Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe
Opinion

Why Craig Breen is remembered for his "heart on sleeve" approach

OPINION: One year has passed since the Rally Croatia testing crash robbed the rally world of Craig Breen. The popular Irishman finished on the WRC podium nine times, but it's not his supreme driving skill that has been missed the most

Craig Breen, Hyundai World Rally Team

“The giggling pin fell out of the laughing shaft, but I managed to get it back in, so we are okay.”

Yes you have read that correctly. This was a line from one of Craig Breen’s legendary World Rally Championship stage end interviews, broadcast live on television during a run to second in Sardinia in 2022. You never knew what would come out of his mouth, but it was always guaranteed to stir an emotion and more often than not it was unforgettable.

 

This was Breen in a nutshell. He was a raw character in an age where PR-trained drivers have become somewhat wooden. It is one of the myriad reasons why Breen is so sorely missed, one year on from his untimely death following a Rally Croatia testing crash, aged 33.

I can’t proclaim that I properly knew Breen or was one of his inner circle. But having worked in a number of racing disciplines over the last 16 years, I can say hand on heart that Breen was different. He was a pleasure to interview because you knew there would always be something that would raise a smile. Whether it was his sheer passion and excitement for rallying, some quick witted one-liner about his love of a simple cup of tea, or even if a hungry rally marshal had butter in the sandwich they were eating ahead of a lunchtime stage.

That became part of his persona. In an alternative universe, he could quite easily have been a stand up comedian. Ultimately, he was a down-to-earth rally fan turned into a superstar rally driver, who on his day was capable of fighting with the best the WRC could muster.

Tragically Breen’s career was sadly been cut short before it reached its prime and we will never know if he would finally score that elusive WRC win his efforts and toil deserved. While his skill behind the wheel was evident from the very beginning of his career and has been widely praised, it is another side to Breen that has been and will continue to be missed more than wheeling a rally car on the limit through some of the world’s toughest stages.

Breen's passion for rallying was clear every time he got behind the wheel

Breen's passion for rallying was clear every time he got behind the wheel

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Few drivers have worn their heart on their sleeve to the extent that Breen did. It was a trait that endeared him to rally fans, offering a window into his mindset that few are brave enough to showcase. He broke down in tears of joy when he secured podiums and was equally brought to tears when things went wrong.

These were moments that the rally world misses so greatly. It was pure emotion that helped illustrate a story, capturing the audience’s attention. It wasn’t put on for show, just an instinctive reaction from someone who loved nothing more than driving a rally car.

Friday favourite: The star-making Subaru that sparked a young Breen's rally dreams

The 2022 season was supposed to be the moment when all of Breen’s stars aligned. The Irishman had finally landed a full-time WRC drive for the first time in his career, with M-Sport-Ford. It seemed this would be a marriage made in heaven given M-Sport had played a role in the early stages of Breen’s career, courtesy of a one-year apprenticeship prize for winning the Ford Fiesta Sporting Trophy in 2009.

However, it just didn’t work out. A series of crashes took Breen to a dark place. The pain was ended by a split with the team a year into a two-year contract at the end of the campaign.

“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"
Craig Breen

Many drivers would have tried to put a brave face on things and keep the emotions bottled up, but that wasn’t Breen’s style. He told it how it was and let everyone know how he was feeling. A brave thing to do in a world where everything is scrutinised intensively on social media.

“You have no idea of the darkness that went on last year,” he said when reflecting on 2022 in Sweden last February. “Fortunately I ride the crest of the waves when things are good, but I unfortunately ride the down parts too. 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.”

While the news of Breen’s passing remains hard for many to comprehend, we can take some solace from the fact that he managed to lay the demons of 2022 to rest in his 82nd and final WRC start. Rally Sweden was when the infectious Breen smile and sharp wit returned. On his first outing since rejoining Hyundai for a second spell as a part-time WRC driver, which he hoped would lead to a full-time drive in 2024, he came close to an elusive victory and ultimately claimed a sixth runner-up finish behind winner Ott Tanak.

As Breen clocked up four stage wins to lead the rally, the tears of joy were flowing. That is what driving a rally car and competing with the best meant to him; it stirred up the emotions before they came pouring out.

Breen at flat chat in Sweden challenged for victory before finishing second

Breen at flat chat in Sweden challenged for victory before finishing second

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

“I've missed that feeling,” said Breen. “Very, very simple, completely effortless. Second chance - I'm a very lucky boy.”

He would then go on to proclaim himself as the ‘Mayor of Brattby' after winning that test to the take the rally lead with beaming smile: “I could probably be the mayor of Brattby at this stage. The car is absolutely on rails - I've never had anything like this before. More of that please.”

While he was always happy to deliver trademark one-liners to express his joy, Breen wasn’t afraid to explain his pain. His final WRC stage end interview at the conclusion of Rally Sweden, the last of his nine WRC podiums, brought everything into sharp focus and won’t be forgotten easily.

“It has been such a horrible, horrible black place where I was last year,” he said. “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.”

Poignant words that, combined with the Foundation set up last November to help aspiring rally drivers competing in Ireland’s J1000 Forestry Series, will perhaps be his legacy. As a reporter you are supposed to be impartial, but it was hard not to feel happy seeing the smile back on the face of someone who adored rallying more than anything in the world.

Read Also:

It is fair to say rally is a niche area in motorsport’s rich tapestry that can sometimes struggle to cut through to a more mainstream audience. But Breen was able to do that with his heart on the sleeve approach and sheer love of the discipline. These nuggets of gold from stage end interviews will continue to rack up thousands of views on social media as people reflect on what a true one of a kind Breen was.

This sentiment was reflected in the February announcement that the Junior WRC will honour Breen with the creation of the Craig Breen Spirit of Rallying Award’ for the JWRC driver who, over the course of the season, best embodies Breen’s characteristics; a willingness to overcome adversity, an unwavering determination to take on every obstacle to complete every rally, and an outgoing positive demeanour in their interactions with competitors, marshals and media. 

It is this side of Breen that I think will be missed the most. His death left the rally world numb and was felt hard across the wider motorsport fraternity, emphasising his popular character. He will be sorely missed, but Craig Breen's legacy and the mark he left on rallying won’t be forgotten in a heartbeat.

Breen's death hit the motorsport world hard, and one year on he is still sorely missed

Breen's death hit the motorsport world hard, and one year on he is still sorely missed

Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Hyundai to mark Breen anniversary with tribute livery, charity auction support
Next article Toyota to field Ogier and Rovanpera in WRC Portugal line-up

Top Comments

There are no comments at the moment. Would you like to write one?

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe