Tänak and Breen’s swap has drawn the best from both

Ott Tänak has got M-Sport right at the front again, while Hyundai has restored Craig Breen's confidence


Don’t ever play poker with Ott Tänak. Just don’t. You’ll lose. Every time.

Friday night last week and the Estonian arrives into the service park in Umeå. He’s 2.6 seconds down on rally leader Craig Breen. Eight up on Esapekka Lappi.

Happy? Not a chance. The perma-scowl which has greeted camera lenses for the previous 12 hours remains firmly fixed. It’s going nowhere.

“Actually,” said the 2019 world champion, “in terms of the result, I am happy.”


Wait. There’s more.

“But things could be so much better.”

Poker-faced. No hint of a grin. The question of whether he thought he could win delivered a deadpan response.

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What was really going on behind those steely blue eyes? Sunday afternoon revealed all.

“I thought I could win this one from Friday,” he said, a smile arriving as he figured out the line of questioning.

Tänak was imperious in Sweden. He was fast, consistent, doggedly determined and completely ruthless. Put it to him that this was a 2023 version of what he did in Finland last year and there’s a small shake of the head.

“I was winning stages in Finland,” he said. “Here, I don’t think I won a single stage.”

He was, of course, doing himself out of that scratch time on the second shot at Friday’s Botsmark stage.

But you can see where he’s going with this one.

This is the very reason M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson dug so deep and pushed so hard to bring the Hyundai exile back to where he feels he belongs. He knew Ott could make the difference.

And Ott wanted to be back in the fold of a relationship which is more – by his own admission – father and step-son than team boss and driver. The result will rightly send shivers down the spine of car #8’s competition.

There’s more to come from the Ford Puma Rally1 – but if Tänak can do this with what he feels is still an imperfect car and one stage win, what can be achieved when the partnership’s firing on all cylinders?

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Such a suggestion makes at least one of them smile.

There’s no denying Sweden was an odd one. On one hand you had former Ford Puma driver Craig Breen seeking and finding redemption from a shocking 2022 in the arms of his former employer Hyundai.

And then there was former Hyundai driver Tänak doing the same thing in reverse.

The irony was everywhere. And a rapid, rally leading start gave Breen the chance to beam one of his absent-for-last-year smiles at every opportunity.

“[I’m a] soft little man, but unfortunately you can’t knock that out of me,” he said at Friday lunchtime. “I’ve missed this feeling.”

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He was even more reflective come Friday night.

“You’ve no idea of the darkest of days that went on last year,” said Breen. “Fortunately, I ride on the crest of waves when things are good, but I also ride the down parts as well.

“I wear my heart on my sleeve and I tell it the way it is. To have all these gobs***** behind their keyboards thinking they know better… at the end of the day they have no idea.”

Breen was making a point to those inhabiting social media’s more contemptible corners. But he was also making a point to Malcolm Wilson.

Wilson wasted no time in firing pointed praise aplenty in Tänak’s direction.

“It’s so evident,” he said, “when you’ve got a driver that can lead the team. We’ve seen this before with both of the Sébs [Ogier and Loeb] winning with us and now with Ott.

“Drivers like these guys put everybody under pressure and make everybody in the team raise their game that bit. The pressure is good pressure, it keeps us all on our toes. That’s what we need.”

Both have made their decisions, both are happy with the return to their respective comfort zones and now both will move on. Looking back and referencing what’s gone on before is little more than a waste of energy.

And Wilson for one is only too well aware of how much energy he’s going to need to keep up with Tänak.

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From minute one of his third spell with M-Sport, Tänak has been very clear that he’s going to be putting this team under the maximum pressure to deliver.

Even before the win, he was pleased with the response.

“Fair play,” he said, “the engineers want it as much as I do, maybe more than I do. They are pushing themselves hard as well – I have nothing to say about that, they definitely work for it.”

As a famously hard task master, Tänak pondered the question of whether he was pushing more now than ever.

“I mean,” he started, slightly hesitant, “I’ve been pushing everywhere. I can’t say I’ve been softer in any other team.”

He can’t say that, because he hasn’t. He gives the absolute best of himself and simply won’t accept anything less from anybody else.

If anything, I’d say that’s intensified since he won his world championship in 2019. He’s got one, he wants two and if he’s prepared to walk over the metaphorical hot coals to get there, he expects his team to join him.

He’ll be back on the telephone with the team in no time, but Sunday night was one for celebrating. Across the board.

Wilson’s been through longer periods without a win – don’t forget Loeb was on the top step in Monte Carlo just 13 months ago – but this one was incredibly timely. And this one genuinely marks the start of something bigger.

Tänak won’t just win once this season. Historically, leading the championship into México is something of a poisoned chalice, but having an M-Sport driver back at the top of the table two rounds into a world championship program is something which will fill everybody in Dovenby Hall with no end of confidence.

The Ford Puma Rally1’s a good car, but Tänak’s intention is to make it even better. Undoubtedly, the honeymoon period will come to an end and there will likely be the toe-curling moments where he stares down the lens and asks the toughest questions in the most public fashion possible. But he’ll be doing it all for a reason.

But for now, enjoy the moment Ott Tänak. And the same goes for Craig Breen and Malcolm Wilson.

Like I said, a funny old Sweden.

Words:David Evans