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WRC Rally Sweden

How Breen and Solberg rediscovered the belief to succeed in WRC

Last season tested Craig Breen’s and Oliver Solberg’s mental strength to the limit. At times, the World Rally Championship drivers were reduced to tears, but in Sweden the duo banished the demons of 2022 and rediscovered the ingredients for success

Craig Breen, James Fulton, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

“It has been such a horrible, horrible black place where I was last year. Don’t let anyone ever put you down, because only you know your true potential. The people close to me know it and finally we managed to get it back out again. I’m just so happy to be back fighting at the front again with this amazing team, amazing car.”

This emotional response from Craig Breen after returning to the World Rally Championship podium in Rally Sweden following a turbulent 2022 offered a rare window into a professional athlete’s world. It was a stage end interview that won’t be forgotten easily - a timely reminder that these superheroes who tackle the world’s toughest roads at insane speeds are, above all, human.

No matter what your profession, confidence is critical in transforming potential into results. In motorsport, nailing the car set-up can be equally important as having the belief to succeed, so it comes as no surprise that when a driver’s confidence levels drops, performances tend to follow suit. It can trigger a downward spiral that can lead to dark places, such is the pressure to perform at the highest level. But as the old saying goes, ‘time is a great healer’. For World Rally Championship drivers Breen and Oliver Solberg, the cliche couldn’t be more applicable.

While Ott Tanak stole the headlines scoring a memorable drought-breaking victory for M-Sport in Sweden, there was an equally gripping sub plot; the return to form of Breen and Solberg. Breen rediscovered the consistent speed to challenge for a maiden WRC rally win, as Solberg, dropped by Hyundai before the end of last season, confirmed his star potential by dominating the WRC2 class.

Both drivers are eager to consign a 2022 season that promised much but delivered little to the history books. Twelve months ago Breen finally landed a coveted first full-time WRC drive, his series of impressive podium finishes as a part-timer at Hyundai in 2021 resulting in a two-year deal with M-Sport. Likewise Solberg, the son of 2003 world rally champion Petter, earned a first break as a factory WRC driver, effectively filling Breen’s seat at Hyundai to share the third i20 N with the experienced Dani Sordo.

Ultimately, 2022 didn’t live up to expectations for either driver. Breen scored a third and second in Monte Carlo and Sardinia respectively, but his season transformed into a series of misfortune and errors that often led to confidence-sapping crashes and retirements. The Irishman was unable to repeat the 2021 form that yielded three podiums and points finishes in all five events tackled for Hyundai.

M-Sport signed Breen to lead the team in 2022, but the two split after one difficult season

M-Sport signed Breen to lead the team in 2022, but the two split after one difficult season

Photo by: M-Sport

Perhaps the nadir for Breen last year was a crash in stage 5 at Rally New Zealand, at the same corner that caught out Colin McRae in 2002. Breen had led the rally and was sitting only 2.6s adrift of the summit when he misjudged a right-hander and slid down a bank. At the time it elicited an emotional plea: “I know I shouldn't be doing all these mistakes, but it's f****** tough”, highlighting the dark mental place the year had taken him. Ultimately his troubled year ended with a mutual exit from his M-Sport contract a year early and a return to Hyundai on a part-time basis for 2023.

“You have no idea of the darkness that went on last year and fortunately I ride the crest of the waves when things are good, but I unfortunately ride the down parts too,” he says when reflecting on 2022. “I wear my heart on my sleeve and then you have these gobs***** behind the computer that think they know better, but at the end of the day they have no idea.”

Fast forward to 2023 and the two drivers appear to have banished the demons that halted progress 12 months ago. But speaking ahead of Rally Sweden, it was clear the effect 2022 had on Breen as he searched to rediscover his happy place on his WRC return.

"[Rally Sweden's result] just leaves me hungry for the future now. It means everything really, it has given me all the confidence again to keep pushing forward. We have all the capabilities to be at the front" Craig Breen

“The most important thing for me is to try and enjoy the car and get back into the groove again as last year was incredibly difficult,” Breen tells Autosport. “I don’t care where I finish as long as I have a smile on my face. It took me until December time when I got back in a historic car to put a smile back on my face last year. That is not the most ideal of circumstances, so I just want to enjoy this.”

Enjoyment has emerged as a vital part in Breen’s Sweden bounce-back. It is this rediscovered love behind the wheel, boosted by confidence in the hybrid i20 N, that helped yield four stage wins. It pushed the 33-year-old into the rally lead which he held from Friday afternoon through to Saturday evening, before a loss of hybrid and a small brush with a snowbank ultimately cost him the advantage to Tanak. Breen eventually finished 18.7s adrift in second to equal his career best WRC result, following Hyundai’s failed bid to deploy team orders to drop Breen to third.

However, there was a clear and visible difference in Breen’s body language throughout the weekend. The usual smiling face and witty stage end interviews that had largely disappeared in 2022 were back but, more importantly, so was the consistent speed that convinced M-Sport to sign him to lead the Ford squad last year. Clearly there is no substitute for confidence behind the wheel to halt a downward spiral and restore one's mental state.

“Obviously it is an incredible feeling,” Breen tells Autosport at the finish. “It has been a long, more than 12 months now to be waiting for this feeling to be back fighting at the front. I’m just really happy with how the weekend unfolded and to be at the front without any mistakes and be clean. To bring home a second is perfect really.

Hybrid issues and a run-in with a snowbank cost Breen a shot at the Rally Sweden win

Hybrid issues and a run-in with a snowbank cost Breen a shot at the Rally Sweden win

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

“Honestly, I needed it for my own state. It’s been a rough old couple of months, over a year basically. I won’t say I lost the confidence, but for sure it was difficult to keep the belief all the time. But for this weekend to be fighting at the front... already on Friday it was great, but there was still some doubt with our road position. As much as everybody else was questioning it, I was questioning it myself as well.

