There has been an outpouring of grief from around the world after one of Ireland’s leading rally drivers, Waterford’s Craig Breen, was tragically taken from us after an accident during testing ahead of the Croatian round of the World Rally Championship.
Craig’s co-driver, Cavan man James Fulton, was uninjured. My thoughts are very much with James, Craig’s family, friends, and all within this tight knit community at this very sad time.
Aged just 33, Breen’s smile was nothing short of infectious. His eyes glistened with joy at even the thought of driving a rally car. A shining light of Irish motor sport, Craig loved nothing more than coming home to compete behind the wheel of historic rally cars such as a Metro 6R4, BMW E30 M3 and most recently, a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth that was once victorious in the hands of Craig’s idol, the late Frank Meagher.
Getting to the top of this sport is not easy. Years of dedication through the junior ranks is required, never mind the deep pockets and vast amount of sponsorship needed along the way. Although some get to drive the latest machinery thanks to bringing a big purse, it was a lifetime of hard work, an unquestionable passion for the sport and a naturally raw talent for driving that saw Craig soar to the top end of the timesheets.
Son of former Irish National Rally Champion, Ray Breen, motorsport was in his blood. Craig started his motorsport career karting around the turn of the millennium. His first rally was in 2007 and although he was successfully competing in karts in Europe, Craig decided to make a permanent switch to rallying in 2009.
The Ford Fiesta junior car was the chariot of choice and he started making a name for himself throughout the Irish, British and International Sporting Trophies. Winning the international shoot out, Craig also received the coveted Billy Coleman award in his first full season.
Craig became the inaugural WRC Academy Cup Champion in 2011, again at the helm of a Ford Fiesta. Equal on points with an Estonian driver, this championship was decided on a countback for the number of stage wins which, after a giant killing performance on the final round, awarded Craig the championship.
The following year the young Irishman signed up for the S-WRC aboard a Super 2000 Ford Fiesta. Taking victory on the opening round at Monte Carlo, championship hopes looked good after round two. Later that year, Breen’s world and the whole rallying community was rocked when his navigator, Gareth Roberts, was killed during an accident on an Intercontinental Rally Challenge event. An incredibly emotional S-WRC championship was won by the young Waterford driver at the final round in Spain, opening the eyes of many manufacturers which would soon open some doors.
Signed to the Peugeot Rally Academy, Craig spent a couple of years competing on the European Rally Championship in a Peugeot 208 T16. It was in this car that Craig took his first ever Circuit of Ireland win in 2015. It was an emotional one, and one that I will never forget. His tears of joy on the Titanic slipway in Belfast must be remembered, amidst tears of sadness at his recent passing.
From here, Breen’s career seemed to find another gear. Signed to the Citroen World Rally Team for a part-time season in 2016, he took his first stage win at the top level of the sport at Rally Finland. Craig remained with this team until 2018 when he moved to Hyundai’s WRC team.
This move for the start of the 2019 season allowed Craig to not only compete in Hyundai’s World Rally Car at the top level on a part-time basis, but also to gain valuable experience on other events in a lesser specced R5 Hyundai. Alongside his commitments across the globe, Craig also secured his first ever Irish Tarmac Rally Championship title driving a Ford Fiesta R5 for all but one round of the series, when he brought a WRC Fiesta to Donegal to make sure he had the better of some incredibly fast locals in World Cars.
Seat time is crucial within this sport, and Craig’s learning and development paid off when in 2022, he was signed to compete as the number one driver for M-Sport Ford World Rally team in their new Ford Puma Rally 1.
Taking third overall on his first ever event in the car, it looked promising. A couple of top 10 finishes combined with a second overall finish in Italy secured 7th overall at the end of the season. Probably not the result Craig was hoping for, and it seemed that no one could tame the Puma, but he did manage to finish every event with Paul Nagle calling the pace notes.
Frustration at a car that wouldn’t work led to the questioning of Breen’s ability as a driver. Self-doubt would set in for most of us, but Craig knew he still had it and thankfully Hyundai would give him another shot.
With the snow banks of Sweden as a perfect backdrop, Craig Breen’s stage end interviews were nothing short of emotional joy as floods of tears met journalists when they opened the door of his Hyundai i20N. “I missed that feeling. Jesus Christ I missed that!” exclaimed Breen, “It’s very, very simple. Completely effortless and eh… second chance, I’m a very lucky boy.”
It was clear that the package that Hyundai had provided Craig was nothing like what he had experienced the previous season. It was on a different level, and he went on to secure second overall at the event. His first WRC win was surely on the horizon.
Alongside a part-time Hyundai WRC Rally 1 campaign, Hyundai Portugal signed Breen to drive a Rally 2 i20N within the European Championship. He finished his first event in fourth overall and secured top points within the localised sub-category which was important to Hyundai Portugal.
Sadly, on Thursday 13 April, 2023, news filtered through shortly after lunch that Craig had been involved in a fatal collision whilst testing in Croatia. An hour or two later, confirmation from his team sent a wave of emotion around the world.
The rally fraternity shed a tear of sadness remembering the pleasure that the tears of joy of one man brought to us all for the past 16 years. A future world champion taken too soon, and one who never once forgot the grass-roots of rallying. A true ambassador for Irish rallying.
Thank you, Craig, for all you have done for our sport.
Words and Photos: GRAHAM BAALHAM-CURRY
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