M-Sport Ford team principal Richard Millener was “surprised” to see Craig Breen make his fourth mistake in the last five World Rally Championship rallies given the pace and comfort he had displayed earlier on Rally New Zealand.
Second to Ott Tänak after Thursday’s park stage, Breen took the lead of the rally on Friday morning with third fastest time on Whaanga Coast.
Although he never won Te Akau South he was the new leader after SS3 before slipping to joint second with Elfyn Evans at the midday point – 2.6s off the lead.
On a stage where the M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 seemed to excel with what is believed to be one of, if not the, strongest chassis on this year’s stages, Breen was setting the timing screens alight on the second pass of Whaanga Coast and thus looked set to vault back into the rally lead.
But towards the end of the stage and approaching a tight right-hander after a cattle guard with a menacing drop on the outside, Breen was caught out.
Arriving with too much speed, Breen slid the car in an effort to make the corner but the rear was swallowed by the wet grass on the edge of the road and Breen was down into a ditch.
Although the efforts of spectators allowed he and co-driver Paul Nagle to eventually escape, he lost the best part of 18 minutes and any chance of a strong result.
Asked for his immediate thoughts after the incident, Millener said: “Yeah, not something I was expecting to see at all to be honest.
“No damage to the car and it seems to be back out, but the damage has been done in the time lost unfortunately.
“Yeah, surprised to see Craig off the road as it looked like he was very relaxed and the times were good and we were in with a real chance this weekend. It shows how quickly that can disappear.”
Breen’s error happened on the same corner that caught Colin McRae out 20 years ago in 2002.
“I mean I’m sure the avid followers would’ve seen Elfyn having a little bit of a moment there on the first pass but generally these guys are very aware of corners that catch people out and even I watched that last week when you guys [WRC] put it out on social media with Colin, so it’s obviously a corner that can catch people out,” Millener added.
But he wasn’t sure what could’ve caused Breen to make the mistake.
“I don’t know, these guys know the pacenotes very well and know the road conditions very well and just like I said, very surprised to see Craig off the road and [it’s] completely gutting for everyone involved as that was another fantastic opportunity for a result this weekend and for Craig it’s certainly gone now.”
Breen said little when he eventually arrived at the end of the stage, simply commenting: “I know it’s a famous place, I know I shouldn’t be making all these mistakes, but it’s f****** tough.”
DirtFish later caught up with Paul Nagle though who explained that “we just braked a fraction late” and slipped off the road. The pair retired on the road section to SS6 with a damaged clutch.
When it was put to him that it’s clear that Breen can perform, it’s just that things aren’t clicking, Millener said: “Yeah he proved that for the first three stages, in the lead this morning and there we had the opportunity with the stage drying to have another bit of an impact and I think you’re going to see now, as it dries, the gaps increasing a little bit and that would’ve given us a bit of comfort.
“It’s one thing doing it getting individual times but it’s another thing finishing after three days, and it’s a mistake that Craig will remember for a long time and I’m sure he’ll be very upset with himself.”