It was the incongruity of the moment that delivered the realisation, the nightmare’s real.
Right now, right at this moment, Craig Breen should have been some way east of here. He should have been describing the Croatian road ahead to his co-driver James Fulton, who should have been writing typically fastidious notes from the right-hand seat of their Hyundai-badged BMW recce car.
And Craig’s folks? Jackie and Ray would likely have been packing their bags, getting ready to fly to Zagreb to watch their boy.
Everybody had somewhere else to be.
Yet there we were. In a field, just outside Waterford, on a sunny Tuesday morning.
The field was the same field which doubled as Craig Breen’s playground in his youth. It was the field over the road from the Breen family home. The road was the same road Craig had ripped up and down in a go-kart, pressing family members into action as marshals to warn any potential traffic that a future World Rally Champion was busy cutting his teeth on his beloved Irish Tarmac.
Today the field was a gathering point for the good and the great from the world of rallying. Needed because the unthinkable had happened. Craig’s passing in a testing accident last week stopped the sport in its tracks. And brought us here, to Ireland.
Croatia, Olympus, the minutiae of rally week preparation could wait. Today was for Craig. Today was about, somehow, smiling his smile.
But still, the outlandishness caught. Desperate as the circumstances were, the company was typically rally perfect. Company like multiple Irish champion Andrew Nesbitt, who regaled us with the full ferocity of his rivalry with Austin MacHale, entertaining as ever.
Such is the intensity of the conversation, the story, the yarn, you’re momentarily side-tracked from the real reason for being in the field. Who are we to say what Craig would have wanted? Take it as read, he’d have wanted to be in the middle of conversations which bridged decades, gapped generations and headed down memory lane in the direction of far off Donegals and West Corks.
And it was, of course, all done over a cup of strong and very, very hot Irish tea.
Craig himself sits at the heart of no end of stories. It’s those amazing, funny and, at times, slightly surprising stories the family are going to need moving forwards.
Craig will always be loved. On Monday, around 7,000 people passed through the Breen home to pay their respects and to say goodbye to a humble superstar taken far too soon.
On Tuesday morning, Colin Clark and I sat with Jackie, Ray and Craig and reminisced about some of those good times. The wretched heartbreak was obvious, but it was – and always will be – overcome by the unanimous love for their blue-eyed boy.
On Sunday, friends, team-mates and colleagues bound by this week’s timetable stopped into Waterford on their way to Croatia.
Sitting in the garden, Ott Tänak smiled and told Jackie he’d always been a touch envious of her boy.
Jackie asked the Estonian to go further. She said: “Ott told me, he’d always been envious how much Craig could enjoy the sport. How much he loved what he did.”
Cast aside the misery of 2022 and focus on February’s Rally Sweden. That smile was way more than a mile wide. And it was surely set to broaden further.
Ray and Jackie both noticed a change in Craig when he talked directly after he’d come closer than ever to winning a round of the world championship. We’ll explore that more in the coming weeks.
Right now, it was time to walk.
Craig’s friend and manager of many years James Coleman looked at his watch and headed for a hole in the hedge that led back to the house.
“It’s time for Craig’s last stage,” he said quietly.
The field emptied hundreds of friends to fill the lane outside the house, thousands more lined the route to the church. Despite the masses and the endless chatter that had been the morning, the silence was all-consuming as we waited for Frank Meagher’s 1992 Circuit of Ireland winning Ford Sierra RS Cosworth to be fired up, to lead the procession.
Time stood still. Such was the serenity you could hear the bees going about their business in that glorious spring sunshine.
The lazy two-liter turnover signalled the beginning of Breeny’s last blast. It was, without a doubt however, the slowest he’d been down that lane in a very long time. It had to be that way – such was the number of people who wanted to wave a tricolor, to hold up a hand-painted banner proclaiming their love for Craig or just to have time to wipe away the tears as grief did its thing.
Walking down the road, a fellow fan and mourner took out his phone and showed us a video. His phone screen framed a pristine, white Group A Subaru Legacy RS sideways through the Galway rain.
“That was Craig this time last week, to the minute,” he said.
Shaking down a family car while working with Junior 1000 Rally Academy crews last Tuesday had put so many smiles on so many faces.
It also reminded you just how quickly life could change. The blink of an eye.
Such thought was considered in a tremendously moving Mass which blended theology and the stage beautifully.
Craig’s sister Kellie demonstrated that Breen bravery, commitment and sincerity weren’t characteristics confined to a rally car as she opened proceedings with a eulogy as spellbinding as it was poignant and funny.
If you haven’t watched it, you must. Go back to the stream and re-live the moment when Craig’s exams results were delivered. If ever a man was made for the road, it was this man.
There was, however, so much more to him than that road. Craig Breen was one of the world’s best rally drivers. But he was an even better human.
“So much of what we’ve been talking about with people is just Craig,” said Jackie. “It’s so much about him as a person rather than what he did in the sport. That’s lovely.”
Lovely. That was Craig. The loveliest of fellas.
The loss hurts so badly. So universally. From the friends who’d never changed from Breen’s childhood to the heroes he’d moved among until last Thursday, the heartache etched into the faces of Kris Meeke, Mikko Hirvonen and Dani Sordo, to mention just a few, was mirrored across the church. Across Ireland. Around the world.
Tuesday was a day to remember one of the greats, but there’s no escaping the human tragedy.
It’s hard to imagine a driver ever emulating what Craig Breen could do. That ability to drive the fastest of fast stages just that wee bit faster than anybody in the world was one thing. But to then take off the helmet and talk you and I into feeling we’d been sitting on his shoulder for the whole time was something else.
People’s champion? Undoubtedly. Craig meant everything to everybody – something his family should take enormous pride and comfort from. He belonged to them, but was beloved by us all.
Walking back up the road after the service, it was impossible not to appreciate that universal appeal. It was put perfectly in the field on Tuesday.
“Craig spoke like us, but drove like them.”
Amen to that.