Vincent Hogan: Motoring his way to the top
Rising star Craig Breen wasting no time in race to become world champion, writes Vincent Hogan
Two hours into the drive north from Liverpool Airport, it is clear that the only vehicles moving without difficulty in Cumbria are snow ploughs.
The Mondeo's temperature gauge reads minus 13 and, sure enough, a phone call confirms the M-Sport test track to be out of bounds. England's Lake District has, essentially, turned into the Antarctic and not even a kid as talented as Craig Breen can drive a rally car quickly over terrain that Shackleton would have considered hostile.
So we head directly for the gentrified order of Dovenby Hall, which has been Breen's home for the past year. During lunch, Malcolm Wilson dips his head in to say hello and confirms that, barring a dramatic thaw, plans to test locally for next year's World Championship may require a rethink.
The M-Sport owner was born and reared in nearby Cockermouth. He knows the beat of the countryside here, but minus 13 before winter even clears its throat? Crazy.
Breen takes us for a stroll through a theatre-clean workshop, lined with maybe 30 rally cars in various stages of completion. Next year, Ford's World Championship campaign will be built around the Fiesta. The small, squat, still-white skeleton looks almost dinky-like next to the liveried Focus that Jari-Matti Latvala drove to second in this year's championship.
In spite of the WRC's move back to smaller cars with smaller engines for 2011, Wilson believes that -- after development -- the pace of the Fiesta will be pretty much indistinguishable from the 2010 Focus. Motorsport never sleeps and, no less than pharmacists continually rewriting athletics' possibilities, engineers endlessly redraft the capabilities of engines.
The difference, of course, is they play within the rules.
At 20, Breen has the attention of some of world rallying's most influential people. In November, he was the highest-placed (12th) non-professional driver in Rally GB, the concluding round of the World Championship. His pace in an all-new Fiesta S2000 also brought him a first international victory in Rally Northern Ireland. Given he had, essentially, won everything available to him in 2009, his career progression has yet to hit a significant blip.
And, in 2011, he will be one of six young pilots from around the globe granted fully funded drives in the all-new M-Sport WRC Academy Series. The winner of the Academy will be granted funding to the value of £500,000 for their season in 2012, which Breen hopes will amount to a full Super 2000 World Championship campaign.
"I have to win the Academy really," admits the Slieverue native. "I've set myself a goal to be world champion and, though World Championship teams tend to want drivers at around 24 or 25 years old, unfortunately my budget isn't going to last that long."
As of now, Breen depends massively on the financial support of his father, former National Rally champion, Ray.
That support has seen him vault to the forefront of the sport after just two full seasons of competition. Is he good enough to go all the way? "He's certainly got the potential," says Wilson. "But you must remember there are a lot of young drivers out there with potential. The key is making sure you stay around long enough to get the experience and the seat time. Because experience is everything in rallying."
It is a remarkable story, given that Breen looked destined for a life in circuit racing until a few opportunities to be his father's co-driver dramatically realigned his focus. He'd been karting since the age of eight, driving for a works team in European and World Championship events right up to '08.
"I reckoned I was probably heading to a season in Formula Renault," he reflects now. "Then I did a rally with dad and almost immediately realised 'This is what I want to do!'"
Did he find himself believing he could drive quicker than his father?
"Yeah," he says (laughing). "It's difficult, the father-son relationship in a car, probably completely different to any other driver-navigator relationship. I'd have to say Dad is a very committed driver.
"No matter who you're sitting with, you're trying to anticipate the next move. He might be coming to a corner at 130mph and you're thinking, 'He needs to give it (the brake) a little dab with the left foot here ... ' And you're waiting for it, but he's not doing it.
"So it was nerve-wracking."
Ray Breen spent 10 years trying to win the National Championship and, through it all, his only son was part of the crew. Craig remembers sitting in the back of his father's Mondeo during a recce for Ballina in '95 and living through a decade of near misses and disappointment thereafter.
Coronation came in Clare '05, amid scenes that Breen admits he will never forget.
"He'd been trying so hard for long," says Craig. "And some of the disappointments were really hard to take. I remember Ravens Rock, especially, in '98. There were four Metros at the top of the leaderboard, Dad, John Price, the late Tony Davies and Hal Lewis.
"A blistering hot summer's day and it was nip-and-tuck between the four of them. Swapping seconds on every stage. About three stages from the end, Dad pulled away. It was our local rally, all the stages around the back of our house. And it was just turning into the perfect day.
"Then, on the last stage, the head gasket went. The disappointment was unbelievable."
There was, too, a cursed season spent wrestling with an Escort WRC bought from Wilson in Cumbria. On Ray's first time in the car, he was leading the Rally of Munster when they crashed. The car never quite handled properly again after and Craig remembers that summer only for the endless stream of phone calls telling the crew, "We're off ... "
Eventually, Ray had what his son likens to "an airplane crash" in Skibbereen and "that was the end of the car". As luck would have it, they discovered the cause of the handling fault whilst putting the wreck on a trailer.
You may gather from Craig Breen's story that he was never a kid who dreamt of hurling for Waterford or playing soccer for an English franchise. Motorsport always held his attention.
He admits candidly: "If there was a World Cup final on outside the door there, I'd probably turn my back on it. I've had absolutely no interest in doing anything other than racing something you could strap an engine on."
His childhood hero was Frank Meagher, the extraordinary Tipperary driver who died tragically in a testing accident over a forest track on Slievenamon in 2002. Meagher, famously, once thrashed two works Sierras in the Galway International before his old Mark Two spluttered to a halt. And he won the '92 Circuit of Ireland in a two-wheel drive Sierra when virtually everyone else on the leaderboard had the benefit of four-wheel drive.
"I was only a sprog when he was at his pinnacle," admits Breen. "But he was just amazing to watch. I still look at videos of him. He was rallying on a shoestring, but not letting anybody know about it. Others made a big deal about not having enough money, but Frank just got on with things. I'd say he was like a duck on a pond. Above the surface, everything was smooth and calm, but, underneath, I'd say he was peddling as fast as he could go. That man was something else."
Breen's Academy campaign will now pitch him into six rounds of the 2011 World Championship in a front-wheel drive Fiesta R2, while he hopes to contest another two rounds in his own four-wheel drive S2000 as well as a selection of IRC rounds.
His only likely rally in Ireland next year will be the Ravens Rock.
Already he has tested with both Ford works drivers, Mikko Hirvonen and Latvala and was pleased when the former commented on the "smoothness" of his driving. Yet, Breen knows too that he is in a sport that can be brutally intolerant of mishap.
The secret of seven-time world champion Sebastien Loeb's success, he reckons, is that the Frenchman can drive at such an extraordinary pace, yet "rarely crashes".
Breen admits that if either he or Ireland's other standout young rally talent, Cork's Keith Cronin (who has just retained his British Championship title), sat into a works WRC car today, they would not be able to match the pace of Loeb, Hirvonen and Latvala.
"We wouldn't be on it (the pace)," he says. "And I don't think anyone would expect us to be. Bottom line, you'd probably need two full years in the car to really get up to their pace."
That said, exceptions do sometimes come to the sport's attention.
Dungannon's Kris Meeke set an extraordinary pace against the WRC regulars before going off the road on Rally Ireland '08 and, despite now being 30, will pilot the iconic Mini on its return to World Championship rallying next year.
Meeke's experience maybe trumpets the value of patience, but Craig Breen remains a man in a hurry.
"The target is, hopefully, to become a professional driver," he says. "My dad never had the opportunity that he's given me. In fact, he's taken a step back from what he loved doing himself to give me the best chance.
"I mean he was 45 before he had a car capable of winning the National Championship. At 19 and 20, I've had the proper machinery. So one of the biggest things for me is that he keeps enjoying what I'm achieving. Because, if that stops, he won't be doing it."
We bid the kid farewell and slip-slide back out into the bleached landscape, crawling, snail-like, from this revered house of speed. The gauge in the Mondeo declares Lake District temperatures have risen to -8.
Balmy by Cumbrian standards.