Sunday 4 December 2016

Vincent Hogan: Some of the greats have nothing to their names but Breen's world rally title dream is now very real

Published 10/10/2016 | 02:30

Craig Breen on his way to an extraordinary podium place at the iconic Rally Finland in his Citroen DS3 WRC in July this year. Photo credit: Roni Rekomaa/AFP/Getty Images
Craig Breen on his way to an extraordinary podium place at the iconic Rally Finland in his Citroen DS3 WRC in July this year. Photo credit: Roni Rekomaa/AFP/Getty Images

In the resoundingly insular world of rallying, Frank Meagher once threatened a story that might have brought his sport to Hollywood.

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He nailed just about everything required except, sadly, the fairytale ending. But that drive in the 1990 Galway International still draws wistful smiles today from anyone who witnessed his virtually ramshackle Mark Two Escort stretch away from English professional Mark Lovell's factory Sierra.

Craig Breen. Photo: Roni Rekomaa/Getty Images
Craig Breen. Photo: Roni Rekomaa/Getty Images

The old car gave up the ghost eventually, of course, a blown gasket the cause. Or maybe it was something as simple as metal fatigue. But that Saturday in Galway challenged the accepted wisdom that, in motorsport, technology must forever trump natural talent. The late, great Tipperary man was intercepted by TV cameras that evening, his lifeless car being tugged back into service on the end of a tow rope.

What, he was asked, would he do if ever put at the wheel of a modern machine? "Take it handy," replied Meagher with an oddly bleak grin. "And win every rally!"

Wickedly

That line holds a kind of paradoxical place in Irish rallying folklore. It captures the wickedly dry wit of a man whose driving skills could, on occasion, all but defy the earth's gravitational forces. But it is also a reminder that he was dead at 39, killed in a testing accident close to his home in Cloneen.

Meagher represented a generation that spawned a remarkable array of Irish rallying talent, amateur drivers like Austin MacHale and Bertie Fisher and Andrew Nesbitt who were in a position to invest in the best 'privateer' machinery Europe had to offer and, accordingly, put on enthralling shows the length and breadth of the country.

But maybe the only Irish drivers who ever really threatened full-time careers in the sport internationally were Rosemary Smith and Billy Coleman, with Coleman's fourth-place finish at the 1985 world championship Tour de Corse, until now, the high-water mark of achievement by a driver from these shores.

Craig Breen wasn't born then, but it's quite a statement on how far he has now travelled in his young life that last week's 'Autosport' magazine speculated that he might be "disappointed" with fifth in this year's running of the same rally.

That magazine went to print just hours before Wednesday's confirmation that Breen is about to step, full-time, into world championship rallying with a coveted two-year deal agreed with Citroen Racing.

The news is tumultuous for a man whose childhood hero was Meagher and one who still talks with palpable emotion about the day his own father, Ray, was crowned national rally champion at the age of 45.

Because Craig Breen has been pretty much hurtling through life without any room to fail. He did the daftest thing, you see, choosing to chase his childhood dream in rejection of any third-level education that might, in time, have opened more dependable if conservative doors.

He has, essentially, been on trial this year with the Abu Dhabi Total team, running in a limited number of world championship rallies with the clear demand to prove himself comfortable in one of the most stressful environments that professional sport can summon. And Breen has clearly achieved just that, with top ten finishes in all four world championship rallies contested to date, including an extraordinary podium place at the iconic Rally Finland.

Speaking to me immediately after that event, he described the jarring conflict of having his greatest day in a country where rally drivers are accorded massive acclaim, then flying home to what bore all the tumult of a fit of coughing in a church.

"In Finland, it's their national sport" he smiled. "Rallying first, ice-hockey second. You're like rock stars over there, you can hardly walk down the street without being collared. The passion for it is just unbelievable."

Here, save a small gathering of loyal supporters welcoming him home in the arrivals hall of Dublin airport and some single-paragraph newspaper references to his third-place finish, maybe the greatest achievement of Craig Breen's life (so far) passed off without much conspicuous attention.

He'd called his third-place finish "a complete shock", bursting into tears at the final stage-end, having spotted his beaming parents, Ray and Jackie, by the roadside. When we'd last spoken in January, Breen's expectation was that it might take him two years to fully acclimatise to world championship pace. More pertinently, he knew he could ill-afford to crash, circumstance all but demanding that he drove with a margin for error.

In Finland, this can be easier said than done.

The rally is unique for its jumps, tossing cars anything up to eight feet over gravelled forest tracks that gash through the country, tracks lined from dawn to dusk with obsessive, die-hard fans. It can feel like slaloming huge waves in a catamaran except, on all sides, solid pines go thrashing past, ready to reduce the car to pulp.

Finland requires precise hands and nimble, ballerina footwork from its drivers. But it also demands, above all, courage.

Breen's reserves of the latter will never encounter serious questioning, given how tragedy crossed his path in Sicily four years ago. Every car he has driven since bears a printed memorial to Gareth 'Jaffa' Roberts, his Welsh co-driver who died when an armco barrier freakishly pierced the co-driver's side of their Peugeot during stage eight of the Rally Targa Florio.

"I have lost half of me," Breen said at the time.

The accident might well have ended his rallying career but for the unswerving conviction of Roberts's family that to finish would be to abort a dream that both he and Gareth held so dear. So, with nobody really knowing if he would ever have the requisite speed again, Breen got back in a rally car.

And, incredibly, he won the last three rounds of that year's SWRC to claim a second consecutive junior world title.

Intimate

An argument blew up on social media last week over whether he is actually from Waterford or Kilkenny, given his home place is the border village of Slieverue. Breen will have been entertained by that, given his intimate understanding of the energies that heat most sporting interaction between those counties. He is a first cousin of Waterford's hurling goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe, but is not in the business of feigning interest in a game he himself never played.

Breen says simply that he and his cousin have a mutual respect for one another's achievements, albeit - for now - a county hurling man still turns more heads on the Waterford-Kilkenny border than any rally driver alive.

This weekend, he competes in Catalunya where - freed the suspense of wondering about Citroen's plans - Breen might just feel emboldened. The DS3 that Citroen have been running sporadically in this world championship is considered outdated, yet Breen and the team's number one driver, Dungannon's Kris Meeke (who won in Finland), have still managed to bring it to extraordinary pace.

In 2017, both will have use of the new C3 machine which is expected to put Citroen right at the forefront of the world championship battle.

Meeke, with Killarney so-driver Paul Nagle alongside, set three fastest times in Corsica last week, but a puncture ruined any chance of challenging world champion, Sebastian Ogier, for overall victory. In next year's car, they could be an untouchable combination.

For Breen, the first imperative will be to prove himself a fast, reliable number two. He is 11 years Meeke's junior with a mere fraction of the Ulster man's experience as a professional rally driver. Yet his assimilation into the world championship community has looked so seamless thus far, there may be no limit now on what he can aspire to.

There will forever be arguments in the sport about who was Ireland's most naturally talented rally driver ever and Meagher will score high in any sitting. But many of Frank's best years were spent with his car concealed under a dusty tarpaulin in his Cloneen garage, the budget to compete simply proving too penal. Tommy Byrne was, arguably, the most gifted Irishman ever to drive a Formula One car, but he lacked the discipline and networking skills to make it work. Being able to drive fast is just the opening line in any motorsport story. Little more than admittance to an exam hall.

Some of the fastest men in history have nothing to their names. Craig Breen palpably gets that and knows precisely the opportunity now before him. Trust him not to spurn it.

Remember, this dream he chases isn't just his.

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