One week ago many hoped Croatia Rally would be Craig Breen’s breakthrough in the World Rally Championship. Finally after 20 months with Hyundai, he had been given a shot on an asphalt world rally.
It all looked so good: another new WRC event for Breen and Paul Nagle to get stuck into, a perfect warm-up with success on Rally Sanremo, and finally a competitive World Rally Car to work with.
But it wasn’t to be.
The Irish crew’s rally took a crunching blow on Saturday’s opening stage. 100 metres in Breen clipped a kerb at a roundabout and punctured his Hyundai i20 WRC. With two minutes lost changing the wheel, Breen and Nagle left Stage 9 in a lowly ninth position.
A parked truck had made it difficult to mark the section’s pacenotes during recce but as Breen explained the situation you could tell he was in no mood to make excuses. He was bitterly disappointed.
To rub salt in his wounds, in the preceding Hyundai had bolted on a mix of soft and hard tyres for the loop of four stages. It was a tyre choice that not only hampered Breen but undid team-mate Thierry Neuville’s rally-winning bid.
Breen and Nagle had three stages to complete before midday service and with no spare tyres remaining it was far from an ideal situation to regain their lost time.
In similar fashion to Arctic Rally Finland, it wasn’t until Sunday’s Power Stage, when Breen punched in a competitive stage time. A time that was only beaten by determined rally winner Sebastien Ogier.
“It’s difficult to go 150% on these tricky stages,” said Breen. “We have worked hard to make it feel like home inside the car, but it just hasn’t been the case.
“At times, it has felt nice, and we’ve been able to give it a push, like in the Power Stage, but globally we needed more.
“Having said that, I have enjoyed the rally, I’ve learned a lot and definitely have a lot of food for thought.”
Eighth overall is not a result Breen will want to ponder on for too long, such is his ambitions to match the pace of WRC’s championship contenders.
But in an interview with WRC+ on Friday evening (before Breen’s Stage 9 misdemeanour), Andrea Adamo explained why the Irishman wasn’t on rally-winning pace in Croatia.
“Craig is doing the job he has to do,” started Hyundai’s team principal. “He cannot take the risk the ones in front are taking because he is here to cover the other position.
“In certain rallies in gravel or on snow he can do better.
“Let me say something, I don’t want to be misunderstood because it is very easy to be misunderstood: Sebastien Loeb in the previous years was struggling a bit more on tarmac to keep the pace than on gravel. Not because he wasn’t fast enough but with these cars to go to the limit on tarmac, it needs a very high level of confidence.
“If you, in every small corner, release the throttle or don’t brake so deep like the others are doing, you lose a tenth, a tenth, a tenth, a tenth. Then you arrive at the end of the stage and you lose six seconds.
“In a rally like today, losing six seconds looks like an age.
“This is due to the fact that maybe in a few corners you adjust the slide a bit more because you are not so confident to floor the throttle as fast as the others.”
Overall, Croatia Rally was an event to learn from rather than celebrate for Hyundai. Barring Neuville’s near-perfect performance – his final stage overshoot the only personal blemish – the Korean manufacturer was far from its best in Croatia.
Ott Tanak didn’t have the in-car confidence to challenge the top three while that Saturday morning tyre choice hit every single crew, costing Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe a maiden win together.
It wasn’t the weekend Breen was hoping for but for most of the Hyundai Motorsport team they all leave Zagreb wondering where it all went wrong on Balkan asphalt.
Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport