BREEN MAKES AN IMPACT ON HIS FIRST FACTORY WRC OUTING
‘I’VE NEVER BEEN SO AT HOME’ Irishman happy with first outing in DS 3 WRC
Craig Breen believes he’s never felt so at home in a rally car after his World Rally Championship return, driving a works-specification Citroen DS 3 WRC for the first time.
The Irishman, co-driven by Scott Martin, finished Rally Sweden eighth overall, having posted a third fastest time on his first outing in a factory-spec WRC car.
The pre-event uncertainty of whether the event would be running or not did little to calm Breen’s nerves, but once the rally was underway, he quickly felt comfortable in a car he’d only tested for 50 miles before the start.
“It’s a great, great car and a real rally car – the team knows everything about this car and how to get the best out of it.
“I haven’t been able to get this kind of confidence from a car in a long, long time. It feels so comfortable, so safe and I know there’s so much potential in me; I’m only at 70, 80 or 90 per cent with it at the moment.”
Breen ran the car more conservatively on the first day, but he was soon stiffening it up and looking for ways to push harder on his first outing in a WRC car in Sweden for two years.
“I ran the car a little bit softer on the first day,” he said. “Thast was just to give me some confidence in it. But that came quickly on Friday, so immediately I was trying to stiffen it up to make it a bit quicker.”
Breen admitted he’d surprised himself with his pace on what was only his third start in Sweden.
He added: “We had a fastest split time and a third fastest time: that’s so much more than I expected. I was thinking I’d be coming down in seconds from these guys, from three to two to one second per kilometre off these guys, so to be looking at coming from 0.9s to 0.8s to 0.7s and to be on the pace is way beyond what I expected.”
The Waterford driver’s performance drew praise on multiple fronts, including reigning WRC champion and event winner Sebastien Ogier.
“To be in the points, to be top eight is definitely a good result for Craig on his first drive [with the team],” said Ogier. “To be there, he has made no mistakes, that in itself is a very good result on this rally.”
Breen’s Northern Irish team-mate Kris Meeke also praised his fellow Emerald Islander, saying: “He’s done a bloody good job here. When I first came here, I was fighting with Henning [Solberg] and that’s where he’s been. He’s done well, especially his times on the second pass on the Norway stages.”
Citroen team principal Yves Matton said Breen’s performance bodes well for the rest of the season.
“He did a good job,” said Matton. “The average speed from the weekend is at the level I expected if he is doing a good rally. He was showing some very interesting splits and stage times. He did some small mistakes, but each driver made some small mistakes on this difficult rally. For his first rally in the DS 3, for me it’s a good job and I am happy. He is really committed to what he does and he is very professional. It’s really positive for the rest of the season.”
The Abu Dhabi Total team will skip the next two rounds of the World Rally Championship, so the next potential outing for Breen will be Portugal in May.
Matton added: “I’m not keeping the programme a secret. I will announce our next events, maybe, two at a time rather than our whole season. If I did that and wanted to change something, it makes it difficult. But, we said we wouldn’t be looking to compete outside Europe, except for maybe in China.” 9th fastest; 9th overall Breen: “It’s so fast in there, it’s quite hard to get my head around that for the first time in a World Rally Car.”
SS3 Rojden 1 (11.47 miles) 10m07.2s (+34.9s)
10th fastest; 10th overall “I absolutely loved it. Just a fantastic stage.”
SS4 Svullrya 1 (15.05 miles) 13m10.4s; (+22.5s)
8th fastest; 9th overall “I’m still learning the car, it still feels a little bit alien at times. But I feel like everything is back on track after the last two years.”
SS7 Svullrya 2 (15.05 miles) 12m50.6s (+6.4s)
3rd fastest; 8th overall “How do you explain that? I’m a bit lost for words. It was just fantastic. It feels incredible to be in that car.”
SS8 Rojden 2 (11.47 miles) 10m10.1s (+17.3s)
9th fastest; 8th overall “We had an overshoot in there. I got a bit greedy under braking and dropped about 15 seconds – I was trying to remember how to get reverse!”
