Motorsport: 'The aftermath was horrific. I went into a very dark period'
THE framed memorial on Craig Breen's kitchen window carries a beautiful image of his best friend. It was taken in Corsica last May, just weeks before the devastating accident that took Gareth Roberts's life.
The smiling picture is set against a glorious backdrop of sun-splashed boats in Ajaccio harbour. Outside, the white, left-hand-drive Peugeot 207 parked on Grattan Terrace in Ballybricken carries a red sticker above the rear bumper.
'Jaffa' it reads, with an illustrated figure of a man in a racing helmet.
Breen sits at the kitchen table, telling Alfie, his West Highland terrier, to "hush." It is Wednesday morning in Waterford. For the second consecutive season, he has brought a world rally title home and, after an unfamiliar blizzard of media commotion, this amounts to the first semblance of peace.
"The interest in me has been weird, not something that I'm used to," he shrugs.
He is 22 and coping. The euphoria of Spain and a victory that secured the World S2000 Championship has been fuelling him with false energy. Likewise this week's announcement that he was been voted World Rally Driver of the Year on the official WRC.com website (first in a poll that had the legendary Sebastian Loeb placed third). He's been telling his story to a new audience and, deep down, he knows their interest is franked largely by the awful memory of what happened in Sicily last June.
That's fine too because, as long as Craig Breen straps himself into a rally car, Gareth Roberts will forever fly with him.
But sometimes he feels like a child tossed brutally into an adult's world now. People mention his strength and it's as if they are talking about another person. "For the most part, I can't explain it," he says. "I would never have been the strongest of people when I was younger. I would have cried over a lot of things, got myself worked up over nothing.
"So, I don't really know ... "
And there he stops himself, suspecting that he's probably guilty of a great, white lie here. Because, deep down, you sense he understands exactly who brought him back from oblivion.
The awful thing is that the crash was nothing, their Peugeot just running wide on a left-hander and colliding with an Armco barrier. To begin with, his instinct was almost to chuckle and try restarting the engine. Their first fully-paid drive of the season and he'd just messed up. On the far side of the barrier was a bog. Had there been no barrier? "We would have been sunk up to our knees, probably laughing!"
But the Armco had a sharp edge and, tragically, it buckled on impact, lancing through the Peugeot's bulk-head and invading the cabin.
"To me, it was such a small accident," he recalls. "I knew I had crashed into a barrier, but I didn't realise it had come through the car. It was only when I looked across and saw Gareth that I realised the seriousness of the situation.
"From there, I can't really remember a whole lot. And, to be honest, I don't really want to."
They'd discovered one another towards the end of '08 on Facebook, Breen on the look-out for a co-driver to guide his first steps into rallying after almost a decade of karting. His father Ray, a former national rally champion, had given him an occasional outing in the 'hot-seat,' so he understood the stresses of the job and the absolute need for reciprocal trust between driver and co-driver. Gareth, it was clear, had talent. He'd won the Fiesta Sport Trophy Championships in Britain and Ireland, but his regular driver had just lost his competition licence for a year.
"He was the obvious choice," explains Craig, whose plan was to compete in the very same championships. So, they got talking through Facebook, finding kindred spirits in one another. And, before long, it felt like they were climbing a glorious rainbow.
Their victory in last season's WRC Academy had a fairytale dimension. They'd gone to Rally GB needing, not just to win the event, but to dominate it for an entire weekend. Championship leader Egon Kaur had a 20-point advantage. To win the title, Breen and Roberts would probably have to set quickest time on 14 of the 17 stages.
Incredibly, they managed 15 fastest stage times, the championship going right down to the wire with an agonising 10-minute vigil in a Welsh forest as they waited for the Estonian to finish. "Ten minutes of hell," recalls Breen, for whom there was half a million euro on the line.
"Gareth and me were, realistically, probably the only two people who believed we could do it that weekend," he remembers. "It seemed an impossibility, but we did it. We pulled off the impossible. It was the most fantastic day of my life, I think."
The success gave them the budget to step up to S2000 for 2012 and they immediately opened the new campaign with victory in Monte Carlo last January. Theirs looked like a story destined to run and run.
How would he characterise his Welsh partner?
