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WRC Rally Croatia

How the WRC paid tribute to its people's champion Craig Breen

The World Rally Championship faced one of its darkest periods following the death of Hyundai driver Craig Breen, but it should be highly commended for how the service park pulled together in Croatia to deliver a fitting tribute to a people's champion

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 in memory of  Craig Breen

Competing in Croatia less than a week following Craig Breen’s shock passing was always going to be incredibly difficult. But the World Rally Championship should be proud of its fitting tribute and celebration of one of its most loved characters.

Emotions were still raw in the service park while many still struggled to accept the loss of the factory Hyundai driver, who died whilst preparing to compete in Croatia. But it was decided after careful consideration that the show would go on, as that is what Craig, the most passionate of rally fans, would have wanted. Competition was secondary and as the drivers explained, “we are driving for Craig”.

PLUS: How Evans ended his WRC drought in Croatia

Laid to rest two days before shakedown in Ireland, Croatia was the WRC’s chance to provide a show for Breen and a fitting send off. That it did, in the most beautiful and respectful manner through a number of tributes conducted to honour the 33-year-old's life.

Hardest hit by the numbing news of the previous week was Breen’s Hyundai team. It seriously considered sitting out the event but following discussions with the Breen family it was decided the best way to pay tribute to their driver was to continue albeit with only two cars. Despite the shock and grief it was enduring, the team, all wearing black armbands, worked tirelessly to ensure its absent friend was honoured perfectly.

The most visible of its tributes came in the form of a stunning one-off livery based on the Irish tricolour on its i20 Ns paying homage to the proud Irishman. Factory teams changing liveries in motorsport is usually a task that can take months of planning, and discussions with sponsors about logo placements.

In this case the concept from design to delivery took a matter of days, with the finishing touches completed a day before shakedown. The idea for the livery came from the family but it was designed by one of the team’s mechanics. It couldn’t have been more perfect. The bright orange, white and green was so important to Breen.

It was accompanied by some of his most heart-on-sleeve poignant quotes adorning each door - “Don’t let anyone put you down, because only you know your true potential” and perhaps the message that summed up Breen the best - “Don’t forget to enjoy….you have to have fun, life is too short.”

Hyundai carried a tribute livery to Breen during Rally Croatia

Hyundai carried a tribute livery to Breen during Rally Croatia

Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport

These quotes were replicated on the windows of Hyundai’s impressive home-from-home Formula 1-style service park structure. The two Irish flag-liveried i20 Ns flanked Breen’s Hyundai sitting in its factory livery offering a physical reminder that he should have been competing. It watched over the team as they worked on Thierry Neuville and Esapekka Lappi’s cars.

Cordoned off inside, fans would gather in front of the open garage door throughout the weekend to pay their respects and have a private moment of reflection. A book of condolence was placed at the temporary building's reception, on top of a table featuring a picture of Craig smiling, to allow people to leave messages for the family. Hyundai went to incredible lengths, nothing was impossible and it all highlighted how loved Craig was by the team which he scored five of nine WRC podiums. Sadly the victory they craved to dedicate to Breen didn’t arrive.

Rival teams joined in the tributes which extended to all cars each carrying special black stickers created by the promoter while others created their own livery tributes. Members of Breen’s former team M-Sport also carried special black armbands out of respect while Irish flags were out in force on the stages.

With rallying a discipline fought against the clock rather than head-to-head on a track as in circuit racing, there has always been a feeling of unity in the service park, but of course each team and driver still wants to beat each other.

"As soon as the accident happened everyone came together to make sure everything was done right for his family and that was the critical thing," Simon Larkin

But Toyota’s decision to only register two crews in Kalle Rovanpera and Sebastien Ogier to score manufacturer points, instead of three to match its heartbroken manufacturer rival Hyundai, was an incredible gesture. It was one that was made with no hesitation to create a level playing field. This was sportsmanship at the highest level which isn’t often seen in motorsport, but it was important to Toyota.

“We need to be fair. In Toyota’s mind fair game is important we don’t do team tactics, so we want it to be a fair game,” Toyota boss Jari-Matti Latvala told Autosport. “This gesture was very important to us so we could have a fair fight with everyone.”

Ultimately it was Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin, the crew Toyota didn’t register for manufacturer points which came through to claim an emotional drought-ending victory, that at the time Evans said was “insignificant” given the loss of his friend. The pair carried an Irish flag on the podium that included all Rally1 crews and was correctly absent of the usual champagne spray.

Evans cast aside his own celebrations of a drought-ending win to honour the memory of his friend Breen on the podium

Evans cast aside his own celebrations of a drought-ending win to honour the memory of his friend Breen on the podium

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Competing in these circumstances put an emotional strain on the drivers which was clearly visible when they jumped in their cars for the first time for Thursday’s shakedown and when they reached the finish on Sunday. They all deserved huge credit for putting on a show for Craig in the most mentally challenging of circumstances. Likewise, the broadcast team led by lead commentator Becs Williams managed to perfectly sum up the the mood yet deliver the top notch coverage for the fans in a challenging situation.

Former Hyundai factory driver Oliver Solberg offered an insight into how tough it was to drive, telling Autosport: “For sure, you always have it a little bit in the back of your head and it comes when you have a moment, or when I spun now for example, you get a little bit more scared than before because now you can see how much bad luck you can have. But when you put your helmet on and you start driving you don’t focus on it so much. It is emotional before and after the rally, for sure.”

Before the rally had begun at the ceremonial start the moment when Breen would have taken to the start ramp was replaced with a moving tribute video on a giant screen accompanied by a minute of applause. The WRC’s grandest of tributes came in the form of group rally family photo on Thursday afternoon featuring the entire service park all standing together in a poignant moment of unity, flanking Breen’s Hyundai.

A tribute video on the screen behind allowed everyone a cache to reflect. There were smiles when some of Breen’s iconic stage-end interviews were shown, but at the end there were tears. But it was an important moment for everyone to come together to reflect and offer support after a hugely difficult week.

“I think the WRC family has pulled together,” WRC event director Simon Larkin told Autosport. “As soon as the accident happened everyone came together to make sure everything was done right for his family and that was the critical thing.

“Everything we have done, including the photo we did on Thursday was about showing his [Breen’s] family that he has another family here. This is a very close paddock. There is no animosity here even competitively because everyone is against the clock, so I think that is a defining point of the sport. Craig has driven for most teams so he knows everyone and everyone knew him. I think the picture is the most reflective thing we could have done. I think everyone appreciated that.”

While the WRC succeeded in delivering a fitting tribute, work will now move to ensure the Irishman’s legacy continues in the championship for years to come.

“We are considering things and we have some ideas and we have had some internal chats,” added Larkin. "It is not something we want to rush into because it is something that we would like to consult with the family on. We have some ideas for a perpetual trophy or award but we will take our time on that.”

The WRC family came together for this group photograph in tribute to Breen

The WRC family came together for this group photograph in tribute to Breen

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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