It’s not often you’ll hear a driver describe their first World Rally Championship victory in 18 months as insignificant.
But in the context of what had happened leading up to last weekend’s Croatia Rally, Elfyn Evans couldn’t think about himself when he returned to the top step.
It simply didn’t matter to him. That moment he had worked so hard for paled into nothing as the release of a hugely emotional weekend overwhelmed him.
“It feels so insignificant now again really, that’s the bottom line,” Evans said at the end of the final stage.
“Obviously we’ve been working for this for a long time but it’s surprising how little it means just at the moment.
“Obviously we’re back to missing our friend now after the real focus of the weekend. Straight away when you come across the finish line that’s all you can think about.
“We promised the family we would enjoy the weekend, we’ve done that. I’m sure they were following us.
“We’re definitely thinking of you.”
Raising an Irish flag – instead of a Union Jack or the Welsh dragon – after delivering those touching, fitting and selfless words and standing on the podium to the Irish national anthem, like a switch Evans’ world had stopped being about defending his lead from Ott Tänak and instead about paying his respects to a lost rival, colleague and friend.
Craig Breen was dearly missed last weekend in Croatia, but never away from any of our thoughts.
A character as warm and as large as Breen’s was always going to be missed, but collectively the WRC service park did its bit to pull together and do its best to put on a show Breen would have been proud of.
And it certainly managed that.
Hyundai’s role must not be undervalued. Running its i20s in the colors of the Irish flag was a stunning touch as the team battled against the adversity to still compete in Croatia – after seriously considering skipping it instead.
That would have been more than understandable in the circumstances, but the best thing it could do for Craig was compete.
Emotions were still raw though. As M-Sport’s Ott Tänak so succinctly put it: “It’s so hard for all of us. It’s empty inside and it’s eating us alive.”
The bravery showed by the drivers to shake off the sadness – and perhaps even fear – to put on a show for Craig upstairs, but perhaps more pertinently Breen’s parents, was astonishing.
They truly are the world’s best drivers, but they elevated themselves even higher in Croatia. They’re world class human beings too. If the week before highlighted the worst of our discipline of motorsport, last week showed it at its best.
I stood as the entire WRC service park came together in a moment of solidarity on Thursday afternoon to remember Breen. I watched grown men embrace, cry and struggle to digest the truly gut-wrenching news that Craig was no longer with us.
To go from this to driving a rally car at 10 tenths down some of the trickiest roads in the entire championship just 16 hours later demonstrated mind-boggling bottle and commitment to the cause. Each and every one of them was determined to rally on in honor of Craig – and that’s exactly what they did.
But more than that, they did so with a smile on their faces. Even at a time when smiling felt the most unnatural thing to do, they knew it was what Craig would have done. And what his mom Jackie wanted.
“I will never forget it as she took my face in her two hands and said ‘I want to see you smile, Craig was smiling most of the time and you guys need to transmit that message to the people out there,'” said Neuville.
Neuville, Tänak and Evans were particular superstars at championing the message, but collectively the entire service park clubbed together to wipe out the sadness and bring the joy just as Craig would have done had he taken the start.
Game faces were undoubtedly on in earnest as the rally began on Friday, but the undertones were clear if not really spoken about.
Neuville didn’t hide his desire to take the win for his team and for Craig though, simply referring to it as his “mission”. And a Neuville success would certainly have tugged at the heart strings, but just as Craig experienced so many times in his career fate had other ideas for Neuville as he crashed out of the lead on Saturday morning.
But if Hyundai couldn’t win, an Evans win was the next best thing.
Evans and Breen weren’t always direct rivals as their careers took slightly different paths – Breen was a champion in junior categories first (and more often) but Evans reached the world championship quicker.
However they belonged to the same generation of drivers, and co-driver Scott Martin spent five seasons alongside Breen from 2014-2018 through the European Rally Championship years in a troubled Peugeot 208 T16 R5 and then onto Citroën where they achieved two WRC podiums together.
Winning, understandably, meant a great deal to Scotty.
“It’s hard to sum it all up really, very emotional at the end but it’s an incredible feeling,” he said.
“I was fortunate to share some really special years with Craig and shared his first podium and my first podium together at WRC level. It seems quite fitting that we have delivered this result this weekend.
Craig was the kind of person you just don't forget. Neuville's huge grin when asked what made Craig Craig was telling
“For sure he was with us this weekend. I think he was with us all, maybe just supporting me more than the rest.
“I think it’s going to take quite a few days, weeks, months, for it all to soak in.
“It’s been a demanding weekend, I’m really particularly proud of the whole service park, everyone has done really well to stick together and support each other and we have to continue doing that because it’s going to be some difficult days still to come when the dust settles a bit from this weekend.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Craig was the kind of person you just don’t forget. Neuville’s huge grin when asked what made Craig Craig was telling.
“I think first of all his Irish character, for sure,” he smiled. “I mean he was a bit, as an aside of what we are used to, to live with, there are not so many Irish in the world.
“I mean he was just a great guy. Good fun, always there for a joke. He hated stupid people so that was very funny very often. Yeah, very special.
“Obviously we both share a bit the passion of rallying and everything is about cars and driving for sure and I think that he was even more passionate than me. Even more into cars and rallying all the time.
“Yeah, special guy, always a big smile and, like I say, a good team-mate as well. Obviously he was always in as well to help us fight in the championship if he was told to!
“We’re gonna miss him.”
Tänak was similarly effusive.
“I would say he was the opposite to me. He was a guy who was always enjoying, always having fun, always seeing positive side.
“And sharing the car with him, being in the same team, yeah sometimes, like I’ve said, I used to be a bit jealous.
“You come back to service struggling with the car and you’re not having too much fun and let’s say the mood is not so good.
“But then other guys coming back, he’s still having fun and he’s seeing positives and he already wants to go back out. So that’s what he was.”
One in a million, that’s what Craig was.
And he had one final trick to play on the winners Elfyn and Scott, as on the podium the organizer couldn’t get the British national anthem to play. As he would with so many of us, Craig was messing them about.
The hole he leaves behind can never be filled. But, as a newcomer to the travelling WRC family, I am incredibly proud that we were able to keep him entertained as he plots some serious rally plan up there with Gareth Roberts back alongside him.
There’s nothing insignificant about that.