International rallying is hitting its busy season with this weekend’s Rally Poland marking the first round of the European Rally Championship. It’s also the start of a key period in the careers of three top Irish drivers: Craig Breen, Callum Devine, and Jon Armstrong.
They all have their own reasons for being in north-east Poland this week but the gravel rally is equally important for each of them.
Ireland’s WRC star may have his ambitions set higher than the ERC but his campaign with MRF Tyres last year proved the value of regular time behind the wheel of a rally car.
Breen and Paul Nagle look set to continue the Hyundai-MRF-ERC combo in 2021 alongside their part-time WRC programme.
Breen’s role developing MRF’s rally rubber left him as one of the busiest drivers when rallying peered its head out of lockdown 12 months ago. ERC events in Italy and Latvia left him sharp for WRC’s return on Rally Estonia.
Estonia was a high point in the Irish pair’s season. Their runner-up finish behind home hero Ott Tanak is their best WRC result for Hyundai to date.
With Rally Estonia less than a month away, Breen has a chance to better that preparation with two consecutive gravel rallies this time around: Rally Poland and Rally Liepaja.
Of course, each rally has its own unique characteristics but as Breen travels further north from Poland to Latvia to Estonia, it’s as good as he could hope for ahead of his WRC return next month.
Arctic Rally Finland and Croatia Rally didn’t go as Breen had hoped earlier this year. Fourth in Lapland was by no means a bad result but the Irishman is striving after eye-opening performances to seal a 2022 Rally1 seat.
With so few places available he needs another Estonian wonder weekend to push his name back up to the top of the manufacturers’ “most wanted” list. Breen’s time in Poland and Latvia could very well be his secret weapon.
Postponements, cancellations, and the odd drama hampered Devine’s debut season in the ERC. Now he’s put the pieces in place for a fresh start, learning from the shortcomings of last year.
A new car, more warm-up events, extra testing… Devine is going all in with the hope that extra commitment will be rewarded with more top results in the European Championship.
The Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver finished last season showing real promise on Hungary, Portugal, and the Canary Islands’ asphalt rallies. The speed was definitely there and it gives Devine and co-driver James Fulton a nice base to work with this year.
But with this year’s championship starting on high-speed gravel, Devine is diving straight into the deep end.
Devine’s rally-ending accident on Rally Liepaja last August will be hard to forget. He’ll have to face any demons when he returns just two weeks after Rally Poland so a strong performance on a similarly high-speed rally this weekend will be the perfect antidote to any remaining anxiety from 2020.
Junior WRC’s Croatia Rally winner was a surprise addition to Rally Poland’s ERC opener. The 26-year-old will drive a Rally3 Ford Fiesta on an event he has fond memories of from his Drive Dmack Trophy days in 2016.
While his step up to M-Sport Poland’s new entry-level four-wheel-drive car may limit the relevance to his usual front-wheel-drive Rally4 Fiesta, Armstrong is more than happy to maximise his Junior WRC prep with a week in Poland.
Like Breen, Rally Estonia is Armstrong’s next WRC event. Poland’s soft, easily rutted, high-speed gravel stages will be a nice way to prepare for the crucial Junior WRC round.
Armstrong is the first to admit Rally Estonia is probably his weakest event on the calendar, especially with two Finns, an Estonian, and a Latvian in this year’s Junior WRC line-up.
It’s also the centre point of the Junior WRC calendar, round three of five, and it could well be the tipping point of Armstrong’s future rally career.
So a pressure free week in Poland, which started with Armstrong’s first official pre-event test since 2017, is a perfect opportunity to get up to speed for Estonia. His one-off Rally3 appearance gives him a chance to fine-tune all the behind the scenes nuances ahead of next month’s pivotal Junior WRC showdown.
Photos courtesy of FIA ERC, Hyundai Motorsport, and Junior WRC