Tuesday 24 April 2018

Breen's world title dream about to get lift-off in forests of Sweden

Craig Breen (Andre Lavadinho)
Craig Breen (Andre Lavadinho)
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

When the call came, Craig Breen did the only thing a human heart allowed. He cried.

The best day of his life was always destined to trace a path back to the worst. He knew that. The house in Ferrybank was empty, but he wasn't alone. Of that, he is quite certain. As Yves Matton, head of Citroen Racing, confirmed his promotion to a World Championship drive, Craig found himself pressing the mute button for fear his jolting breath might be audible in Versailles.

It was maybe 7pm on the second last Thursday before Christmas, this conference call delivering him to a place it felt as if his entire adult life had been angled towards.

In the blurred minutes that followed, he made two calls. One to his co-driver - Scott Martin - in Carlisle. The other to 'Jaffa's' dad, Michael Roberts. Then he drove to his parents' house to deliver the news that Ray and Jackie craved.

On Monday next, Breen and Martin do their first and only day of testing in the Abu Dhabi Total Citroen DS3 and, on Thursday night, they go to the start line of Rally Sweden. The plan is that Breen will contest maybe half a dozen rounds of this year's World Championship, thus becoming the first Republic of Ireland driver to secure a campaign at this level.

Waiting for that call exposed him, he admits, to "a horrible three or four days". His father and James Coleman, a long-time supporter and sponsor, had worked intensely on selling Breen's credentials as a credible World Championship driver.

By December, they'd pretty much ceased negotiations with other manufacturers to pin all their hopes on the Citroen seat.

"When I was hearing nothing back, I couldn't sleep," Craig recalls. "I was so stressed, my face came out in spots. We'd kind of dropped all the leads for this one and maybe I'm a natural pessimist.

"Then the magic call arrived and I won't forget that moment as long as I live."

His schedule will be linked to a testing programme for the spectacular C3 car that Citroen plan to run in every round of next year's Championship. For Breen, the challenge is to persuade his new employers that he should be their 2017 driver.

Even without the shadow of tragedy, Craig Breen's story would be remarkable. But the day in 2012 that Gareth 'Jaffa' Roberts died beside him in Sicily will always frank it with a faint sense of wonder at what a young man can achieve despite a broken heart.

No-one pressed harder for Craig to return to the sport than Gareth's family. Dai, his brother, sat with him on his first day back in competition and every rally car that Craig has driven since has borne a sticker bearing 'Jaffa's' name.


They'd won the World Rally Championship Academy together and were halfway through the Super 2000 campaign when a guard-rail penetrated their Peugeot during the Targa Florio Rally, killing Gareth. Grief overtook everything at that moment.

Yet, two families understood that if Breen did not return quickly to the sport he would, most probably, not return at all. And, with Paul Nagle by his side, the Waterford driver made a remarkable comeback, winning the final three rounds to become World Super 2000 champion.

He has since contested two seasons at European Championship level, fulfilling an ambition last Easter of matching his childhood hero, the late, great Frank Meagher, as a Circuit of Ireland winner. But Breen's ERC programme was regularly compromised by mechanical gremlins.

In 2015, his team made a decision to send detailed rally reports to all of the big manufacturers, filling in the spaces that might, otherwise, have posed questions. They itemised every stage time and, critically, explained the circumstance behind a non-finish. The reports made clear Breen's pace on every surface.

On December 10, he visited the Citroen Racing factory in France for a virtual job interview and it was precisely one week later that that 33 prefix came up on his phone.

So it's to Karlstad next Thursday evening and the beginning of the rest of his life. The worth of the car beneath him? "You don't even ask," he smiles. But if the peak value of a European Championship machine was €180,000, take it the WRC Citroen runs to about three times that.

Suffice to say, the WRC car is factory-built for one thing and one thing only. He says he's got to be "pin-perfect" from the off now, that he's got to set a high pace, yet limit mistakes to a minimum. "Trying to set a goal of winning a rally or even getting a podium finish is probably unrealistic," he concedes. "But that doesn't mean I won't be trying."

The Abu Dhabi team in Sweden will boast a remarkable Irish contingent with Dungannon's Kris Meeke in the lead car, co-driven by Killarney's Nagle. And the third Citroen, piloted by Khalid Al Qassimi, will have Ballyclare's Chris Patterson on the notes.

Breen's expectations are, naturally, guarded.

This will be his fourth time rallying through the snow-covered Swedish forests and he says that temperature is always key. His first time there in 2011, the gauge was registering minus 28. Treacherous? No, problems only arise with the onset of a thaw.

"If the weather goes above zero, as it did in 2014, it becomes the worst conditions you could ever imagine," he says. "Because you end up aquaplaning on slush. Just really horrible. But if the temperature stays down - and they're forecasting around minus seven next week - the tyre studs give you more grip than you'd get on gravel.

"And that can be one of the best sensations you'll ever get driving a rally car."

The late Colin McRae was his first World Championship hero and he remembers, as an 11-year-old, crying all afternoon when the Scot's crash in Rally GB wrecked his 2001 title chances. McRae's flamboyant driving style intoxicated the young Breen. He says that if he is ever trying to sell rallying to a non-believer, he suggests accessing in-car footage from just two drivers.

"I always say, go YouTube Colin McRae or Andrew Nesbitt!"

He is unequivocal about what this Citroen drive now means to him. "This is Willie Wonka's golden ticket," he says. "This is what I've always wanted to do. It's up to me now to prove it's where I belong, that I'm capable of being a world champion."

'Jaffa', undeniably, will ride with him.

There were a couple of moments during Rally GB in Wales last November when he felt an intense presence in the car.

w Gareth Roberts came from Carmarthen and, together, they would have rallied some of those same stages. "I had a couple of really, really surreal experiences," Craig remembers.

"I could feel myself coming out of the zone on a couple of stages, as if everything was just happening automatically. And I really felt his presence in the car. It's difficult to explain but, regularly, I sense he's right here, looking out for me.

"I miss him to bits. But he's here. I know that."

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