Craig Breen will be an M-Sport Ford driver next season, contesting a full campaign in the World Rally Championship for the first time in his career, with the team he made his first forays in rallying over a decade ago.
Having led a rally overnight for the first time and recorded his third podium of the year on Rally Finland last time out, Breen’s impressive partial season with Hyundai has turned heads around the service park.
Most importantly it turned the heads of M-Sport itself, and team principal Rich Millener sitting down with DirtFish’s David Evans to explain how Breen found his way to Cumbria.
Where and when was the first meeting?
Sardinia. It was very straightforward; Craig came in and sat down with us and asked if there could be an opportunity. Right from the start, I think we both knew there was the potential to do something. What was very obvious from the get-go was Craig’s absolute priority number one was a full season in a factory Rally1 car in the World Rally Championship. We could do that.
The rest? Just details.
What followed that first meeting?
A lot of emails going backwards and forwards and then Craig came over to see us. Unfortunately, the only time he could come was when we had the M-Sport Stages on (July 3/4) and suddenly Cumbria was full of rally fans who would have been very interested to see Craig coming into Dovenby.
The only thing that matters to Craig is being in the car on every rally for the next two seasons and possibly beyondRich Millener
We did a fairly good job of hiding him away. We put him in a cupboard for the weekend. It was good for Craig and Malcolm [Wilson, M-Sport managing director] to sit down and go through things face-to-face, but really the whole process was very straightforward.
What about those details, what were they?
That was the commercial side of the agreement. Craig knows in coming to M-Sport he’s coming somewhere different to Hyundai, in that we’re a private company with a very close association with Ford. We’re not a manufacturer.
He got that. He gets that. Like I say, the only thing that matters to Craig is being in the car on every rally for the next two seasons and possibly beyond. That was always the goal.
Everything else was very secondary.
Was it difficult running that first test in the same week as the Acropolis Rally?
Not especially. As a company we’re geared up for this sort of thing. Craig’s test was the primary reason why Malcolm stayed in the UK and didn’t travel to Greece. That first test was really important for everybody, especially Craig and Paul [Nagle, co-driver]. We wanted to be sure we had everybody we needed from the test team and everything we needed to get Craig settled in. That we had a rally going on at the same time didn’t bother us at all, we’re more than capable of that.
When’s the next test?
Craig will be back in the car on gravel and asphalt in Spain later this month.
It’s great for M-Sport that you were so quick to be up and running with the Puma, but does that leave you limited on test days now?
It’s fair to say you can never have enough test days. The vital thing for us as a team was to get the car up and running. We had to put meaningful miles down early in the car’s development and you balance that ability to find and fix any issues with the knowledge that it could leave you short of days for your entry crews to be in the car down the line.
Matthew [Wilson, M-Sport test driver] and Adrien [Fourmaux] have done a fair bit of work in the car and now it’s time for Craig to get in it. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough days to keep him busy until Monte Carlo.
What do you expect from Craig next season?
I think it’s sensible and fair to expect some victories. He’s shown himself to be very capable of leading WRC rounds and controlling a very consistent and quick pace. Naturally, some events are going to be more familiar than others next year and there will probably be some completely new ones. Craig has told us what he’s capable of and how he wants to push to deliver on the potential we all know he has.
We’ve seen Craig is well capable of scoring a consistently high level of points; the foundation of a championship challenge is scoring a consistently high level of points.
Breen for champion then?
Yeah, you’re not going to get me committing to that. You know what I’m saying. Craig’s a very, very capable driver. He knows and we know he can win rallies, we know he’s consistently on the podium and we know he’s with us for the next two years. You can work the rest out for yourself!
What was the feeling in your place when you saw your man leading Finland on Friday night?
It’s fair to say there was a bit of a buzz about the place. The speed Craig showed was really impressive, but as much as that it was his approach through the weekend as well. When Ott [Tänak] and Elfyn [Evans] went a gear up, Craig did what he could but controlled things and brought the car to another podium rather than risking everything and throwing it into the trees.
And finally, this is full circle for you and Breen. Tell us about that…
It is a bit, yeah. When Craig was doing the Fiesta Sporting Trophy in Ireland [in 2009], I was co-ordinator for that championship. I got to know him well that season and, obviously, we’ve known each other since. Craig came and worked with us here at Dovenby for a season as part of his prize for winning WRC Academy in 2011, so I spent a fair bit of time with him then.
He knows what he wants from the team and the car and that’s really good news for usRich Millener
How do you find Craig now compared to when he started?
Craig is a very genuine fella and that’s something that’s never changed. What has changed a little bit is the kind of confidence in himself. By no means could you call Craig Breen arrogant, but you can see now that he knows what he wants from the team and the car and that’s really good news for us. As a team leader we know we have a driver capable of leading the team.
And you’re a proper pair of bobble-hatters…
You’re right there. I think he’s probably just about got the edge over me there. But, yeah, we both absolutely love this sport and when you have that sort of passion and enthusiasm, getting out of bed to do the job every morning is absolutely no problem!