Few events sit in the World Rally Championship’s history with greater significance than last weekend’s Rally Estonia. The WRC’s post-lockdown return was in the limelight, it had to be a success.
In the build-up to the event, Craig Breen and Paul Nagle’s return to Hyundai’s WRC line-up hadn’t gone unnoticed but perhaps given the surrounding circumstances the importance of a strong performance had.
While most competitors talked of their long wait since March’s Rally Mexico, Breen and Nagle hadn’t seen WRC action since Rally Sweden a month earlier.
Since their departures from Citroen in 2018, time in a World Rally Car has been like gold dust. They’ve found a welcoming home in Hyundai but are in constant competition with Sebastien Loeb and Dani Sordo for a spot in that final third car.
Rally Estonia was one of four rounds left in this year’s championship: Turkey, Italy, and Belgium remain. The Irish pairing travelled to the Baltics knowing that Estonia could very well be their only time in the WRC’s shop window this year.
Loeb takes the hot seat in Turkey and with Sordo the reigning winner of Rally Italy, the Ypres-based Rally Belgium is really the only other chance. Given the ever-changing coronavirus outlook, Ypres’ happening can’t be taken for granted.
The stakes were high in Estonia for the Irishmen but how they took it in their stride.
A second-fastest time to Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera on Saturday’s opening stage put them in a position they wouldn’t relinquish throughout the high-speed event.
Breen and Nagle eventually finished runner-up to home heroes, Ott Tanak and Martin Jarveoja. They were the perfect wingmen for the reigning world champions and it was all Hyundai boss, Andrea Adamo, could have asked for.
“It was a superb feeling [to get back onto the WRC podium],” described Paul Nagle. “It has been a while since I was there in Mexico in 2018.”
“A lot of things have happened since that podium so it was a great feeling to be back and well deserved over the weekend too.
“I thought Craig drove an exceptionally good rally, under a lot of pressure on Saturday afternoon with the current world champion ahead and a six-time world champion behind.
“And career on the line too, possibly, to make sure you get a good result when you don’t have a long term contract. Going rally to rally is not easy.
“We were well prepared. The amount of work in preparation for this rally was incredible especially on Craig’s half, he left no stones unturned. He knew this was a very, very important rally for us.”
Last year’s Irish Tarmac Champions had built a nice cushion to Sebastien Ogier by Saturday evening courtesy of two stage-wins that afternoon. Breen couldn’t hide his joy and excitement as the end-of-stage crews captured his description of the “anti-gravity stage.”
The Estonian roads were nothing short of a rollercoaster but Breen and Nagle were the cool customers as they cruised through the final stage in front of Ogier’s rejuvenated Toyota.
While Hyundai dominated the rally’s first full day of action, Toyota had bounced back with an equally presiding package on Sunday. With their rivals ready to pounce Nagle knew Hyundai’s 1-2 finish was never a given.
“Enjoying it? I probably enjoyed it after the finish line on the last stage, you just never know what could happen.
“You see boys having big moments, Tanak had a huge moment on the second-last stage.
“With the ruts, you never know what to expect. There was a lot of rain last week and the second pass was very tricky on both days which kept us on our toes.
“There were some surprising moments that weren’t in the pacenotes, but they were happening to everyone, because the road was getting so soft.”
Breen and Nagle avoided any scares or final-day dramas.
Good luck, fortune, just meant to be? I doubt it.
Since their exit from full-time WRC competition, Breen and Nagle have shown time and time again that their professional approach and focus on delivering the required objectives so often brings home the result they need.
With one goal in sight, the pair return to the European Rally Championship early next month.
Breen commented in his post-event press conference how he and Paul had to sign and seal their result in Estonia.
In turn, they have done all they can through their post-lockdown performances to sign and seal that all-important full-time seat in 2021.
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Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport