Craig Breen did it again. Alongside Paul Nagle, Hyundai’s Irish stars finished second overall on the World Rally Championship’s Baltic rollercoaster, Rally Estonia.
It was a repeat of their 2020 result except this time they were outpaced by Kalle Rovanpera instead of home hero Ott Tanak.
While Breen’s speed on Estonia’s fast, gravel stages wasn’t exactly a surprise, it was still an incredible achievement given his lack of time behind the wheel of a World Rally Car.
Rally Estonia marks Breen’s third time on the second step of a WRC podium as his chase for that elusive first world rally win continues. I have no doubt that day will come given Breen’s fine record on Estonia-esque rallies but don’t make the mistake of thinking that an event win is his ultimate WRC ambition.
The 31-year-old is there for the greatest title of them all – becoming a World Rally Champion.
There is one slight obstacle in the way though. And it is a problem Breen regularly pointed out when the mic was in sight last weekend.
“We have carried good speed throughout the stages,” said Breen. “Okay, it has not been enough to match Kalle, but we were able to consolidate our second place and brought it home to the end.
“All I need is a bit more time [in a World Rally Car] to go that extra one or two percent that I know we have within us.”
There you go, surely one simple solution to the problem – hand Ireland’s fastest rally driver a full-time drive in WRC.
With that comes the biggest challenge. Every man and their dog is after a full-time drive in the top tier of rallying.
The recent influx of tantilising talents has only intensified the pressure on WRC’s factory seats. So is one fantastic result really enough to claim that Breen must demand a full-time seat next year?
Unfortunately for Irish rally fans, that is just not a realistic suggestion.
In today’s world of rallying, the power is not in the hands of those with such desires.
However, Estonia was a good reminder of what Breen can offer WRC’s top teams. A much-needed reminder after he was left frustrated with his WRC performances earlier this year.
Of course, fourth on Arctic Rally Finland was a solid result but Breen was after more. The puncture on Croatia Rally was unfortunate but it was still a missed opportunity.
I would love to see Breen in the world championship week in, week out – I’m pretty sure any rally fan would. But with Dani Sordo and Oliver Solberg also at hand for Hyundai’s third Rally1 car, Breen needs to prove he is the best everywhere to completely blanket his two rivals from that position.
What about M-Sport or Toyota? Well, like Hyundai, Toyota at best has one seat up for grabs. It seems Sebastien Ogier will dabble in that seat for part of the season so it really doesn’t represent a full-time opportunity.
The M-Sport avenue is interesting. Adrien Fourmaux is perhaps the only driver you would place a firm bet on being there next year. Gus Greensmith and Teemu Suninen both bring benefits to the table but one gets the feeling that those three together would lack a proper lead driver.
Don’t forget, next year represents WRC’s big hybrid shake-up and M-Sport’s best shot at another manufacturers’ title.
Andreas Mikkelsen has been labelled as a target for such a role at M-Sport. Could Esapekka Lappi return to Cockermouth if a part-time Toyota drive doesn’t appeal?
Personally I feel those two are Breen’s benchmark. Mikkelsen and Lappi are already world rally winners and like Breen have proved to be pacesetters in Rally2 as well.
Everyone will have their own opinion and the fact remains, only those in 2022 team discussions will really know the true story.
What we can be sure of, however, is the importance of Breen’s next WRC appearances.
Breen and Nagle are confirmed in Hyundai’s WRC line-up for Ypres Rally Belgium and you would also expect to see them on this year’s Autumn running of Rally Finland.
Two completely different events but two events that Breen has terrific form on. Croatia Rally proved how difficult it is to step in and drive the latest generation of World Rally Car to the absolute limit but the outlook is now different for the 2019 Ypres winners than it was back in April.
Hyundai’s manufacturers’ bid is hanging by a thread. Usually Breen’s role as third driver would be to guarantee some points should Tanak or Thierry Neuville run into trouble. Being risk averse might have made sense then but can Hyundai afford the same caution in the second half of the season?
Perhaps it makes more sense to let the reins off Breen and Nagle to see what they can do on an event they’ve already conquered.
As for Finland, if they can repeat their Estonia performance, well then a Breen-Nagle Rally1 combo would definitely be hard to turn down.
Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport