Craig Breen is not a man who needs extra motivation but Ireland’s World Rally Championship hero left Arctic Rally Finland determined to put the lessons he learned into practice on his next event with Hyundai.
Breen and co-driver Paul Nagle finished fourth overall on their first WRC event since Rally Estonia last September. It was an impressive result given their circumstances but Breen couldn’t hide his personal frustration throughout the rally.
On Arctic Rally’s Sunday morning regroup, Hyundai engineers helped Breen pinpoint where he was losing time relative to his WRC rivals. With that information fresh in mind, Breen and Nagle bounced back to record a sensational second-fastest time on the Power Stage.
More on that driving style change later…
It may have been too little too late for their overall rally hopes but it was enough to leave them wondering where their pace truly could have been over the weekend.
“In all honesty, it’s been a tough weekend,” admitted Breen. “I’ve felt mentally – after delivering so much in Estonia last season – that the goalposts had moved, so I wanted to win but I also have to remember my experience is still a bit on the low side.
“It definitely gives me motivation to have made progress today [Sunday]. We spent some time in the regroup to analyse where I was losing time compared to the others.
“Thanks to the engineers, we were able to identify a few things that, maybe due to my driving style, were upsetting the car – erasing some traits that I’ve carried for a few years.
“I knew the speed was there, so it was nice to score some points for the team in the Power Stage and to end the weekend on a positive note.”
Hyundai Team Principal Andrea Adamo described his Irish driver as “sometimes more Italian than me” in light of Breen’s self-critical end-of-stage comments. Indeed, it came as a surprise to WRC viewers when Breen was so disappointed with his second-fastest opening stage time.
Despite his disappointment, Breen managed to finish the opening day second overall behind team-mate and eventual runaway winner Ott Tanak. But the Breen’s driving style struggles were compounded by stud degradation on Saturday as he slipped down to fourth.
Loose gravel coming up through the snow-ice surface was punishing the tyres and with grip dropping off across the front axle it left crews struggling with understeer at the end of Arctic’s longest stages.
Meanwhile, 2020 WRC runner-up Elfyn Evans had put himself within touching distance of Breen with Sunday’s two stages remaining. Evans’ Toyota Yaris lay just 10 seconds behind with 45 kilometres to go.
Then, what looked to be a straightforward fight was put in jeopardy as Hyundai mechanics rushed around Breen’s i20 on Sunday morning’s 15-minute service. The gearbox was dropped out of the car and with seconds to spare Breen and Nagle made it to the service-out time control.
After surviving that scare, Breen could only manage a seventh-fastest time on the first pass of Aittajarvi. Evans went fastest and closed the gap from 10 seconds to 3.6s.
With one stage left it was all to play for. Thankfully for Breen and Hyundai, they had a eureka moment.
Looking at the data Breen discovered that his driving style had been upsetting the i20’s handling. For Arctic’s final test he had to focus on improving his flow.
That is exactly what he did. When you compare Breen’s Stage 9 and 10 onboards you notice how he reverts to a more traditional Scandinavian style of driving for the Aittajarvi Power Stage.
Rather than “driving” through the corners with progressive steering wheel inputs, Breen was naturally flicking the Hyundai into the corners, letting the car do the work through the snowbanked bends.
Breen was no longer fighting with a car that was understeering towards the exit of corners, instead, it was clipping its tail against the snowbanks after one smooth transitioning slide from the very start of each corner.
The car was flowing from apex to apex and sure enough, Breen was bang on the pace. Only Kalle Rovanpera was fit to top Breen’s effort, going 0.3 seconds quicker.
Happy now? Not exactly.
The fact that Breen could come away with a second-fastest time on Arctic Rally Finland’s Power Stage and still pick out areas for improvement within a stage proves how deep he’s willing to dig to realise his WRC ambitions.
Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport