A new era for Craig Breen and his Killarney co-driver Paul Nagle begins this weekend at the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally, where the Waterford driver kicks off his quest to become a World Rally Championship [WRC] champion.
When Breen lost his drive with Citroen in 2018, it seemed as if his ambitions to become a full-time WRC driver were shattered.
But he soldiered on and, joined by Nagle in 2019, the all-Irish crew won the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship (ITRC). Towards the end of that season, the duo managed to compete twice for Hyundai, finishing seventh in Finland and eighth on Rally GB.
Then Covid-19 shut down the WRC in 2020.
Breen and Nagle were locked down in their homes in Ireland, waiting for the opportunity to return to rallying. Breen garnered a deal to compete in the European Rally Championship [ERC] for MRF Tyres, with the first round taking place in Italy in mid-2020.
With the world starting to slowly open again in the summer of 2020, Breen continued to race in the ERC, but the WRC remained his goal and once again the pair had two WRC outings with Hyundai, finishing seventh in Sweden before taking a brilliant second place in Estonia.
"The amount of work that's gone into the project is really incredible."
The Korean manufacturers were impressed. Breen and Nagle continued to develop their R5 car and the MRF Indian tyre brand on the ERC, as well as sharing third-car duties for Hyundai with the Spaniard Dani Sordo on the WRC.
Breen and Nagle only had five WRC outings in 2021 but they were on the podium three times - in Estonia, Belgium and Finland.
The pair had done enough to persuade M-Sport, the British company who run the Ford brand on the WRC, to sign up the Irish crew to contest the WRC for the next two years as the sport moves to the new hybrid era. Breen is now the lead driver with M-Sport.
"It's been kind of a lifetime getting ready for it now, and these last couple of weeks and months have been even more intense again. I just can’t wait to get started," said Breen
"The amount of work that’s gone into the project is really incredible. Now finally we have a stopwatch on the car for the first time against our competitors."
Eleven new 2022 Rally1 cars will line up at Monte Carlo. Toyota will have a strong hand with four cars led by the Welsh driver Elfin Evans. They'll also have reigning champion and eight-time Monte Carlo winner Sebastien Ogier in their line-up.
Ogier is only doing selected rallies in 2022 on the WRC but he will be in contention this weekend.
Hyundai have regulars Ott Tanak of Estonia and Belgium’s Thierry Neuville in their three cars team while Breen will lead a four-car attack from M-Sport.
The British-based team have nine-time champion Sebastian Loeb in Monte Carlo, but he - like Ogier - is not contesting a full season.
Monte-Carlo will mark Loeb’s first WRC outing since a two-year part-programme with Hyundai ended in 2020.
Breen’s other team-mates this season will be England’s Gus Greensmith and French driver Adrien Fourmaux.