“Until you are at a level playing field with your competitors, you can’t really be sure. But to continue to speed into Saturday and again today [Sunday], we have to be really happy. It just leaves me hungry for the future now. It means everything really, it has given me all the confidence again to keep pushing forward. We have all the capabilities to be at the front and I will try and keep that way now.”

But how exactly Breen has been able to instantly gel with this new i20 N, from his first test in the car, remains a mystery. Gut feeling and confidence are qualities that can't be truly quantified.

“I don’t know [why I have gelled with this car so quickly],” he says. “I can’t really put my finger on anything but it just all feels nice and natural. I feel confident with it, I just can’t explain it. There must be some sort of muscle memory from the old [2021] car, but it is also so different with the hybrid and everything. It just feels comfortable.”

POSTCARD: WRC Sweden: The Good, The Bad and a title race teaser

When pushed to explain his speed on the snow, where he also finished runner-up with Citroen in 2018, he smiles: “I don’t know, I must have some Viking blood in me somewhere!” But to some degree, the way that one liner was delivered to this writer said it all. Breen's belief is back, and therefore his speed is too.

While Breen is unable to exactly pinpoint why he feels instantly at home driving a Hyundai, Solberg’s return to form can be traced to key morale-boosting events. For the Swede, his 2022 followed a similar pattern to Breen. A dream graduation to the WRC big time promised much, but it was made increasingly difficult for the rookie by Hyundai chasing its tail with the underdeveloped and rushed i20 N.

Inhaling exhaust fumes that had entered the cockpit forced Solberg to retire ill in Monte Carlo, before he finished a fine sixth in Sweden. A crash in Croatia was his first error, while power steering issues halted progress in Estonia. But it was a crash 300 metres into stage 2 in Finland that particularly stung, reducing Solberg to tears in the forest. Strong runs to fourth and fifth in Belgium and New Zealand appeared to save his year before Hyundai made its decision to cut ties in favour of the experienced Sordo with two rallies of the year remaining.

Back in WRC2 after a year at Hyundai's WRC squad, Solberg took the intermediate class win in Sweden

Back in WRC2 after a year at Hyundai's WRC squad, Solberg took the intermediate class win in Sweden

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

A search for a Rally1 drive came to nothing, resulting in a return to the second-tier WRC2 class with reigning champion squad Toksport Skoda for 2023. However, the start of this season couldn’t be more of a contrast to a year ago. The scene of Solberg, eyes streaming battling fumes from Monte Carlo in 2022, was replaced by a smile and speed as he set a series of stage-winning times in the Alpine event, where he wasn’t registered to score championship points.

Then came the Race of Champions on the snow and ice of Sweden, where the Swedish-born Solberg alongside his Norwegian father combined to win the Nations Cup for Team Norway. On his run to victory, Solberg junior enjoyed confidence-boosting triumphs over former Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville, WRC legend and former winner Sebastien Loeb, plus eventual Race of Champions victor Mattias Ekstrom in equal machinery.

“All the guys when they put their helmets on, it is flat out and you drive many different cars so it's also challenging,” says Solberg of the challenge the Race of Champions offers. "There are no championship points, but it is still prestigious racing and when you talk to the guys everyone is playing mind games, it is just like a real race.

"We need to be realistic still and work even harder to be fast. I’m just trying to enjoy myself and that is what I have learned a lot lately: if you just try to enjoy and have fun, then it is normally okay" Oliver Solberg

“For sure, it is the top guys in the world, and of course the formula guys don’t have much experience on snow. But when you meet Loeb, Thierry, Johan Kristoffersson, Ekstrom and my father, and you beat them all in the same cars every time, then you start to feel a bit confident.”

It’s clear how that can boost ones belief. But again there is a common denominator behind Solberg's form upswing, as he simply describes: “Life is very happy”. That was clear to see in the celebrations following by dominant charge to only a second WRC2 win, although this time on home soil. A victory margin of 42.3s over Ole Christian Veiby was a clear statement that Solberg is back to his best.

“It is a special feeling to be honest, and to do it at home it is a strange feeling but incredible also,” he tells Autosport. “I just wanted to enjoy my driving and it worked quite well. The most pressure was on Sunday to drive slow, but still drive fast enough [to win] so that was really a struggle.

“This year has been great so far. In Monte Carlo, to be the quickest, and OK we were not registered to score points. Then we had the Race of Champions and winning that and now winning this, so everything has been good. Life is very happy.

Solberg and co-driver Elliott Edmondson celebrate a

Solberg and co-driver Elliott Edmondson celebrate a "special" Rally Sweden win

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Asked if it was extra sweet given the difficulties of 2022, he adds: “Yeah in one way, mentally I think, mainly because now I feel back to where I was before. Now when you do things properly and everyone is working the same way, it feels very good in the body and then life gets easier.”

As Breen explained how the result has “given him the confidence to push”, the same applies to Solberg, now hoping to build on the restored belief to launch a title at the WRC2 title.

“It is only one race in, so we need to see how the car is on gravel first,” he says. “We know it is very good on tarmac and good on snow, we just have to wait and see on gravel as I know how quick many of the other cars can be. We need to be realistic still and work even harder to be fast.

“I’m just trying to enjoy myself and that is what I have learned a lot lately: if you just try to enjoy and have fun, then it is normally okay.”

Can Solberg earn a return to rallying's top tier?

Can Solberg earn a return to rallying's top tier?

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

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