"The best in the world, an incredible man," he says instantly. "One of the few people I've met who was as committed to making it to the top as I was. I never had to worry about anything. He worked so well in every kind of environment, no matter what pressure he was under. He always knew how to make me keep a level head.
"He was very very cheeky too, a little man with a big heart. We always shared a room together and I'm just so proud and honoured that I got to spend so much time with him."
Their crash at the Targa Floria felt like the end, of everything. With Gareth gone, Breen plunged into an emotional blackness. The funeral was a blur of tears, incoherent pain and, sometimes, beautiful reminiscence. But the entire Roberts family seemed to open their hearts to the Breens. And Gareth's father Mike, his brother Dai, and girlfriend Holly, endlessly recited the same message.
"Don't give up," they told him. "The two of ye had a dream. Don't let it die."
The week before Sicily, Craig and Gareth had spent three days in the Vosges Mountains testing for Peugeot. Three weeks after the event, they were due in Montpellier for further development work. An email arrived from France now, confirming they did not expect him to travel.
But Craig spoke again to the Roberts family and their message was unwavering. He decided to contact Peugeot. Told them that he was coming.
His father travelled with him that morning, as did his old rally mentor, Tom Gahan. A friend, Karl Atkinson – who'd been one of the first on the accident scene in Sicily – agreed to co-drive. So, just three weeks after the death of his best friend, Craig Breen decided to find out what was left.
"When the accident happened, the immediate aftermath was horrific," he remembers. "And I went into a very dark period. But Gareth's family was the biggest influence on me coming out of it. They knew we'd had this big dream together and were adamant I shouldn't give up on it.
"Going over to France that morning, maybe there was some part of me thinking it was crazy. But there were so many other parts telling me it was the right thing to do. I've thought about it since and it was almost as if Gareth himself was telling me to go and do it.
"No one really outside of our two families knew that I was going over. But the minute I sat into the car, I just got this comfortable, warm feeling. Completely the opposite to what I was expecting. And the first or second run, I knew that I could push."
A week later, he made a low-key competitive return with Gareth's brother Dai, calling the notes in a Welsh forest. Their car broke down and, for maybe an hour in the most gorgeous rural setting, they found themselves talking about a friend and brother. Celebrating life.
Breen's international return brought a huge barrel roll in Rally Finland in August and the kind of dramatic YouTube footage he could have done without.
The crash was, he acknowledges, "a hundred times bigger than the one in Sicily." His new co-driver, Paul Nagle, fractured some ribs and Breen himself broke a wrist.
Yet, all around them seemed a portrait of utter gaiety. Two streakers went dancing past the wreckage, the air of giddiness rampant.
Breen stood in the midst of it, waiting for the last cars to pass, wondering if perhaps he'd been a fool.
"I couldn't get my head around it," he reflects now. "It was such a big accident and, yet, we were basically fine. But something as simple as what happened in Sicily had devastated my life.
"I was extremely upset in the immediate aftermath. I probably felt I was a little bit of a liability. I was wondering was I just a danger to people, a danger to myself, a danger to Paul? That was my biggest feeling. 'Am I capable of driving a rally car without going off the road?'"
Yet, if there was a single positive from the experience, it was affirmation that what happened in Sicily had, indeed, been an utterly wretched freak.
One month later, Breen and Nagle went to Wales and won Rally GB, Gareth's home event. The Roberts family came to meet them on the finish podium and a small river of tears flowed.
Then they won in France and, crucially, won again in Spain. Craig Breen had become world S2000 champion, uniquely with the assistance of two co-drivers.
It is a beautiful thing but, from here, the gradient just gets sharper. Logically, the only way forward is to mix it with the giants of the sport in a full World Championship car now. This may or may not happen.
To campaign in all 13 rounds of next year's WRC calendar would probably require a budget close to €1.5m. And, one of the quirks of the S2000 Championship is that, unlike the category beneath it, there is no prize money.
So, Breen is starting from scratch again, yet he senses that he is impossibly blessed.
"I feel I'm only a kid at heart, trying to put a mature head on all the time" he smiles now.
"I'm proud of what I've done, but I've often found myself wondering how I did it. Because, on my own, I would never have had the strength to get through something like this. Deep down, I know where it's coming from."
His eyes move instinctively to the picture of Corsica in May and that perfect sunrise of a smile.
'Jaffa' still flies with him.