KIERAN SHANNON: Hard road still lies ahead for Craig Breen

The focus. The obsession. The memory of a fallen friend. All these reasons and more have seen Craig Breen blaze through the grades to make it to the World Rally Championship proper — rallying’s Formula One, its NBA — the first driver from the Republic to make it to that level...

When it comes to describing Craig Breen’s story and nature, when some day he reaches the very top of his sport and it is documented in either book or film, there is only one obvious word for it: Driven.

We’re talking about someone from the Kilkenny/Waterford border — which side of it he’s from or that has proper claim on him “doesn’t really bother me”, he grins slowly, “if anyone asks, whichever one is more beneficial at the time” — yet hurling leaves him cold.

His first cousin is the Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe, yet if Cuz was playing in the back garden, Breen says in that direct, unsentimental way of his, “I’d have absolutely zero interest. While we have a common admiration for each other, I have as much interest in hurling as he has in rallying. It does nothing for me.”

It’s the same with virtually any other type of sport. Even Formula One now. When he was karting around some of the top circuits in Europe during his teens, he had aspirations of making it to that level but now he can’t think of the last time he sat down to watch a grand prix.

Ask him about school and what the back-up plan was if he weren’t to have made his living in the sport, and he’ll tell you that while he did his Leaving, he didn’t even manage to get his results: he was away karting in the UK at the time.

“I had absolutely no interest in anything going on in school. I knew my career was not going to be helped by anything in those four walls. There was never a back-up. If I had let any small inkling that I might not make it in, it would have derailed the whole thing. I’ve always been convinced this is the path that has been laid out for me. I couldn’t think of a back-up.”

As for any hobbies outside of rallying? By this stage, you can guess the answer...

His focus, his obsession, you can almost feel. It’s McCoy-esque. His grá, his desire, to compete, Dunlop-esque.

It’s why he’s blazed through all the grades to now make it to the World Rally Championship proper (WRC), rallying’s Formula One, its NBA, the first driver from the 26 counties to make it to that level.

Even the death of his co-driver and best friend, Gareth Roberts, with Breen himself behind the wheel at the time of the accident, couldn’t keep him from getting behind that wheel again.

As he says, “It’s just the nature of the beast.” His sport. Himself.

He’s been immersed in it since he can remember. He grew up in Slievrue, a little townland in south Kilkenny only five miles from Waterford city where his father Ray worked. Ray was a fitter by trade but more, he was a rally driver. For over two decades, he’d travel and speed around the byways of Ireland, his son in tow, either hanging from ditches in the pouring rain or helping out as part of the crew.

Young Craig was there for it all. Shattering disappointments like Ravens Rock in ‘98, the local rally. With one stage to go, dad was in the lead. Then his head gasket went. It would take Ray Breen until he was 45 to finally land a car good enough to win a national championship, but he would, in 2005, in Clare, a day ingrained in his son’s memory.

Ray was a hero but Frank Meagher was the man. Someone who showed young Craig that someone from the south-east and on a shoestring budget could beat the rest of the country and the factory drivers.

In 1992, Meagher won the Circuit of Ireland in a two-wheel drive Sierra when everyone else in contention had a four-wheel. Just the man’s speed, talent, daring, no-bullshit no-excuses manner; he was an inspiration. When Breen won the Circuit of Ireland himself last Easter, he showed rare emotion. “I’ve wanted to win this rally since my childhood hero Frank Meagher won it in 1992,” he’d tell reporters. “I can’t believe it. This means more to me than anything else in the world.”

Hard road still lies ahead for Craig Breen

Yet while rallying was always Breen’s passion, karting was his one hobby, one he was so good at, he’d race at European level right through his teens.

It started out as a way to develop competitiveness behind a wheel. By 17, it seemed he might stick with it. Then a couple of drives in a rally car changed that.

The first of them didn’t go so well. It was a rally in Clonmel in 2007 and as he was coming directly from a European kart race, he hadn’t prepared that well for it. At the end of 2008, he went back for another race. This time he was prepared.

“I’ll never forget coming to the end of the first stage,” he recalls. “This feeling ‘This is all I ever want to do.’

“I loved the fact I was driving alone with no one else on the track: just me and the navigator and a stopwatch. I’d much rather that aspect of motorsport than being on a track with people jockeying for position trying to get you off. You’re much more able to be in control of your destiny.

“And of course there’s just that feeling of speed. It’s so raw. It’s some feeling going fast on a small country road.” It’s not something he advocates or practises outside of competition. The 25-year-old is actually an ambassador for the Road Safety Authority. He has no penalty points and no interest in accumulating any — only titles and honours. But in that pursuit and even within those confines, he’s learned that speed still kills.

Meagher died within 10 years of his stellar Rally of Ireland victory. In 2010, a close friend, Thomas Maguire, was killed while co-driving in the Donegal International. Then one sunny morning in June 2012 on a dirt-tracked road in Sicily, Breen’s own co-driver Gareth Roberts, never got back out of the car alive.

