Craig Breen is indisputably one of the most highly-rated young rallying stars around, having used the springboard of an outstanding debut season in the sport in 2009 to gain invaluable WRC-level experience with M-Sport in 2010 - and now he is building up to what he is very well aware could be 'a life-changing week'.

Last December, Breen capped an incredible 'learning year' in rallying by seeing off no fewer than 15 rivals to triumph in the prestigious Fiesta Sport Trophy International (FSTI) Shoot-out, earning him the coveted opportunity of a year's first-hand experience of a world-class operation in Malcolm Wilson's M-Sport outfit in Cumbria. Reflecting now on a season that yielded glory in FSTI, FST UK and FST Ireland, the 2009 Young Rally Driver of the Year admits it was quite a ride.

"It was tough," the Irishman told Crash.net of his first full campaign in the sport, adding that he could nonetheless never even have dreamed of the kind of success he would achieve. "I was thrown in at the deep end, in a couple of hard championships with a lot of competition.

"It was intended as purely a learning year, to learn the concept and the set-up and the team. The big emphasis was on learning - not on winning rallies - but from the minute I got in the car I had a really positive feeling with it. I started testing in December, 2008 and my feeling in the car was always pretty natural, so I thought it would go quite well and it was looking like being a good season - but not quite as good as it turned out to be!

"What we achieved was completely beyond my expectations. We carried so much momentum from the start to the finish, everything went to-plan and it all went so quickly! We won everything - it was just perfect! The shoot-out was then just a really fantastic way to complete the season."

Having attracted off the back of that a lucrative sponsorship deal with leading energy drinks brand Kick Energy - what he acknowledges was a 'massive' endorsement of his talent and potential, and one that has 'opened up new doors' - the 20-year-old admits that his association with M-Sport has similarly been a real boon.

"Unfortunately, because of my rallying schedule, I've only been able to get to one WRC event so far, but I've been at the workshop learning and it's been a great opportunity for me to forge a connection with M-Sport like this," he enthuses. "I really appreciate the opportunity.

"I'm not the most mechanically-minded of people - I'm not bad, but it's not something I'm hugely comfortable with - and now I can already understand the general basics of the car, which has helped me for sure on rallies, where I can put it into practice. That's been one of the biggest things for me, as well as getting to work with a World Rally Championship team and seeing the sheer level of professionalism involved."

The rallying schedule to which he refers has seen in 2010 what Breen describes as 'more bad times than good times', as he has found himself bereft of the traditional 'Luck of the Irish' and alongside co-driver Gareth Roberts has retired from almost as many British Rally Championship events as he has finished.

Those that the duo have got to the end of, though, have been strong results indeed, with third place on the Pirelli International Rally back in April and a superb and popular breakthrough BRC victory on the International Rally Northern Ireland in August. Oh, and a second consecutive appearance on Rally Finland that resulted in 19th place overall - Breen's best-ever international finish - in his little M-Sport prepared Ford Fiesta S2000.

"We came to the event after a huge accident in Donegal, so my confidence was pretty much on the floor and it's a difficult event to try to get back on-form," the Waterford-born ace revealed of his Nordic adventure. "We went about it the right way, though, and progressed slowly from the start. Once I was more confident and comfortable, I pushed on, and the times were much better by the end of the rally

"Ulster was quite a big win for us; the first real result was me getting what was needed out of the car, to get it performing at its peak. I'd always needed a little bit more this year until then. I found that on the Cork 20, too - the car seemed to be working with me perfectly. It was the best feeling I've had from it."

Towards the end of this month, Breen will enter a brace of demanding 'Pirelli Star Driver Shoot-out' contests, meaning his 2011 plans remain up-in-the-air pending the outcome. Recognising the chance he has as one that could just represent 'a life-changing week for me and decide the future direction of my career', the son of former national Irish rallying champion Ray Breen has vowed to prepare as thoroughly as he can - and he will adopt the same approach for his second WRC outing of 2010 next month, too, on Rally Great Britain.

"I loved it last year, even though it wasn't so kind to us," he confesses. "We had a problem on Friday evening when leading FSTI, which was a bit of a bummer, but I really enjoyed the stages - they're fantastic. It's my co-driver Gareth's home rally and there's always a nice atmosphere there, so it's one of the more eagerly-anticipated events for me.

"This year we've acquired an SWRC entry for Rally GB, and judging by the pace we had in Finland, I'm going to really try and push hard and see if we can get up on the podium or maybe even win the class. It's a perfect opportunity, and we'll do everything we can to make the most of it."