, must be gut wrenching. But, it is very clear that professional rally drivers have many traits that us mere mortals could never dream of possessing. The road that leads to graduating to factory driver royalty in the WRC, is a rocky road that only a very select group of exceptional people have ever completed. Without exception, each and every one of these drivers will have tales of strife, heartbreaks and setbacks along the way. Tenacity and stubbornness are two words which will come up time and again in the pace notes of a driver who has completed this long and arduous career path. In 2019, Craig Breen, along with fellow WRC outcast Paul Nagle, have vividly demonstrated the tenacity and grit of true world class competitors.
Instead of sitting on the sofa, watching Group B on boards on YouTube and waiting for his WhatsApp notifications to miraculously light up with messages from Makinen/Adamo/Wilson et al, Breen set to work on his WRC comeback. Opening up any possible avenue of opportunity he could, Breen began to fill his diary with competitive rallies across Europe in a plethora of R5 cars. Budget was also secured to compete in the Irish tarmac rally championship, competing in a Ford Fiesta R5 backed by generous sponsors Rentokil and many others too. Stepping back on home soil, competing on some of the finest tarmac stages on earth and completing a clean sweep of wins in the prestigious Irish Tarmac Championship was the perfect tonic for Breen. A return to a winning mentality and a reconnection with his love affair of rallying via his beloved tarmac roads of Ireland put Craig Breen right back in WRC shop window. One off performances in a Polo R5 at Ypres and a Fabia R5 at San Remo both yielded wins for the Irish pair as the ongoing flat out therapy continued. Some drivers would have turned their noses up at competing in national events in an R5 car, but not Breen. Unconditional love of competing in a rally car of any type has fuelled the passionate Irishman’s journey back to the WRC elite.
At the end of June, Breen and Nagle’s WRC comeback was confirmed. Hyundai’s top man, Andrea Adamo, had seen enough and opened up the doors of the front running i20 Coupe for the most significant rally of the year, Finland. The resurgent pair had just one rally to prove that they deserved their place back at the top level of the sport. The pressure to exhibit their credentials was immense. Reconnaissance on Rally Estonia provided the only rehearsal for Breen to get up to speed in the i20 Coupe WRC prior to the 1000 lakes classic. Despite this less than ideal programme of preparation, Breen delivered a highly impressive performance in Finland. The 2016 Rally Finland podium finisher devoured the ludicrously fast stages that have so far stumped most of the Hyundai i20’s regular drivers, including championship contender, Thierry Neuville. Stepping back into the WRC pressure cooker for a one off audition did little to dampen Breen’s delight to be back behind the wheel of the fastest specification world rally car ever built. Stage end interviews with most WRC stars are often very cynical monologues. Mercifully, Craig does not follow this mould. If the twice Circuit of Ireland winner is even remotely happy with a run through a competitive stage, Breen can often be found in tears of joy when the driver’s side door is swung open. Sincere displays of gratitude and delight for any opportunity to drive competitively in a rally car are qualities that endear Craig to so many fans. On Rally Finland, this infectious elation was there for all to see. Compare this to the draining pessimism of the man who took his Citroen seat, Esapekka Lappi, and you begin to question if Pierre Budar made the right call to cast the 22 times rally winner aside in favour of the troublesome Finn.
The Finnish dream continued for Breen and Nagle as the rally drew to a close. Rapid pace throughout the event resulted in the Irish crew running ahead of Hyundai top man, Thierry Neuville. With the Belgian clutching onto a slim hope of catching the dominant Ott Tanak in the championship, every point would count. Hyundai management were required to step in and instruct Breen to slow and allow Neuville to finish ahead in the final classification to pick up a vital extra points. Breen commendably followed orders and stepped aside, in doing so neatly topping up his emotional bank account with his new Korean employers. Iron fisted team leader, Andrea Adamo, keen to reward Craig’s compliance, has given his new protégé the nod for another outing in the i20 WRC at Wales Rally GB. Breen and Nagle have clinched another well-deserved opportunity to illustrate to the WRC top brass that they fully deserve to be there, permanently. Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen continues to grapple with the Hyundai i20 WRC, unable to get comfortable with the fickle machine. Only 4 podiums and no wins since joining the team at the end of 2017 have clearly riled Mr Adamo, resulting in Mikkelsen being dropped more regularly from rallies in favour of either Sebastien Loeb or Dani Sordo. If Breen were to vanquish the 3 time WRC winner in the muddy Welsh forests, he would put together the strongest pitch to occupy Mikkelsen’s coveted seat in one of the best funded teams in the WRC for 2020. Although the lovable Andorran resident produced World Championship level heroics in the Finnish forests, Breen’s rehab on the lanes of his homeland can never be underestimated on his tenacious climb back to the top flight of rallying.