Breen did, but as he’d tweet shortly after, “I have lost half of me.” They were more than colleagues. They were best buddies, ‘like brothers’ actually, says Breen, and on their way to being one of the best tandems in the business.

Breen had worked with no one else as a co-driver. In 2009, his first year dedicated to rallying, he would win the UK as well as the Irish Fiesta Sporting trophies, with the affable Welshman alongside him, having snapped up the previous year’s winning navigator upon realising Roberts’ then driver was suspended for speeding on a public road. In 2010, they would win the Pirelli Star Driver Global championship in dramatic circumstances.

The following year they would win the WRC Academy series. The prize for that was £500,000, huge money for a pair looking to take the next step up to the Super 2000 world championship circuit. So for 2012, Roberts folded up his own electrician business. Midway through that championship, he and his Irish friend were leading the way. They were living their dream. Then poor Roberts was no longer living at all.

During stage eight of the Targa Florio rally, Breen’s Peugeot 207 began to understeer at a fast corner before crashing into a roadside barrier. A guardrail entered the car on the right side where the 24-year-old Welshman was seated.

“I asked Gareth if he was okay,” Breen would tell the subsequent inquest, “but there was no reply. There was blood all over his face and nose.” For the next few weeks, a devastated Breen seriously considered quitting the sport for good. But, in what he has described as “the hardest decision of my life”, he opted to return to the sport and the SWRC world championship. Roberts’ own family, especially father Michael, a one-time Welsh rally champion himself, wanted him to. And they were all certain Gareth would have too.

“You can’t blame the sport and I don’t blame Craig,” Michael would say. “It was a freak accident. I know Gareth would have wanted him to carry on. The hardest thing to accept is I’ve seen Gareth and Craig come out of horrendous crashes 10 times worse and there wasn’t a mark on them. But he died doing what he loved doing. He was living out his dreams and accepted the risks that came with it.” In Breen’s next race back, calling the notes beside him was Roberts’ own brother, Dai. The pair of them would win and on the podium after, a tearful Breen would be joined by members of his own and Roberts’ family, together linking arms. Each was a show of solidarity and also implicit understanding that if Breen had not returned to his sport promptly, he probably would never have at all.

Ultimately he was like Gareth: never was he more alive than when he was rallying, even if inherent in that was the prospect of death.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” says Breen now, three and a half years on from the tragedy. “The danger is always there. It’s part of the reason we love it so much.

“You could compare it to when you’re rock climbing with a rope. In rallying, you’re free climbing. You make a mistake and you can crash into telephone polls, ditches and walls. And that element is what makes the sport so exciting and exhilarating, that feeling when coming close to those objects. Unfortunately things can go bad and I’ve witnessed up close that side of it. It’s inevitable there are going to be accidents, it’s just part of the sport.” You might not understand. Probably only people consumed by motorsport can understand.

Breen would return to sweep the last three remaining rounds of that 2012 SWRC series to win the championship overall. It was an incredible end to an unimaginable year, but then that’s what rallying involves — you rally back from adversity, either with Gareth there beside you in the flesh or only in spirit.

The year they won the world academy championship together, they’d actually trailed the leader by 20 points entering the final round in Wales. They’d to win the last five stages to finish tied. They’d pull it off, and as they had won more stages throughout the season than their challenger, shaded it to get their cheque of £500,000 and ticket to the next level.

Since Roberts’ passing, Breen has drove on. In each of the past three seasons he’s finished either second or third in the European Rally Championship (ERCC). While it has really grated with him that he never got to won it outright, his speed and talent was undeniable and could hardly go unnoticed. So last month he was snapped up by the Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team for the upcoming 2016 season. He’s gone from the European level to the world stage; college football to the NFL.

“It’s a massive leap,” Breen says. “I’ve been a professional driver since 2011 and been used to driving with French teams but this is a whole new level. The team here was behind nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb so they know what it takes to win.” It helps that he’s familiar and friendly with key personnel. Kerry’s Paul Nagle, who has been his regular co-driver since Gareth’s death, is on board. Also driving is Kris Meeke, from Dungannon, and Stéphane Lefebvre, a teammate on the ERC circuit.

More so, it helps that he’s expected, even planned to be here. He’s very aware and proud of being the first Irish driver south of the border to be a factory worker in the WRC. Great Irish household names from the past — Austin McHale, Bertie Fisher - all had to be back working on a Monday morning in an office. Billy Coleman was a factory driver for a few years in the late ‘80s but operated only at the ERC level, not the WRC grade. But when Breen signed for the upcoming season, he tweeted ‘First part of our dream comes true’. If you’ve been listening, you should have no doubt what the second part involves.

When he started out that season on the WRC academy circuit, he publicly stated that his goal was to win it. He needed the prize money; his father Ray, now a manager of an engineering business in Waterford, could only support him financially so much. He’d achieve that goal, but that wasn’t the world championship crown he really coveted.

This season will be another apprenticeship of sorts. He’ll drive reccie for the opening round in Monte Carlo, then compete himself in Sweden. After that isn’t clear yet — but the long term goal is.

Being just an also-ran is — as he might say in that candid way of his — something he has absolutely no interest in.


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