Craig Breen had tears in his eyes as he crossed the finish line in Spain over two minutes ahead of his nearest rival. Not only did it bring to end a dominant weekend for the young Waterford man, but it was enough for Breen to clinch the Super 2000 World Rally Championship (SWRC) title. He got out of the car, jumped on the bonnet, and pointed to the sky, dedicating the achievement to his late colleague.
In June this year, Breen and his 24 year old co-driver Gareth Roberts of Wales were competing in the Sicilian round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge when their car left the road and hit a barrier. Roberts was killed in the accident, bringing the pair’s successful rally relationship to a tragic end.
The two joined together in 2008 at an early stage in their careers to enter two rallies on the same weekend, having built up a relationship over Facebook. They instantly clicked and were the fastest in their class in their first three rallies together; including a first win on the world stage for each of them in Portugal.
Their partnership grew over the next few years, peaking last season when they entered the inaugural World Rally Championship (WRC) Academy; a new series designed to find the best young driver. Their season got off to a rough start, but having claimed a victory in Germany, they entered the last round in Wales with a chance of winning the title.
They needed to make up a massive 20 point deficit over Egon Kaur; an unlikely feat, but Roberts had an advantage of being on home soil. Breen and Roberts claimed the title in spectacular fashion, winning almost all the stages to finish level on points with Kaur; with their superior number of stage wins allowing them to take the top prize.
This season, the pair moved up the ladder to the more powerful cars of the SWRC. The opening round was the legendary Rallye Monte Carlo, one of the longest rallies, which Roberts spent a lot of time researching for his pace notes.
It really was a case of slow and steady wins the race for the duo, as all their rivals were caught out by the tricky conditions of the Alps, allowing Breen and Roberts to pick up a win. The championship lead was held with a second place in Sweden and, despite a non-finish in Portugal, Breen and Roberts were still leading the championship at the time of Roberts’ death.
Nobody would have blamed Breen for taking a break from the championship, losing a close friend can take a long time to come to terms with, but with the support of the Roberts family, he made a return to rallying in the way Gareth would have wanted. Not only did he have to deal with competing without the young Welshman, he had to get a new co-driver.
Every co-driver is different; from the way they read the notes, to what they call each corner. Paul Nagle, an experienced Irish navigator was the best man to lead Breen to the end of the season and keep his feet on the ground. It didn’t take long for them to fit together; they lead their first SWRC rally together until the last day when a crash ended their hopes of glory.
That was the only mistake in what became a heroic return for Breen. He won the final three rallies after that, including at Roberts’ home rally in Wales where the two won the championship last season. The last victory was one of the sweetest; a dominant win where he managed to finish sixth overall, ahead of many of the more powerful rally cars, something unheard of before this season.
Nobody can say Breen doesn’t deserve the championship, as even his rivals applauded his strength throughout the difficult season. The Waterford man is also a fan favourite, currently leading an official pole asking who the 2012 driver of the year was.
The next step up (WRC), should he make it, will be a much bigger challenge for Breen, both financially and competitively. This year’s SWRC campaign was funded largely from the €500,000 prize for winning the WRC Academy. Unfortunately for Breen, there’s no prize money for winning the SWRC and the cost of competing in the top flight is much higher.
For anybody who doesn’t have the backing of a manufacturer, the only option is to supply money and sponsorship to enter privately, an option which could cost upwards of €1.5million. Both Ford and MINI have pulled out of the championship from next year, leaving only four manufacturer seats; all of which have been filled.
One option for Breen would be to join Hyundai, to develop their car and eventually become a full-time driver when they make their return to the sport in 2014. This is something which Sébastien Ogier did this season with Volkswagen. He will return full-time next season as one of the favourites to take the title.
Rallying is one of, if not the biggest motorsport in Ireland. Some of the top drivers consider Rally Ireland as the toughest rally event on the planet; so it’s only right that we should have a world champion. It would be a real shame if Craig Breen doesn’t make it into WRC, but given what he has gone through so far, it seems unlikely that he will be giving up any time soon.