‘I’VE NEVER BEEN SO AT HOME’ Ir­ish­man happy with first out­ing in DS 3 WRC

Motor Sport News - - Headline News - By David Evans

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.

Breen and Martin scored eighth over­all Ir­ish­man de­buted well Water­ford man flew on tricky Rally Swe­den

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