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Craig Breen obituary: WRC star dies aged 33

Craig Breen will be remembered as one of rallying’s most loved characters and arguably among the best drivers to sadly never win a World Rally Championship event.

Craig Breen, Hyundai World Rally Team

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

The factory Hyundai driver’s death in a testing crash ahead of next week’s Rally Croatia has left the rally and motorsport fraternity stunned and numb. The 33-year-old Irishman’s career has been tragically cut short before it reached its prime.

While a WRC win ultimately eluded Breen, his passion and rally knowledge was unquestionable, and his heart on the sleeve approach and quick wit made him a firm fans' favourite. Nine WRC podiums, including six second-place finishes, proved that while he was a loveable character with an infectious smile, he had the skills behind the wheel to call himself an elite driver among the WRC’s current crop.

The Waterford-born Breen was perhaps always destined to end up somewhere in rallying, such was his passion for it influenced by growing up in a rally-mad family in Ireland. No doubt this passion was enhanced by his Irish national rally champion father Ray, who became a familiar sight behind the wheel of a MG Metro 6R4 and a Ford Escort WRC.

However, it was karting where Craig made his first step on the motorsport ladder, winning the 2006 Irish Formula A title before going on to compete in Europe two years later after quenching his love of rally by hitting the stages for the first time 12 months earlier. Ultimately, the call was made to focus on rally full-time from 2009 and so began a journey that would take the Irishman to very top. That journey was not a straightforward one as a maiden full season in WRC only arrived last year with M-Sport.

There were signs from the outset of the talent that would one day grace the WRC podium. Breen quickly began to grab headlines, winning the International Ford Fiesta Sporting Trophy, which he combined with triumphs in the British and Irish series during a first full-season in rallying. Among the prizes awarded was a year-long apprenticeship with M-Sport, which only helped grow his long-time love affair with Ford rally cars, brought about by watching his self-proclaimed hero, Irish rally great Frank Meagher, pilot blue oval products in his homeland.

A season in the British Rally Championship beckoned in 2010, combined with a campaign in the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship, where he finished second overall. But perhaps the most head-turning moment of that year was a victory at the Ulster Rally and a 12th overall competing against the WRC elite in a S2000 class car at Wales Rally GB.

Breen grabbed attention at the 2010 Wales Rally GB with 12th place overall

Breen grabbed attention at the 2010 Wales Rally GB with 12th place overall

Photo by: Andre Vor / Sutton Images

Success continued as Breen secured the inaugural WRC Academy Cup in 2011 before winning the S-WRC title for S2000 cars driving a Ford Fiesta in 2012. But that triumphant season was marred by tragedy, with the death of his long-time co-driver Gareth Roberts when competing in the Targa Florio Rally as part of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. It was tough pill to swallow in what proved to be a bittersweet season.

The S-WRC title was proof of Breen’s burgeoning talent which was recognised by Peugeot. The French marque signed the Irishman for its European Rally Championship programme in 2013, alongside former Kris Meeke co-driver Paul Nagle, igniting a partnership which continued in the WRC until Nagle's retirement in 2022. Breen would finish third in the championship for two consecutive years before finishing runner-up to Kajetan Kajetanowicz in 2015.

"It has been a long road for us in the World Rally Championship with many twists and turns but we have now been given a golden ticket to drive for the most prestigious marque in motorsport and fight for the World Rally Championship" Craig Breen

The childhood dream was completed in 2016 when Breen joined the WRC’s top flight by driving for the semi-works Citroen outfit on a part-time basis. The French marque took a sabbatical from its full factory operation to prepare for new regulations to be launched the following season. A run to a highly emotional third at Rally Finland, his maiden WRC podium, helped secure a seat for the next season. Another podium, second in Sweden, followed in 2018 before losing his drive at the end of the year, as Citroen signed Sebastien Ogier and Esapekka Lappi for what transpired as its final year in the WRC.

Citroen’s loss was Hyundai’s gain, as the Korean marque snapped up the Irishman on a part-time basis from 2019-2021, where he enjoyed the best streak of his WRC career, finishing on the podium in five of nine events driving an i20. It ultimately led to his holy grail - a maiden full WRC season with M-Sport for 2022, re-uniting with the iconic Ford brand and team that helped springboard his career.

