Just over a decade ago, a piece of Craig Breen died. When his co-driver Gareth ‘Jaffa’ Roberts was killed on the Targa Florio Rally there were inevitable predictions that the Irishman would call time on his own burgeoning career.
And who could have blamed him?
But that was the last thing Roberts would have wanted. Breen continued.
Nobody could replace ‘Jaffa’ but somebody needed to step into the seat and guide him.
Suddenly, the relatively straightforward job of describing the road ahead paled into insignificance. Breen had lost a brother. Sharing a car with him after June 16, 2012 would be difficult. Impossible for some.
Paul Nagle stepped up. Paul’s father Maurice had competed as a co-driver on Irish rallies and the Nagle name was known and respected all around the island of Ireland. When the Breen family reached out, Nagle agreed to sit with him for the upcoming Rally Finland – the latest event in the then-22-year-old’s SWRC campaign.
With just two stages remaining, Breen was a couple of hours away from spying a glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. He was leading SWRC in Finland and all that sat between him and arguably his biggest result ever was a brace of runs through Ouninpohja.
Coming through the long left-hander out of the woods towards Kakaristo, Breen’s world turned upside down. Again. And again.
The right rear of the Ford Fiesta S2000 dropped into the ditch on the outside of the corner, connected with something and rolled.
He was broken.
Contrast that with the scene in Cardiff six Sundays later. An SWRC win at Rally GB played Breen back into the title fight, but there was so much more to this win than just the points. Standing in Jaffa’s native principality, the emotions were unbelievable. It was the same when the pair went on to lift the title after successive wins in Alsace and Spain.
Nagle returned to co-drive Kris Meeke from 2014-2018, but was back beside Breen from the start of 2019. He would stay there for the next four years.
You knew all of that.
The point of this story is about how Craig Breen will manage without Nagle.
An awful lot’s changed in the last 10 years. Breen’s still an emotional person – something that will never change – but he’s evolved into a driver well capable of winning at the highest level.
He’s matured greatly across the last decade and is now much better placed and equipped to deal with the highs and lows the sport can and will throw at him.
After the last four years of living in each other’s pocket, it will be hard for Breen to listen to another voice in his ear. But the forced co-driver change 10 years ago will give Breen plenty of context to the current situation.
The biggest difference will come with the experience levels in the car. Breen’s been used to a co-driver with vast experience and a few more years on the road than him. If speculation’s to be believed, the new man in the seat with have just 10% of Nagle’s WRC starts and he’s a couple of years younger than Craig.
Where Breen could turn to Nagle for perspective and understanding of what a drying Lousã stage might mean in Portugal, he might not be able to lean on the new man in quite the same way.
Breen’s always been a driver who has – for understandable reasons – surrounded himself with familiar faces and Nagle’s willingness to be around and about on WRC rounds next season will help in the process of change.
But, fundamentally, Breen will make the change and make the best of it. He’s been through a lot worse than this.