SS9 Torsby 2 (10.24 miles) 9m19.8s (+22.0s)
11th fastest; 8th overall “We had a slow puncture on the right-rear and that caused a spin in a slow corner, it was no trouble.”
SS10 Fredriksberg (11.30 miles) 10m06.1s (+22.7s)
9th fastest; 8th overall “The conditions are quite different today and it’s taking me a little time to get used to driving the car with a bit more snow around.”
SS12 Vargasen 2 (15.34 miles) 13m23.4s (+26.7s)
6th fastest; 8th overall “Incredible. Coming through there, I wanted to give it the yee-ha! It felt like I was playing the Playstation. Amazing.”
SS 14 Rammen (14.14 miles) 11m21.4s (+18.2s)
8th fastest; 8th overall “The car didn’t feel quite so good at the right-rear, maybe we lost some studs?”
SS16 Vargasen 2 (15.34 miles) 13m04.6s (+15.8s)
7th fastest; 8th overall “Bit of inexperience of this event and these conditions showing there – I was a bit too hard on the tyres and lost some of the studs. Honestly, I thought I’d lose more time.”
SS17 Karlstad (1.18 miles) 1m40.6s (+5.7s)
20th fastest; 8th overall “I wasn’t going to take any risks in there. It was such a tricky stage with a very soft surface.”
SS21 Varmullsasen (9.86 miles) 8m06.5s (+23.8s)
11th fastest; 8th overall “The aim was to be at the finish and I’ve made that. I’m really, really happy with what I’ve done here.”
Had I followed the advice of my high-ranking FIA friend, Kris Meeke would have drop-kicked me into the harbour. No doubt.
Meeke and his co-driver Paul Nagle had just arrived in Karlstad at the end of the second and final day of the recce. KM was absolutely fizzing. He got out of the car, threw his arms into his jacket and yanked his hat down onto his head.
In a flurry of obscenities, he left me in no doubt what he thought of the conditions and the chances of the event running.
Turns out I’d be home in time for a Six Nations weekend after all.
Had I, at that point, asked whether the roads were really unsafe, things would have gotten ugly and quickly.
If I’d ventured the point that it was his choice to put his right foot on the throttle not the brake, thereby making him the arbiter of his own speed and safe passage between the trees, it’s possible he would have thrown his recce car at me.
Now, with a bit of distance between us, I’ll make that point; if it’s not safe, slow down.
I know, I know, it’s easy for me to blithely sit behind this laptop in the comfort of a warm press office (actually, it’s quite chilly in here at the moment…) talking calmly about what drivers should and shouldn’t do in the white heat of competition. But it’s true. Was it truly dangerous in the end? Personally, I don’t think so. The primary concern was icy ruts and no studs. In the end, we had neither.
I absolutely don’t question the drivers’ ability to identify genuine danger. But, for me, that was averted by the event organiser’s regrading and watering of the stages (admittedly, doing this post-recce’s not ideal, but they really had no choice) and by WRC safety delegate Michele Mouton, who drove stages non-stop to identify what would work and what wouldn’t. If she wasn’t convinced, there was no half-measure, it was canned.
I can, at least partly, understand the drivers’ frustration: the perfect winter conditions provide a unique driving experience and last week was a very, very long way from perfect.
And maybe that was the problem. These boys are ferociously competitive animals and Meeke and world champion Sebastien Ogier are the most competitive of the most competitive. Anything which hinders their ability to demonstrate that edge, can’t be tolerated.
But rallying’s about the sub-optimal. It’s about adaptability, evolution and dealing with what’s in front of you. It’s about facing down the fastest, iciest forest roads on studded tyres.
If it’s not. If it’s only about optimal conditions and level playing field, then let’s get rid of the man on the right and call it racing.
I understand the drivers’ desire to have a voice, for their opinion to be heard.
But the weather – and the prevalence of studs left in tyres – showed last week to be the wrong battle.