There simply won’t be another Craig Breen. Passionate, emotional and extremely talented behind the wheel, the loveable Irishman leaves behind a massive hole in the rallying world that cannot be filled.
Son of Irish national champion Ray, Craig was born in Waterford and instantly fell in love with rallying – worshiping heroes of the era like Austin MacHale, Bertie Fisher and particularly Frank Meagher.
However, his first steps into motorsport would be in a go-kart where he impressed, competing at a European level. But Craig’s desire was always to rally.
His first event was in a modest Honda Civic, aged just 17 years old in 2007, before a slim program of rallies in 2008 alongside his karting commitments.
But Craig made a full-time switch to rallying in 2009 and was immediately picking up silverware – winning the International, British and Irish Fiesta Sporting Trophy titles in a Ford Fiesta ST.
It was a superb breakthrough year that earned accolades such as Breen Ireland’s Young Driver of the Year Award as well as the esteemed Billy Coleman Award, and netted a brief progression into four-wheel-drive machinery for 2010.
Driving a Fiesta S2000, Breen took on the British and Irish Tarmac Championships and finished second in the latter – the highlight being a maiden overall rally win on the Ulster.
The following year Breen stepped up to the World Rally Championship, taking on WRC Academy in a Ford Fiesta R2. It would prove to be a rollercoaster of a season as the title went right down to the wire with Estonian driver Egon Kaur.
The emotional scenes as co-driver Gareth Roberts and Breen leapt into each other’s arms will never be forgotten. One last stage win was enough to tie Breen and Kaur at the top of the table – the title going to Breen on countback.
That earned the Irishman the keys to a Fiesta S2000 for a 2012 SWRC campaign, which he combined with select Intercontinental Rally Challenge events in a Saintéloc Racing Peugeot.
A win in Monte Carlo meant Breen led the SWRC early on, but it would all pale into insignificance on the Targa Florio Rally when an accident tragically claimed the life of co-driver and good friend Roberts – affectionately known as Jaffa.
Craig seriously debated his future in rallying but elected to continue and try and live out his and Jaffa’s shared dream of becoming World Rally champions.
With Paul Nagle brought in to co-drive, Breen’s return to WRC action ended in an end-over-end roll in Finland, but four SWRC wins that year were enough to emotionally secure him back-to-back world titles.
For 2013 Breen was signed by Peugeot to lead its ERC attack in a 207 S2000 where he finished third in the championship, and played a key role in developing the brand’s forthcoming R5 car – the 208 T16.
Now partnered with Scott Martin as Nagle accepted an offer from Kris Meeke to compete in the WRC with Citroën, the 208 debuted on the Acropolis Rally which Breen would go on to win – his first international rally win. But thereafter it was a fairly disastrous season plagued with poor reliability, although he did make his WRC World Rally Car debut on Rally Sweden where he claimed ninth in a Fiesta.
Another year with Peugeot beckoned in 2015, taking on both the ERC and WRC2. There were three ERC victories, including an emotional Circuit of Ireland Rally win, but reliability continued to be a problem and it was clear Breen needed a new challenge.
The Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, running Citroën’s concern as it took a year out, offered him just that in 2016, giving Breen a six-rally program in the WRC with a DS3 WRC. Sensationally, he grabbed his first WRC podium on just his third start in the car, claiming third on the rollercoaster roads of Finland.
Breen was retained for 2017 and the launch of the C3 WRC, contesting another part program. But he’d land his next big result the following year with a fine second place on Rally Sweden.
A crash in Argentina aside, Breen put together a solid season but it wasn’t enough for him to keep his place in Citroën’s lineup as it swooped for Sébastien Ogier and Esapekka Lappi.
Breen’s dream had been torn apart in front of him, but he refused to lie down. Putting together an Irish Tarmac Championship campaign together with Nagle who was also without a WRC ride, Breen showed the WRC what it was missing.
Victory followed victory followed victory, and wins on famous European events Ypres and Sanremo as well as in Ireland convinced Hyundai to bring him into its fold for Rally Finland and GB at the end of 2019.
Back where he belonged, Breen spent the next two seasons on part-time Hyundai deals – stunning in 2021 with back-to-back-to-back podiums in Estonia, Ypres and Finland.
Attracting the attention of M-Sport Ford, which needed a lead driver to spearhead its Puma Rally1 program, Breen suddenly had the deal he had always waited for. A two-year commitment for a full-time drive, with a heavy hand in testing and developing the car too.
Another podium on the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally was a dream start, but unfortunately an off on Rally Sweden set the tone for what would become a difficult season.
Breen managed a further podium in Sardinia, but things didn’t work out for him at M-Sport with a string of crashes and mistakes prompting a move back to Hyundai and a part-time program for 2023.
A superb drive on his i20 N Rally1 debut in Sweden earlier this year shunned any of his critics as Breen fought hard for the rally lead before having to settle for second.
His plan was to use 2023 to convince Hyundai to promote him to a full-time position for the following year where he could continue to pursue his dream of becoming a world champion.
Tragically, the world will never know how he would have got on – cutting a career short that was destined to deliver so much more than nine podiums and 34 stage wins in the WRC.
Always keen to give something back to the discipline he loved, Breen had been supporting Irish junior drivers this year – appearing at a Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy training day as recently as last weekend.
Plans were afoot for more events in his immaculate ex-Frank Meagher Ford Sierra that he’d recently restored too.
Whether he was pedaling the latest World Rally Car or steering a Lada, Craig Breen simply just wanted to drive.
Few drivers possessed the ability to convey their passion for rallying like Breen could, and his loss will be felt by millions all over the world.
But some solace must be taken that, up there somewhere, Craig is now reunited with his good friend Jaffa.
Rest in peace.