The death of Craig Breen in a team testing accident in Croatia yesterday has robbed the sport of a driver with title-winning pedigree but also with the potential to achieve significantly more success in the FIA World Rally Championship.
But motor sport has also lost a true character, a man who brought a smile to the stages and service parks of the world, whose enthusiasm touched so many people and whose determination knew no bounds. Smiles were never in short supply, a cup of tea never far away.
Runner-up on Rally Sweden in February, Breen was preparing for next week’s Croatia Rally when he lost his life at the age of 33.
A former karter, Breen followed his father Ray into rallying, an opportunity to live out his passion for the category by tackling stages driven by those he’d worshiped as a child.
Within two years of switching to rallying, Breen was a winner, securing the British, Irish and International Fiesta Sporting Trophy titles in 2009. He also captured the prestigious Billy Coleman Award as Ireland’s top young rally driver at the end of that year before he moved up to Super 2000 level in 2010.
After winning the Junior WRC crown in 2011 – when it was titled the WRC Academy – Breen returned to four-wheel drive for 2012 and he completed the season as the SWRC champion.
That success earned him an initial opportunity with Peugeot Sport in the FIA European Rally Championship. His first of five victories came on the Acropolis Rally in 2014 and he was a frontrunner whenever he took part on ERC events, including the opening round of the 2023 season in Portugal last month.
But it was on the world stage where Breen truly made his mark. He took his first podium in Finland in 2016 driving for Citroën and was also representing the French manufacturer when he finished second in Sweden two years later.
After a handful of seasons away from the WRC, Breen finished second on Rally Estonia in 2020, one of five podiums he scored in Hyundai colours. He also completed a season with M-Sport, with podiums on Rallye Monte-Carlo and Rally Italia Sardegna the highlights.
Breen was also a regular on events back home in his native Ireland, often in cars he’d watched as a fan while growing up. He supported several grassroots initiatives, thereby giving something back to the support that had made him one of its most popular drivers.
Paying tribute to Breen, FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem said: “On behalf of the FIA, I wish to extend our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Craig Breen following his passing during a private testing accident in Croatia. Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones and the entire rally community at this difficult time.”
Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville wrote: “Today I’ve lost a team-mate but more than anything, I’ve lost a friend. Craig, your passion for rallying was immeasurable, your joy behind the steering wheel was beyond any of ours, your emotional stage-end comments in a league of their own. You were the first to bring English tea to Hyundai Motorsport [and] you made last our debriefs for three hours and more.”
Former Citroën team-mate Kris Meeke wrote : “Craig, this morning you woke up the happiest man alive, living your dream. My lasting memory of you won’t be as a top-class rally driver, but as the guy who took time with my kids and made them laugh more than I could. You were a larger-than-life character and battled your way to the top with pure passion.”
2019 world champion Ott Tänak wrote: “I can’t believe I’m writing this now. Life can be so fragile and unfair… I can’t believe we’ve lost you mate! We’ve just been texting and another moment you’re not answering anymore. I’ll miss you buddy so bad, so so bad…”
Eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier wrote: “Everyone loved Craig for his great Irish character and his enthusiasm for our sport. My thoughts are with his family and friends at this very sad time.”
Craig Breen’s former team M-Sport Ford WRT wrote: “All of us in the Ford and M-Sport family are greatly saddened to hear of the tragic passing of our friend and colleague Craig Breen. Craig was part of the Ford family for many years, most recently as a driver of the WRC Puma. He was embedded in the world of rally at every level of the sport we all love, and we send our heartfelt condolences to all his friends and family.”
Motor sport figures worldwide from the different championships, including 2021-2022 Formula E world champion Stoffen Vandoorne or former F1 driver Romain Grosjean, also paid moving tributes to the Irish driver.
The FIA Formula One World Championship wrote: “The Formula 1 community is sending our thoughts and love to Craig Breen's family and friends.”
The Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team wrote: “We join the motorsport community in mourning the loss of Craig Breen, and send our sincerest condolences to his family, friends, team-mates and fans across the world.”
The FIA World Endurance Championship wrote: “On behalf of the FIA WEC, we are deeply saddened to hear about Craig Breen’s tragic accident. Our thoughts and condolences go out to Craig’s family, friends and the entire rallying community.”
The ABB FIA Formula E World Championship wrote: “Our thoughts go out to Craig's family and friends at this difficult time.”
The Hansen World RX Team wrote: “Your positivity, your smile, and your warmth shone brighter than most. A truly genuine person and a good friend to the Hansen family. We’re heartbroken and hold Craig, his family, and his friends in our thoughts. We will miss you, rest in peace.”