It’s just before seven o’clock in the morning. Shakedown day for the Acropolis Rally.
But there’s no Greece for this side of team DirtFish, not today. Today we’re frying bigger fish. And one of them has just offered me a slice of toast.
The other one is making the tea.
Welcome to the Premier Inn, Penrith. England’s far northwest.
Paul Nagle looks up from his telephone.
“Kalle is flying,” he says, referencing an astonishing Rovanperä first run through shakedown.
Craig Breen takes a sip of tea. It’s hot enough. Just.
“Weird so,” he grins.
It is. Sitting at breakfast not far from the Scottish border while the World Rally Championship moves through the gears 2500 miles south is odd. Especially when, 24 hours ago, this pair were on the recce for the Lamia-based event.
Odd, yes. But also very, very worthwhile. Doubtless there will be a good few of you out there wondering why DirtFish didn’t engage in the Breen-to-M-Sport Ford story. We thought about it. And we came within an ace of publishing three months ago. But we went with the longer game on this one.
And that’s how we’re here, sharing arguably the biggest day of Craig Breen and Paul Nagle’s careers. Today’s the day they meet the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team and drive the Ford Puma Rally1 for the first time.
And DirtFish will be with them every step of the way. There’s was definitely a secret (that admittedly became less and less of a secret…) worth keeping.
Time to go. The team is ready to roll at eight and Greystoke forest is still 10 miles away.
“Do you know the way?” Paul asks. “I’ve never been here before.”
I do know the way, but Nagle being Nagle, he’s not happy being led. He does the navigating. I follow.
Parking up next to the test trucks in the quarry, it’s fascinating to watch the reaction as Craig and Paul get out of the car. The new boys have arrived.
One technician nudges another: “Is that TBA and his twin brother TBA?”
The Irishmen waste no time in shaking hands and introducing themselves.
“I’m Craig…” seems slightly superfluous, but it’s the Waterford way. He’s polite. And very, very happy to be here.
M-Sport’s test team lead engineer Tim Jackson emerges from the truck. He’s joined by head of rally engineering Chris Williams. In an instant, the conversation switches from comparable banal triviality to the focus of how the hybrid deployment will roll out in the first few runs.
As you can imagine, Breen’s not among the chosen few who have driven Hyundai’s early i20 hybrid test mule. All this 100kW boost and regen thinking is new for him. He listens to Jackson with the sort of intensity usually reserved for the class newbie being told the way the lunch queue works.
Stepping away from the conversation, the rest of the engineers and technicians are busying themselves. Axle stands are being lined up, tires and fuel removed from the trucks and put in the right place. But every now and then, they can’t help themselves and they stand a stare, just for a moment, at Breen. He’s arrived. Everything is coming together now.
With a nod from Williams, the tailgate on the biggest, whitest and grandest looking truck in the makeshift service parks starts to open. Breen, Nagle and I stand and stare as chassis #2 rolls out the back.
Breen can’t take his eyes off the car. And as soon as it’s on the ground, he’s all over it. He looks at the doorhandle and raises an enquiring eye to Williams. A nod from Chris and he’s in.
Welcome to your future Craig Breen.
He slides past the imposing B-pillar and nestles immediately into the driver’s seat. Instinctively, he reaches his arm forward and wrests his wrist on the top of the wheel. Feel and fit are in the ballpark, just a couple of refinements and he’ll be there.
Rather presumptuously, I include myself in that ‘we’ and jump in the back of the Ford Ranger alongside NagleDavid Evans
Just not yet.
Garry Barker, lead mechanic on the test team, waits patiently at the driver’s side.
“Garry’s going to bed some brakes in and run the car up and down the road,” says Jackson. “Shall we go and have a look at the stage?”
Rather presumptuously, I include myself in that ‘we’ and jump in the back of the Ford Ranger alongside Nagle.
There’s no shortage of mileage in Greystoke and M-Sport has picked a loop which includes a bit of everything, including a runway-like straight with a dip in the middle and crest at the end.
“We’ve put a chicane in up there,” says Jackson, “it just breaks it up a bit.”
While Nagle’s making his debut in Greystoke, Breen’s well acquainted with the place.
“I had a driveshaft break in this corner,” he says. “I thought it was finished, but I managed to get it into reverse and it would go backwards. ‘Jaffa’ [Breen’s former co-driver Gareth Roberts] found us a way out, he sat in the boot and we reversed about four miles up the road to get out of the stage.
“It’s a great place this. It’s quite like Kielder in places,” Breen adds. “It’s great to be able to make a loop on a test like this. Most of the time you’re running up and down the same stretch of road and that can be tricky – you’re making ruts in both directions, which isn’t something we experience on rallies. This is ideal.”
Jackson jumps out and Breen and Nagle head back to the woods to make a set of notes.
This is the first time I’ve been alone with them since landing onto planet M-Sport half an hour ago. Initial – like very initial – thoughts?
