Second place behind only Ott Tänak after the first day of Arctic Rally Finland represents a solid day’s work for Craig Breen. And that’s before you factor in that this is his first World Rally Championship start in almost half a year.
Yet Breen wasn’t exactly patting himself on the back after Friday’s two tests – particularly after the first, describing his performance as “s***”.
Speaking to DirtFish at the end of the day, the Hyundai driver said: “I had the perfect road position, that’s something that needs to be remembered. I had one of the most ideal starting positions and honestly I didn’t make the best use of it.
“I think if one of the more experienced guys was in my position they probably could have done a little bit more. Obviously Ott was two cars in front so we didn’t drop too much time to him but still I thought it was an opportunity lost.”
Breen dropped 3.6 seconds to Tänak on SS1, but ironically he lost almost four times as much (12.6s) on the second pass as he struggled to manage the studs vulcanized into his Pirellis.
“Honestly the second one was probably going a little bit better but probably [due to] a lack of experience I didn’t manage the studs that well,” he said.
“They were quite destroyed already four or five kilometers from the end. But it’s these smaller, fine details that take a little bit more experience, a little bit more time to be able to refine.”
The net result is that, with two days and eight stages remaining, Breen lies 16.2s adrift of his team-mate but 4.2s ahead of pre-event favorite Kalle Rovanperä.
The question is, was Breen right to beat himself up over his SS1 performance, which he so clearly felt was a squandered opportunity?
Yes – but he didn’t let it affect him
It might seem quite harsh for me to sit here and say yes, Breen should be annoyed at himself for SS1. It’s certainly not what I thought when I saw his time, which is why I was surprised – and entertained – like everyone else when he offered his now famous one-liner at the end of the stage.
However, I can completely understand why Breen felt the way he did. In elite sport no competitor is happy unless they are winning, and Breen saw his situation as one he should’ve fully maximized. In coming second, you can argue that he didn’t fully maximize it.
Breen is one of the few works drivers still waiting for a first WRC win, but his reaction shows that he absolutely will make that right very soon
Some drivers expect more from themselves than others – think Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen, to name but two – and Breen definitely falls into this bracket. And while I think he was probably being overly critical of his performance, particularly considering his lack of recent WRC experience, elite athletes don’t acknowledge such factors or limitations.
In many ways I’d be disappointed if Breen hadn’t been frustrated – and not just because we would have missed out on a golden soundbite! Breen is one of the few works drivers in the WRC yet to win a world championship rally, but his SS1 reaction shows that he absolutely will make that right very soon. He’s not happy just making up the numbers.
The other key factor is his appraisal didn’t seem to affect his driving. Yes he dropped quite a bit of time on the repeat pass of the stage, but he put that down to his inexperience with managing the tires. It wasn’t like he let his head drop as some, such as Lappi, might have; he was still at the races.
It remains to be seen how the rest of Arctic Rally Finland unfolds and what Breen can achieve, but he is in a very good position for the rest of the rally. Could he have been in a better position? Breen would say yes, but lying second – crucial for Hyundai’s manufacturers title bid – behind only Tänak is a very, very strong start.
No – to be on the pace so quickly was remarkable
When Dani Sordo was looking lost in the third Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC on Monte Carlo Rally last month, it made sense to be asking questions of a driver who only a few weeks prior had been fighting at the front on the Monza Rally and had won two rallies in the car in 2020.
But for Breen, who takes over Sordo’s job of adding to Hyundai Motorsport’s manufacturer points tally in Finland, it’s a totally different picture. He spent 2020 primarily pedaling an R5 car with the side-job of developing MRF’s tires while doing so, and his last gravel event in the WRC was Rally Estonia 173 days ago.
So to jump back into the car after almost six months, without the winter rally warm-up his team-mates got in Estonia and with no reference for the stages of northern Finland, to then be on the pace immediately on the rally’s longest stage is incredible.
Dropping 0.19s per mile to his WRC-winning team-mate on his first stage of 2021, in conditions so bright you could barely distinguish the roads from the sky, can only be applauded
There was no time to warm up with some shorter technical stages, it was straight into the one that required the most bravery and trust in the aerodynamic capabilities of the updated i20.
Dropping 0.19s per mile to his world championship-winning team-mate Tänak on his very first stage of 2021, in conditions so bright you could barely distinguish the snow-covered roads from the white sky, can only be applauded.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder, maybe,” Breen said at the end of Friday.
“I just feel a whole lot more confident now. I’ve never had a more full or more complete program. I know my future and I’m not driving on the seat of my pants every stage wondering will this be the last time I’m let [out] to drive this thing again.
“It’s just so nice now to have a bit of confidence, a bit of security in the future and just take it all in.”
That confidence showed, and while the road position point does stand as a metric of devaluing Breen’s pace against the full-time Toyota entries, it doesn’t do any disservice for his performance against Tänak.
The service park talk was that fifth on the road could be best for SS1, and two places further back through the ruts of the second pass through Sarriojärvi for SS2.
It just happened that Tänak was seventh onto the second stage, and so the 12.6s he put between himself and Breen – who was seeded ninth for both runs – was no surprise. Especially when you consider Breen hasn’t driven his i20 in the dark for over a year, while Tänak was at it on ice just five weeks ago.