Chances are plenty of GRRC readers won’t know a great deal about Irish rally driver Craig Breen. If you are up to speed on the exploits of Kilmurry’s quickest, you’ll know that on Saturday he – and I quote from his Twitter feed – “achieved my dream and won the Circuit of Ireland”.
Victory for Breen by 6.4s after 18 stages on fast and narrow asphalt meant he got to add his name to an exclusive list of top rally drivers who’ve conquered one of British and European Championship rallying’s most historic and toughest sealed-surface events. The list includes Paddy Hopkirk, Roger Clark, Russell Brookes, Pentti Airikkala, Jimmy McRae, Dai Llewellin and Colin McRae, in case you wondered.
After struggling with intermittent turbo-boost pressure problems in his factory-blessed Peugeot Rally Academy-run Peugeot 208 T16 for much of the event, Breen hung on and pounced when fellow Irishman Robert Barrable crashed out of the lead with three stages remaining.
With this famous win to add to his success last time out in Latvia, comes the lead of the FIA European Rally Championship points table. I genuinely can’t remember the last time an Irish driver found himself in that position. If I’ve fully underestimated your interest in this particular avenue of rallying – unquestionably one of motorsport’s most skilful, frenetic and exhilarating disciplines – and you know the answer, please let me know.
Breen’s talent has been troubling the radar for a good few years – helped by his title win in the WRC Academy in 2011. The junior series, in which crews competed in identical Ford Fiestas, was a support act to the full-blown World Rally Championship and exposed young talent to the spotters on the WRC trail. It opened a door, albeit ajar, for 2012, but that season, comprising seven WRC rounds in a non-turbo Fiesta S2000 and an attack on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in a Peugeot 207, ended in tragedy when his co-driver, Gareth Roberts, was killed in a crash during the fifth round of the IRC in Italy.
Roberts’ death – in a freak accident – knocked Breen and his close entourage for six, but he bounced back in 2013 with a move to the new-look European Championship, in which he scored five podium finishes to secure third in the final reckoning.
‘Those slightly mediocre stats make me want to see more talented Brits given a chance at the top level, and with this sort of momentum, Breen’s well-placed to earn a chance.’
He’s good enough to cut it at the top level and start to make inroads into the WRC victory paucity that rally fans on these shores have endured for too long. Sure, Northern Irishman Kris Meeke and Welshman Elfyn Evans are flying the flag in factory WRC seats right now, but since the sport’s premier class began in 1973, only three Brits – Roger Clark, Colin McRae and Richard Burns – have won an event. That compares, unfavourably, with France (18 winners), Finland (14) and Sweden (10). And there have been just seven other drivers to have finished on the podium in one of the 534 WRC qualifiers to date. Citroen driver Meeke tops that list, incidentally, with four third-place finishes.
Those slightly mediocre stats make me want to see more talented drivers given a chance at the top level, and with this sort of momentum, Breen’s well-placed to earn a chance. If he can lift the European title, bettering his back-to-back third-place finishes of the past two seasons, he deserves a proper crack at it.
Photography by Richard Simpson