For the second rally in succession, Craig Breen has bagged a crucial World Rally Championship result for Hyundai. Along with co-driver Paul Nagle, the Irishman sealed an impressive runner-up finish on Ypres Rally Belgium.
Breen’s fifth WRC podium comes amid continued rumours surrounding his future in the championship. His recent brace of second-placed finishes has pushed him to the front of WRC’s driver shop window.
July’s Rally Estonia performance was an open statement towards his “full season” necessity and while last weekend’s Ypres result drew many parallels, it did follow a slightly different theme.
As I have written before, second on Rally Estonia was a brilliant result for Breen, but he needed more. Before Ypres all of Breen’s best WRC results were achieved within a Scandinavian circle one could draw on a map from Sweden to Estonia.
Croatia Rally was meant to be his asphalt breakthrough. After all, for a world rally driver who adores the black stuff to have finished no higher than fifth on a sealed surface WRC round, something just didn’t add up.
But Croatia wasn’t to be and ultimately Breen was left frustrated finishing eighth overall back in April. With Dani Sordo likely to snap up Hyundai’s third seat for Rally Spain and Japan, Breen’s last chance to prove his tarmac credentials fell on those famous roads zig-zagging through Flanders.
Ypres’ pre-event pressure lay on Hyundai. After so many rally disasters, and a winless streak stretching back six months, a Hyundai had to win. This time the team had no excuses. Its line-up consisted of two Ypres Rally winners and benefited from World Rally Car experience in the 2019 event.
Just like his team-mate, home favourite Thierry Neuville, Breen showed no sign of the expectation that comes with the defence of a rally victory.
Instead the two professionals let their stage-times do the talking. They traded the rally lead on Friday before Breen backed off in light of Andrea Adamo’s “warm recommendations” to withdraw from combat.
There is no doubt that Breen will have expected to “tow the party line” before those recommendations came from his team principal. But still, it was a tough reality to face.
Breen had stage-winning pace in Belgium. He went fastest four times in his first nine stages. He held the lead for a spell on Friday but sitting in Hyundai’s third car he had to be the team player, again.
His rally outlook changed on Saturday’s first stage when Ott Tanak was forced to change a puncture on his i20 WRC. The Estonian unknowingly pulled back out onto the stage in Breen and Nagle’s line of sight.
Did the move slow Breen? Maybe not, but it was a frustrating distraction. And it also brought a realisation to Breen that Tanak was no longer Hyundai’s points cushion in third.
A Toyota now followed Hyundai’s 1-2 and in doing so likely advanced Adamo’s call for Breen to hold position behind Neuville’s leading i20.
Hyundai’s Irish pairing at times may have threatened Neuville’s home success but not once did one question their compliance with the team game.
Ypres might not have delivered Breen’s maiden WRC win but it did crush any perception that his pace is confined to Scandinavian style rallies.
He’ll likely man Hyundai’s third car on Rally Finland, another chance to showcase his current pacey potential. It’s all in a bid to shore up that full-time drive in 2022.
Rumours are rife surrounding suggestions of a move to M-Sport. In many ways, Ypres proved why such a partnership makes a lot of sense.
As M-Sport’s drivers visited Ypres’ ditches, Breen’s rally challenge was brought to an end by his current employer.
M-Sport is crying out for a rally challenger and a reliable team leader just as Breen needs the chance to be exactly that.
Two years have passed since Breen was given his part-time chance with Hyundai. It was his world rally redemption. He has repaid the team with WRC points and a strong manufacturer presence in Customer Racing R5s across Europe.
Now, it looks like Breen’s R5 outings are coming to an end. Less than 24 hours after Rally Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps finish, MRF announced Jari Huttunen will replace Breen as its development driver on the next round of the European Rally Championship.
The tides are turning but in Breen’s own words we will have to wait and see.
“For sure, it [second on Ypres Rally] helps our cause and it puts us in a stronger position,” said Breen in Ypres Rally’s press conference.
“Apart from anything, on the contract side, it gives myself and Paul confidence going forward. We definitely feel much more confident.
“We will see.”
Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport and Red Bull Content Pool