It’s quite difficult to believe that Craig Breen hasn’t started an asphalt round of the World Rally Championship in two-and-a-half years.
For a man that grew up in Waterford, Ireland where asphalt rallying is king, it’s quite a bizarre statistic. It’s even more of a head scratcher when you consider just how much asphalt rallying Breen has done since Rally Spain in 2018.
After being ejected from Citroën’s plans two years ago, Breen has contested 18 rallies in an R5 car and all but two of them have been on asphalt. He’s won nine of those 16, including last weekend’s Rally Sanremo.
How has it taken this long for Breen to be called up by Andrea Adamo for a sealed-surface WRC round then?
In short, Dani Sordo’s consistently consistent performances and impressive asphalt CV, coupled to the paltry number of asphalt rallies on the calendar, have hindered Breen’s chances. He’s traditionally been preferred for the faster gravel rallies which Sordo is less fond of, leaving the Spaniard free to take the asphalt rounds.
Adamo’s entirely self-inflicted driver selection headache ahead of each round is rooted in a season-long plan and not just one individual rally; but it’s certainly nothing new for Hyundai. Its driver dilemma has been a consistent theme since it rejoined the WRC back in 2014.
For that first season, five drivers (Sordo, Chris Atkinson, Hayden Paddon, Juho Hänninen and Bryan Bouffier) joined lead driver Thierry Neuville in the main works team or the second-string ‘Hyundai Motorsport N’ outfit.
Croatia will give Hyundai team management its clearest indication yet of precisely where Breen is at as a driver
While that policy of rotation has calmed down since then, Adamo has still called on the services of several drives recently with Breen, Sordo and Sébastien Loeb sharing a third i20 Coupe WRC in 2020 alongside full-timers Neuville and Ott Tänak, while it’s down to just Breen or Sordo this season as French team 2C Competition permanently fields Pierre-Louis Loubet and occassionally calls up Hyundai juniors.
Ahead of some events, the decision is obvious for Adamo, for example bringing Breen for the fast gravel rallies, but in Croatia both Sordo and Breen put forward a really strong case for the seat.
But Adamo has gone with Breen, and it’s hard to argue against that choice given his handsome performance on Arctic Rally Finland in February and of course at the weekend.
It’s a well-earned chance that allows Breen to maintain a run of momentum and presents him with a real opportunity to cement himself into Hyundai Motorsport’s plans for the foreseeable future.
But equally if things don’t go to plan in Croatia, Breen will have no excuses for the first time in his Hyundai career.
The Irishman has been a Hyundai man for close to two years now, but his WRC program has been limited in that time. The shortest gap he has had between WRC events has been as large as two months. Arctic Rally Finland was a full six months after his previous start in Estonia.
While ironically that statistic isn’t going to change when he and Paul Nagle fire off into stage one of Rally Croatia this week, he will start back-to-back rounds for Hyundai for the first time and the effect of that cannot be underestimated.
For once, Breen isn’t low on seat time compared to his rivals. He last competed in the WRC when everybody else did and benefited from runs on the first two rounds of the Italian championship too, albeit in an R5 and not the i20 Coupe WRC like Neuville and Tänak drove on Sanremo.
But it means that Breen won’t compete in Croatia with the caveat that he has to bed himself in on the first few stages. It’s a brand-new rally for the WRC too, offsetting Breen’s usual handicap of less experience to the point where it won’t bite him at all. His preparations are on a par with his competition.
And with it being an asphalt round, road position shouldn’t be as big a factor either so Breen won’t have to justify his speed relative to any advantage he may have gained from a cleaner road.
All in all, Breen has never been able to compete on a more even keel before and fight for the top places in a car that he loves and can win rallies.
However, with that comes pressure. A sub-par performance with all the usual limiting factors eliminated could damage Breen’s reputation, but nobody will be more critical of whatever performance he turns in than the man himself – proven when he called his first stage back in a WRC car in half a year “s****” in Finland.
Croatia will give Hyundai team management its clearest indication yet of precisely where Breen is at as a driver right now, and how much potential he has for the future.
Expectations shouldn’t be for a podium, but Breen would take one of those with open arms of course. Realistically, he needs to be very close to or on the pace of Neuville and Tänak to prove he deserves a long-term contract.
It would be easy to believe that Breen must also prove he can turn in a stronger performance than Sordo could. But as a veteran of over 170 world rallies, Sordo’s WRC odometer is running high. He’s not in the equation for a full-time drive, and nor does he want to be. So as much as Sordo is competition for individual rally starts this year, he’s a fairly useless barometer going forward.
Instead, Oliver Solberg could be Breen’s problem. If the top brass at Alzenau can’t find a space for both Breen and Solberg in their long-term plans – with Neuville and Tänak unlikely to be going anywhere unless Malcolm Wilson has his way – they may have to choose between them.
And without discrediting Breen, if you’re Hyundai you’re probably going to be choosing the man with that surname that turned in a sensational debut performance in the Arctic who also happens to be 11 years younger, aren’t you?
Breen has all the minerals to succeed as a top-line driver for a factory team in the WRC. Those that know have known that for a long while now. But there’s no room for sentiment in elite sport.
The Irishman faces his biggest WRC audition yet, even if that’s precisely how he won’t be seeing it. Succeed, and he’ll have done absolutely everything he can to put his future career beyond doubt. Fail, and Breen risks being added to a long list of talents which failed to get the shot they deserved.