I cannot imagine how Ireland’s Craig Breen felt travelling home from his emotional return to Sicily and the Targa Florio Rally. All I know is that once again Breen has made a nation proud.
In fact, Breen has made two countries proud in the past week – actually make that three.
No World Rally Championship driver refers back to their rallying roots more than Breen does to Ireland. The love and respect between Irish rally fans and Breen is mutual – his 2019 homecoming ensured that.
So, the fact that I automatically thought of Northern Italy when I wrote “home” in the very first sentence speaks volumes for how Breen’s relationship with Italy has grown in recent years.
It was clear, watching ACI Sport interviews with the Hyundai driver over the weekend, how Italy has welcomed the Waterford native into their fold with arms wide open.
Listening to Breen speak so fondly about his time rallying along the mediterranean, it was hard not to wonder what Ireland has missed out on in its now 14-month rally desolation.
But Breen’s bravery, respect, and ever-professional performance made us all proud, whether Irish or Italian.
The third nation? Of course, Wales could follow Breen’s Targa Florio return with pride as he sought to claim victory for his much-missed Welsh co-driver, Gareth Roberts.
Indeed rally fans worldwide were hoping for a fitting Breen victory, with Roberts by his side in spirit.
But it wasn’t to be – Breen had to settle for second position behind triple Italian Rally Champion Giandomenico Basso.
Only 2.4 seconds separated Breen and stand-in navigator, Louis Louka, from winning the Targa Florio Rally.
“I tried and unfortunately for reasons out of my control, victory was taken out of my hands at the last moment.” Breen wrote on his Instagram page.
“We had a technical problem on the first stage out of service for the last time and dropped a critical three seconds. We managed to fix the car for the last stage but it wasn’t enough.
“It hurts, it really hurts, but the same way destiny took it’s path nine years ago, it chose it’s path yesterday also.”
Breen was left hurting as destiny had its say but I hope the 31-year-old is proud of what he achieved not only last week but in the past nine years.
The Irishman’s approach to Targa Florio was typical of so many of his recent R5 successes. Up against several fast local drivers familiar with the event, Breen managed his pace through the first half of the rally.
He had stayed within touching distance of rally-leader Basso and with four stages remaining Breen turned up the wick. The #42 i20 R5 scored its first stage win on the seventh test, taking 3.5 seconds out of Basso’s lead.
It was difficult to bet against Breen heading into the final loop of three Sicilian stages. It was looking like a repeat of his Rally Sanremo success, a win he managed in similarly disciplined fashion.
But as Breen explained, unexpected time loss on Stage 8 coupled with the penultimate stage’s cancellation left Breen and Louka with too much time to claw back – despite their stage-winning efforts on Targa Florio’s finale.
Nine years on from that tragic weekend in Sicily, Breen is continuing to build his reputation as having the surest of hands behind the wheel of a rally car.
Even looking back at the two and a half years since he was left in the cold by Citroen Racing, Breen has proven time and again his value as a world championship level driver.
Only for his strong relationship with Hyundai and team boss Andrea Adamo, one would consider him a top contender to lead M-Sport Ford’s World Rally Team in 2022.
It’s a position he has built thanks to determined hard-work and skill shown in the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship, through an MRF European campaign, right to his WRC outings.
But what we all love most about Breen’s journey is that unhidden love for rallying and his home country(s), along with the dignity he brings to situations like last weekend.
In the same way Breen never forgot his Irish tarmac roots, Breen will never forget his best friend from Wales.
“This morning before leaving I went back there,” penned Breen, “and celebrated with Jaffa.
“I left my trophy, but made sure there is space there for the winners trophy when I will come back, I will do it.”
Bravissimo Craig, you made us all proud yet again.
Photos courtesy of ACI Sport