Breen secured a full-time WRC spot at M-Sport in 2022

Breen secured a full-time WRC spot at M-Sport in 2022

Photo by: M-Sport

"It has been a long road for us in the World Rally Championship with many twists and turns but we have now been given a golden ticket to drive for the most prestigious marque in motorsport and fight for the World Rally Championship," he described it at the time.

"To add my name to the list of drivers that have driven for Ford is a bit surreal, drivers like Ari Vatanen, Hannu Mikkola, Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz. To have my name etched in the history books besides these greats is a huge privilege."

However, that golden ticket quickly turned sour as a series of crashes marred the campaign that yielded two podiums (third in Monte Carlo and second in Sardinia) and resulted in a departure from the team, one year into a two-year contract. Something didn’t quite click and Breen’s heart on his sleeve approach, that was ever-present in stage-end interviews, showed he was clearly distraught by the run of results. Sadly Breen’s infectious smile and wit were rarely seen in 2022.

While the stint at M-Sport didn’t work out as expected, he was much loved by the team and its founder Malcolm Wilson.

"He was an incredibly talented driver, but moreover he had an infectious enthusiasm for every element of rallying with an unrivalled encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport," said Wilson as part of several tributes made to Breen from the motorsport world upon hearing the tragic news of his death. "It was his glowing passion for the sport that helped to ignite the interest of fans around the world. It’s such heart breaking news."

But in the trying times of 2022, Breen’s love of rally never left him. It was evidence that rallying was all Breen ever wanted to do, and when he was driving it was the best thing in the world to him.

Even after a difficult year with M-Sport, Breen could be found on the stages whether it was an international rally or the Killarney Historic in Ireland. It was back home in Ireland where he would indulge his love of rally nostalgia, piloting a Metro 6R4, a Subaru Legacy or Ford Sierra RS Cosworth from the late 80s and early 90s in countless events. This love of all things retro was also extended to circuit racing, when he took on the likes of Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen and NASCAR ace Jimmie Johnson in a Ford Cortina at the Goodwood Revival last year.

Breen, in action at the Goodwood Revival last year, had a love of all things motorsport retro

Breen, in action at the Goodwood Revival last year, had a love of all things motorsport retro

Photo by: Jeff Bloxham / Motorsport Images

“I think I was born in the wrong era. When I was growing up I knew no different, I would spend my time going to rallies and riding in the chase wagon,” he said to this writer last year.

“I was away nearly every weekend at some sort of a rally. My peers were always a lot older than me and I was brought up with the cars they were driving back then. I really enjoy doing the modern stuff driving the WRC cars and the R5 cars, but to really get my juices flowing I honestly prefer doing the historic stuff and jumping into an old car and experiencing all the smells and sounds and stories behind them.”

To prove that form is temporary and class is permanent, Breen produced arguably the best drive of his WRC career on his return to the top flight at Rally Sweden in February. He challenged for a maiden victory before falling short to M-Sport’s Ott Tanak. The smile and wit returned as Breen declared himself the “Mayor of Brattby” after winning the Brattby stage that took him into the rally lead. Breen had hoped this lifeline thrown by Hyundai, his second chance as part-timer with the squad in the WRC, would lead to a full-time return in 2024.

"This sport has given me a remarkable amount, and now is the time for me to give back to the next generation of youngsters aiming to make a mark in rallying" Craig Breen

While Breen was passionate behind the wheel, he was equally enthused to inspire the next generation, offering financial support to the Irish Junior 1000 category within the Sligo Pallets Forest Rally Championship. The sponsorship included a prize fund worth €1,250 in vouchers per event. Organisers have already moved to postpone this weekend's second round, the Moonraker Forest Rally.

"This sport has given me a remarkable amount, and now is the time for me to give back to the next generation of youngsters aiming to make a mark in rallying," Breen said in February. "These drivers are the future, and I’m delighted to be able to help them on the initial steps of the journey."

This generosity and passion summed up Breen. He was a passionate rally fan and a hugely talented driver that landed what was the ultimate prize in his eyes - competing in the WRC.

Craig Breen, 1990-2023

Craig Breen, 1990-2023

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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