Why Breen’s subdued WRC start is cause for optimism

So, so – that’s how Ireland’s favourite rally driver summarised his start to this year’s World Rally Championship.

2022 is Craig Breen’s biggest rallying season to date. He sealed a full-time contract with M-Sport Ford last autumn and has since focused on delivering success to the Ford Puma outfit.

A frustrating Rally Sweden result is sandwiched between third- and fourth-placed finishes in Monte-Carlo and Croatia. It leaves Breen and Paul Nagle third in the WRC standings after 2022’s opening three rounds.

If anything, that statistic is a reminder of Breen’s ability to hang in there even when the performances are not at the level he expects from himself.

“For sure there are some things we would have liked to be better,” admitted Breen. “Monte was a perfect start and I would have liked to have continued on like that.

“Sweden was a bit of a blot on the copybook, making a mistake so early on. It definitely ruined the weekend and shaped somewhat the outcome of Croatia as well.

“I wasn’t exactly able to go into Croatia as gung-ho as I would have wanted. That showed in our confidence there.

“It has been up and down but it has been positive. There have been some very positive points in the first few rallies.

“I know that we can be a lot stronger and better in the rallies going forward.”

Baby steps is a phrase that has run in parallel to Breen’s progressive career as a world rally driver. M-Sport’s lead driver has never been one to risk it all or take giant leaps into the unknown.

Despite struggling to challenge rally leaders so far this year, Breen kept his cool to land decent results in Monte-Carlo and Croatia. Third in WRC after their first three rounds in the Rally1 Puma, I’m pretty sure M-Sport’s Irish crew would have taken that at the start of the year.

For now, it’s small steps as they settle into life at M-Sport and understand what makes things tick in the Cumbria based team.

“The switch [to M-Sport] was good, it felt natural from the beginning.

“It came at the right moment, I’m definitely glad that we did it and I’m enjoying working there with great people.

“I’m learning a lot myself, working with everyone there, and it is definitely a nice place to be.”

All roads lead to Portugal next week as Rally1 makes its gravel debut. WRC has drip-fed its opening rounds this year – 17 weeks on from Rally Monte-Carlo, we have only seen two more rounds.

In 17 weeks’ time, WRC crews will have tackled a further seven world rallies. This is the heart of the world rallying calendar, and it is very much a gravel heart. Ypres is the only sealed surface event in WRC’s next eight rounds.

“Portugal is our first time on gravel in the Puma in competition,” explained the 32-year-old. “I’ve done a few days on gravel in the car, not so many, but I’ve done a few.

“I feel good. We had a test in Portugal last week to refine everything and I felt confident there as well.

“Everything is pointing in a good direction. I haven’t done the event since 2018 and I opened the road for nearly the whole event so it is going to be tough.

“But I’m looking forward to it. It’s a nice event and we have done good work going into it.”

Monte-Carlo, Sweden, and Croatia have given us a read on each manufacturer’s performance at the beginning of WRC’s hybrid era. The Ford Puma Rally1 has looked comfortable on each one and as M-Sport, Toyota, and Hyundai hit gravel, one would expect the Puma to be right up there again.

“We are definitely getting into a busier part of the season now. It was strange after Sweden to have so much free time before Croatia.

“There was a reasonable break after Croatia but now the events come thick and fast. There is only a week between Portugal and Sardinia and then it is not far to Safari after that.

“Before we know it we’ll be into Estonia. It is going to be a busy couple of weeks.

“We have prepared well for the rallies. I’m looking forward to getting knuckled down and stuck into the rallies to see what we can do.”

Portugal, Sardinia, and Kenya – rallies don’t get much more arduous and attritional than those three. Breen may lack experience of WRC’s next loose surface stages but his sensibly steady approach suits the demands of the Mediterranean and equatorial events.

It would be unfair to expect Breen and Nagle to show performances akin to their 2020 and 2021 rally-winning charges. But if they do their own thing, continue to build experience, and accrue a healthy share of championship points – who knows what position they’ll be in when they hit Breen’s favourite Estonian and Finnish flavoured rollercoasters at the height of summer.

“I don’t have any specific aims but it goes without saying I would love to get a win at some point.

“I’m desperately searching to get a rally win. We have got our fair share of podiums, I would love to take that next step.

“For sure that’s in the back of our minds but it is not something that we need to force. We just need to drive with the same intentions that we have done in the events that have gone well in the past.

“I know that we have everything around us to make it happen. I’ll try not to reinvent the wheel. I’ll enjoy my driving and we’ll see what results it brings.”

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Three rounds into Breen’s “so, so” start to the season, he finds himself in WRC’s top three. Only for a Croatian downpour, Breen and Nagle could well have had two podium finishes to their names.

2022 is yet to show us the same sheer speed Breen displayed in his sporadic appearances with Hyundai over the past two years.

Remember though, it took time for world rallying’s bobble-hatter to find his feet at Hyundai.

If third and fourths are Breen’s baby steps now, you can’t help but get excited about what his longer strides could bring through the rest of the season.

Photos by M-Sport and Red Bull Content Pool

Adam Hall

Brought up in the Irish countryside, Adam was never far away from the world of rallying. From following local events like the Circuit of Ireland and the Ulster Rally, Adam now puts the stories from stages all around the world into words through his website Rally Insight.

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