“Mega,” grins Breen. “You can see the focus the team’s got here and that car looks something special. It’s funny, I was thinking about this last night, this is the first time I’ve worked with an English-speaking team. Genuinely, I’m a kid in sweet shop today. This whole thing is just unbelievably exciting.”
Back in service and managing director Malcolm Wilson’s arrived. More bonhomie before Wilson enquires how long he’s got them for today?
Breen’s flight’s not until the morning, but Nagle needs to be in Manchester for a 10 o’clock flight.
The car’s incredible, when you get all the power, it’s really somethingCraig Breen
“Ah, good. We’ll get a full day out of you then,” grins Wilson. “Welcome to the real world.”
Breen laughs. Nagle checks himself, then laughs.
The time has come.
“No hybrid on the first run,” says Jackson as Breen pulls the helmet on.
“Check the notes, then one lap.”
There’s a nod and a clunk as reverse is engaged from a transmission shorn of an active and very helpful center differential and offering five rather than six forward gears – all of which are deployed via a stick rather than hydraulically assisted paddles.
Recce-speed pass complete, launch mode is engaged for the first time and, at 9.14am on the morning of Thursday September 9, Craig Breen sends a Ford Puma Rally1 into a stage for the first time.
Hearing the anti-lag chatter, bang and bounce off the trees, the moment looks to be lost on most. The team has all moved into test day mode, there’s data to be checked and a day’s work ahead.
I find Malcolm, he’s always good for a bit of emotion.
“Big moment, eh,” he says, sensing what I’m after.
“It’s always a big moment when you bring a driver up here and they’re in the car for the first time,” he adds.
Remember the start of the last generation? It was Wales, not Cumbria on November 25, 2016 when Sébastien Ogier first drove an M-Sport car.
These days are great and there is, like you say, there’s emotion about, but the thing I’m interested in is the feedbackMalcolm Wilson
Is the feeling the same?
“The excitement is the same,” he says. “It’s the start of something. Things were a bit different with Séb in that I wanted him to try the car first before we talked about the contract.
“I didn’t want to go into any kind of negotiations with him until I knew he was happy with the car – which obviously he was, he spent two years with us and we won three world championships!
“These days are great and there is, like you say, there’s emotion about, but the thing I’m interested in is the feedback. It’s crucial for me and for the engineers to understand Craig’s feelings from the car.
“I feel the guys have done an incredible job, we were the first out of the blocks and from what I’ve seen so far of the car – and from Craig’s initial feedback – I’m so confident we’re going to have another winning package.”
By mid-morning, Craig has flicked the switch – metaphorically speaking – and driven a car with more than 500bhp on tap through the woods. No wonder he’s smiling.
As roll bars are removed and dampers fiddled with, it’s time for the first debrief. And that’s where my ticket to ride runs out.
Optimistically, I follow Breen, Barker, Nagle, Wilson and Jackson towards the inner sanctum.
Williams stands at the top of the stairs and smiles.
“Sorry, this one’s not for DirtFish,” he says.
Fair enough. I’ve not had a bad run.
Coming back down the steps, Matthew Wilson puts that run into context. He’s just arrived.
“Blimey,” he says, “what are you doing here?”
I let him know I’ve just given the team the benefit of my technical input. Like his dad, Matthew knows me well. He knows my limits and knows I’ve just been kicked out of the debrief.
From there on, a routine day of testing rolls out. Two runs, three runs, four runs, more and more miles are loaded into the databank.
Over a cheese and ham sandwich, Breen talks about what he’s done.
“The car’s incredible,” he says, “when you get all the power, it’s really something. But this is very different. I’d heard people talking about how different the car is to drive and it really is – you’ve so much more to think about with the hybrid, the suspension, the way you’re going to slow the car down to incorporate the regen. Everything has changed.”
Matthew smiles. As far as M-Sport’s concerned, he’s been at the epicenter of that change.
“It does take some getting used to,” says Wilson Jr. “But when you’re a bit more used to it and you hook the hybrid up with 100%… my God, you don’t half know it’s there!”
That early morning moment has gone now. It’s like Craig and Paul have been with the team for years.
Nagle’s the most unassuming of fellas, a co-driver with no side to him at all. And Breen’s been here before.
“Don’t forget, I worked here for a year,” he says, “and I’ve been around M-Sport with my dad when he was competing with his Focus.”
It’s genuinely like he’s come home. Mrs Wilson, Malcolm’s mum, has come along to keep an eye on proceedings and it’s lovely to hear the two of them catching up on life either side of the Irish Sea. It’s the same with the likes of Nigel Arnfield, M-Sport’s head of engine development. Breen’s back among friends. He’s one of them again.
As the day draws to a close, it brings reality back to life. Locked away in a forest far from prying eyes, it’s been an absolute privilege to join M-Sport Ford World Rally Team at a seminal moment like this one.
The difficulty now is not talking about it for another month…