Sometimes, it’s just not supposed to be. Who’s fault was it? Did Craig Breen forget how to drive? Or did M-Sport forget how to engineer a car?
That’s a lot of questions. And, as usual, it’s not black and white.
First up, it’s a no and no. Breen’s still a world class driver and Malcolm Wilson’s company still makes world-beating rally cars.
This time, there was energy, but not enough synergy . Team principal Richard Millener called it right.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “sometimes things just don’t quite click.”
This was one of those times. On paper, this partnership was as obvious as it was potentially successful.
Breen being Breen knew M-Sport’s complete run down of chassis almost by heart, he’d won two world titles with it and worked in the building. His father Ray had driven M-Sport cars and his absolute hero Frank Meagher won the 1992 Circuit of Ireland in a Ford.
Breen leading the M-Sport Ford team was the WRC’s very own marriage made in heaven.
And Breen was ready. After years of piecing together part-programs, finally he was the team leader and the man doing all the rallies. And he landed into the Puma Rally1 on the back of a podium hat-trick in the world championship.
The stage was set. And he didn’t disappoint on the 2022 opener in Monte Carlo with a fourth straight podium.
That third place should have been the launchpad into a potential season-long podium and that so-sought after breakthrough win. A speared snowbank in Sweden was followed by an unspectacular fourth in Croatia and an untidy eighth in Portugal. This was getting tough.
Second in Sardinia. Good. Something to work with. Back on track.
Actually, anything but. That was as good as it would get. From there on, it just got worse and worse on the road to a calamitous Kiwi Friday. That off on Whaanga Coast was the nadir.
When the Puma finally emerged, having been hauled back onto the stage, it stopped just outside Raglan. Even with the car’s clutch on its last legs, the process still had to be followed; the radiator blanking plate still had to be put in place.
Climbing out of the car, the look on Paul Nagle’s face wasn’t just dirty. It was filthy.
Opening the door, Craig looked up. There were no tears, but those usually bright blue eyes had rarely looked so dark. It was almost like he was in a trance, struggling to take in what had happened. Was happening.
Later that same day, a team Breen insider fronted up and offered a straightforward and unarguable view.
“That’s f****d the job.”
There were those who were surprised to see Breen complete the season – the broadly held view was that the M-Sport overalls could be left in Japan. They wouldn’t be needed next season.
But the year had one final sting after Craig dropped it one last time and stuffed it into the Japanese Armco.
Right now, Breen is officially lost. He can’t see which way’s up.
It would be something of a jaundiced view to place all the blame at Breen’s door. M-Sport has to accept some responsibility here. The driver is the final link in a long chain and Cumbria’s inability to get the best out of a driver who seemed destined for great things is odd.
Looking around the service park, it’s hard not to notice that a COVID-ravaged two years has left M-Sport leaner than its rivals. Faced with the biggest business decision of his time in the WRC, Wilson was forced to jettison some of his staff. In that process, he’s lost decades of experience.
What about the car? Again, there’s no doubt it was behind the development curve of the other cars, but not that far. Fastest times from Pierre-Louis Loubet (admittedly from a favorable place on the road) on the Acropolis and then again on the asphalt in Spain indicated the Puma remained an entirely potent force to the season’s end.
So, what now?
Breen has another shot. He’s still in the game. Andreas Mikkelsen, for one, would take Breen’s hand over his own
M-Sport will chalk this one up to experience and move on. MW’s been around the sport long enough to know these season’s happen – and Loeb’s Monte win sweetened the whole 2022 pill.
For Breen, he needs to find himself. He needs to find the way up.
Can he do it? Yes he can.
How does he do it? Absolutely no idea.
A driver who talked so readily of having no answer in Japan needs to find some solutions very, very quickly.
Breen’s best results came in the blue and orange of Hyundai, so he can take comfort from that aspect of the Alzenau return. But there’s also the feeling that he’s walking into the eye of the storm with a team which has struggled with its own demons this season.
Crucially, Breen has another shot. He’s still in the game. Andreas Mikkelsen, for one, would take Breen’s hand over his own. And then some.
The love of the game is always a key factor in success, but it’s not the only one. The ability to triumph over adversity is right up there too.