Some say Craig Breen has done absolutely all he can this World Rally Championship season – that the plain fact he’s never done a full campaign before means nobody should be expecting huge results from M-Sport’s off-season recruit.
Others aren’t so convinced. They’ll say Breen simply hasn’t been quick enough given the potential the Puma Rally1 clearly has, as evidenced by Sébastien Loeb. If he was really a driver capable of winning rallies and ultimately championships, he’d be driving around his unfamiliarities.
No matter which side of the argument you sit on, Rally Estonia should provide the real answer.
Heading into Estonia, Breen has no more reasons not to perform. If he can’t do the business this week, then M-Sport may not have signed the driver it thought it had.
Harsh? Not really when you consider the shift in circumstances for Estonia and indeed the succeeding Finland and Ypres events.
Breen has found himself in new territory this season. Although he doesn’t like the ‘team leader’ tag, this is his de facto position given the gulf of experience between him and other M-Sport full-timers Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux.
But Breen himself isn’t uber experienced – having not done four of this year’s six rounds so far since 2018. Safari Rally Kenya, he hadn’t done at all. Only in Croatia did Breen head there with comparable levels of experience with those at the very pointy end of the WRC.
Estonia offers that same layer of comfort. Breen’s been there each of the past two seasons – and actually three times before too when it wasn’t even a round of the WRC. He certainly can’t say he doesn’t know what he’s in for in Tartu.
And unlike Croatia, where Breen struggled in both 2021 and ’22, Breen’s Estonian record is impeccable – second overall in both 2020 and ’21. No other WRC rally has been that kind to Breen over the years.
It’s therefore totally fair to expect him to fly this week. Breen doesn’t just know the lay of the land but he excels on it, and he’s now more than familiar with his new ride after almost half a season behind the wheel.
The new hybrid Rally1 cars haven’t competed on lightning-fast gravel yet, so there remains the distinct possibility that M-Sport’s creation lacks something compared to its Toyota and Hyundai opposition. So professing this early in the week, without any meaningful performance data, that Breen has to be a victory contender would be a touch premature.
But he, as a driver, absolutely has to be expected to be extracting every ounce out of his package – just as he did the last two years when strapped into an i20 Coupe WRC. If he doesn’t, alarm bells will be ringing.
Breen’s a slow learner in the sense that he likes to bed himself into an environment before being able to rag it for all its worth. But there’s only so long M-Sport can afford to wait before Breen begins to consistently deliver like he did in a Hyundai.
Estonia will give us the first true reading of whether Breen is capable of that in 2022. Maybe he’s struggling to get on top of something specific with M-Sport, maybe the security of a two-year contract vs the need to prove himself every single time he sat in the car (like he did last year) has inadvertently slowed him down.
Either way, the pressure is well and truly on Breen in Estonia. There can be no more excuses, it’s time to see what he’s got.