Craig Breen is a full-time World Rally Championship driver. We have waited a long time to read, write, say… that exact line. And boy does he deserve it.
Along with his trusted navigator, Paul Nagle, Breen will lead M-Sport Ford into WRC’s new generation of hybrid Rally1 cars.
Throughout 2021, M-Sport has looked to be leading the Rally1 development race. Finally, Breen could well have landed the prime seat to fulfil his world championship ambitions.
It’s a sensible match-up for driver and manufacturer. The 31-year-old has been in the form of his life this year with three podiums in a row continually highlighting his world class capability.
The Waterford-Killarney duo’s journey cuts much deeper than their last three world rallies. Breen described his recent progress as baby steps and while his recent achievements have shown his maturity and professionalism, the Irish crew has had to play the long game to nail down a full-time contract.
Three years ago, Breen was ready to make his big impact on WRC. He had two seasons under his belt with Citroen in a car that seemed to be showing signs of progress.
2019, we all thought, was going to be the year.
Then it was gone.
Before we knew it, the French marque had drafted in Sebastien Ogier and Esapekka Lappi. Like his counterpart, Kris Meeke, Breen had been left in the lurch. Except unlike Meeke, he had no time to find a deal to continue in the world championship.
With his WRC development, growth, and ambitions in tatters; Breen found some respite at home in Ireland. He rekindled his partnership with Paul Nagle after six years apart and the pair set about winning rallies close to their heart.
First was Galway, then came West Cork, Sanremo, Killarney, and Ypres. Dominant, assured, and professional displays on some of Europe’s most difficult regional events finally brought its reward. A return to WRC, and of all places Rally Finland.
Breen and Nagle found a home in Hyundai through the next two years. Solid displays justified their position but one could sense the fire within Breen that he simply wanted more.
But realistically, what can one expect of a part-time driver occasionally occupying a manufacturer’s third World Rally Car.
Backing up manufacturers’ points was enough, podiums were even better. A win? That would be unbelievable.
2021 has proved on three occasions that Breen has every potential to win world rallies. It’s only a matter of time.
The fact is though, Breen isn’t chasing rally wins. The rally fuelled blood running through his whole life has him focused on becoming Ireland’s first ever World Rally Champion.
Understand that desire and you’ll soon realise why he has been so adamant he needs a full-time programme. It’s not just so he has a greater chance of picking up an event win, it’s so he can get back on that bullet train of momentum that’s needed to be the best in the world.
In M-Sport he’s got that very chance. There’s every possibility he’ll have the optimum car. And he’ll no longer be restrained by supporting one of WRC’s big-name drivers.
Breen and Nagle may lack recent experience on many of WRC’s events but be under no illusion, they’ve recced and will have prepared intensely for them.
Rally1 cars, well they’re new for everybody. It’s a fresh start, and hopefully a level playing field.
It’s an incredible opportunity. But it’s one that Breen wholeheartedly deserves after his persistence since being left in the dark two winters ago.
Hyundai was a welcome refuge as Breen baby-stepped his way back into WRC. Now he’s back where it all started. Breen has returned to the fold that supplied his first rallying footsteps in front-wheel-drive and Super 2000 Fiestas.
A homely cup of tea might feel appropriate today but let’s hope the taste of champagne is just around the corner.
Photos courtesy of David Harrigan and Hyundai Motorsport