Thursday September 9, 2021 will be remembered by the World Rally Championship masses as the rebirth of a legend. On this day last season, Greece ran its first WRC stage in eight years.
That’s not why Craig Breen remembers Thursday September 9, 2021. And it’s not why I remember it.
“Are you not getting yourself a bit of toast?” Craig Breen grinned from behind a buttery knife as he set about a recently ‘cooked’ slice of bread.
Welcome to the restaurant at the Premier Inn, Penrith. This is breakfast.
Next question, was there time for more tea? No. Not today.
Today was the start of something big. Something big like the start of Craig Breen’s career proper.
Genuine exclusives are something of a rarity these days, but this was a bona fide DirtFish one-off. We would join Craig and co-driver Paul Nagle on their very first day with the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team before any of the rest of the world knew they were leaving Hyundai Motorsport.
In the forested fells high above the team’s Dovenby Hall home, the pair tested the Puma for the first time. Pulling the door shut for the first time, Breen’s smile was wider than the mile.
“This is where it starts,” he said.
Just over 11 months on from that moment and what’s gone wrong?
Put short, the car’s a couple of horses short of the pack and Breen’s trying to make up for their absence by taking more throttle. Less brake.
Let’s not sugar-coat it, today’s a disaster for Craig Breen.
He’s done the very thing he didn’t want to do: he’s put the car off the road for a third successive event.
At the start of last month, Breen talked and we all listened to how he was coming into a three-round micro-season. This was his time. He’d won or done podiums in Estonia, Finland and Belgium. The WRC was ready to watch Breen’s season take off through rounds seven, eight and nine.
Instead, he did the left front in Tartu, the right-rear in Jyväskylä and the nose in Ypres.
Do we care that there was a bunch of gravel on the left-hander that helped sling the Ford at the 10th-stage ditch today?
No. Clemency, I’m afraid, only goes so far. Any lingering sympathy for Breen has left the building.
Craig’s a professional driver who has to be better than this.
Let’s face it, he’s far from the first to go through this process. Eight-times champion himself, Sébastien Ogier, went through a horrible time in 2009 before something clicked. He finished second in Greece and less than a year later he was winning WRC rounds.
And sometimes it doesn’t click. François Duval was, to my mind, one of the most talented drivers of his generation. He had something special. When he crashed in Cyprus in 2005, his co-driver Stéphane Prévot told him in no uncertain terms to stay with the car and do nothing – certainly don’t try and start the car, not with all that summer-dried foliage around.
Prévot was running up the stage to slow the next car when he heard a Xsara WRC turning over. Next thing? You’ve got it. The foliage caught and took the Citroën with it.
Duval was benched for two rounds. Yes, he came back and won a Rally Australia which everybody else had dropped, but that was the end of the road for Duval.
For him, it didn’t click.
Can it click for Breen?
Absolutely. I firmly believe Breen has what it takes to win rounds of the world championship. Of course he does. If he’s finished second, he can finish first.
Before that, he has to find a way out of the darkness and out of the hole he’s in right now. And, be under no illusion, that hole’s both deep and dark.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, he’s been in darker places and found the light. He can and will do it again.
Something has to change. Is that the co-driver? Is it time for a new name in place of Nagle?
Possibly. A co-driver change has worked for drivers in the past. Probably the sport’s highest profile switch of co-driver came with Colin McRae when Derek Ringer was dropped in favor of Nicky Grist. The result? More rally wins, but McRae never lifted the drivers’ crown again without Ringer.
It’s not always the solution. And anyway, Nagle’s like a brother to Breen. Don’t forget, it was Nagle who stepped in and helped pick Breen up after Gareth Roberts was killed in 2012. It would be some ask of Breen to part ways with that man.
But again, I’m not sure that’s the solution. Breen and Nagle are one of the sport’s strongest partnerships. Granted, not one that’s delivering right now.
But Breen’s the sort of driver who responds to an arm or two around him. The hairdryer treatment would be kind of wasted on him; he wants it more than anybody else could possibly imagine.
We all know this sport is Breen’s life. It’s everything to him. And maybe that’s part of the problem. Is he holding on too tight? Would a couple of rallies away work for him? Possibly? You could point to his time at Hyundai and argue that treating him mean kept him keen. I’m not sure. I couldn’t imagine a more hungry Breen.
Ultimately, what we know is that Breen has a contract for the rest of this year and next season. He needs to take confidence in that and try again for a reset in Greece. Take the middle of the road, keep off the rocks and find that ability to trust in his instinct again. It’s an instinct which has carried him to the second highest step of the podium, it’s an instinct which can lead him out of this miserable run.
Ditch the stress, bin the pressure and bring everything back to what matters most: tea, toast and driving the best car in the world.
Easier said than done, but I’m still sure he can do it.
Back yourself, Craig. You are better than this.