Abu Dhabi Total World Rally Team man Craig Breen says he “couldn't be happier” after taking his maiden WRC podium finish on Rally Finland.
Breen moved up to third on Saturday morning, but was pushed all the way, with Ott Tanak, Thierry Neuville, Hayden Paddon and Mads Ostberg all within 20 seconds heading into the final leg.
Tanak closed to 4.8secs initially on Sunday, until he crashed out in SS22, but then Neuville took up the mantle and was just 6.6secs back after winning Oittila 1. Breen, however, battled back, taking his first ever WRC stage win in SS23 – the penultimate one of the event, before then taking sixth in the Power Stage to wind up 4.6secs ahead of Neuville, who turn was just 2.6secs up on Paddon.
Asked to try and sum up what it means to him to get that first podium and in only his fifth outing in a World Rally car, the Citroen DS3 WRC pilot replied: “I can't. I can't. I never envisaged this being a reality so soon, especially here, probably, or it is, the most difficult rally on the calendar. This was something that, I wouldn't say it was planned, but it was hoped for a long way down the line.
“For it to happen so early, for it to happen so calmly and naturally, I'm absolutely ecstatic about it. To get up on the podium with these two guys [Kris Meeke and Jari-Matti Latvala], I was watching these guys on the TV only a couple of years ago. It was my dream someday to do it but to do it this early, it's just unbelievable.”
Pressed on how he feels to have done it in Finland too, he added: “It sounds bizarre even when you say it [that I have finished third]. Even coming back into the road section, coming to the end of the stage, seeing all the Irish flags, you feel like the third person. You really do feel that this isn't happening, it can't be for real.
“You set goals but it's amazing how the goalposts change as the weekend goes on and even when we came to the first run on the shakedown, we came to the end and I said 'jeez, that was terrible, that was absolutely shocking' and then 'oh, we're not too far away' and next one 'oh, we're getting a little bit closer'. It just went like that and it just felt so natural to push when I needed to, especially this afternoon. It's been the most enjoyable, fantastic weekend of rallying I've ever had.”
Speaking later, however, Breen was more composed, describing the result as the “best day of my career again”.
“It's the best day of my career again,” he confirmed. “But it seems that with this car, every day is a bit better! When I grabbed third place yesterday afternoon, I already felt that I had moved up another level. There weren't many kilometres left to complete today but it was still pretty tough because I was put under pressure by my rivals.
“I couldn't be happier though, claiming my first WRC stage win and finishing on the podium. The finish was very emotional. I couldn't believe it, but it was fantastic to celebrate this moment with the people who have supported me. I'm missing the main man [Gareth Roberts, who was killed while we were competing back in 2012], but I know he's looking down on this now.
“It's also a richly-deserved result for the guys in the team, who had to work hard to repair the car after I went off during testing on Monday. I've taken a step closer to where I want to be this weekend.”
As for the future and the next thing on his bucket list, Breen noted: “Again, the goalposts change [after this] and of course the next goal after a podium is a win. How realistic is that? I don't know.
“Of course here we had a bit of an advantage on the first couple of days with our road position which we used to quite good effect, but even on the second pass on some stages we still showed some good speed. So I have to take that confidence into the next events and see what we can do. Of course, we've ticked this one, the next one is to win a rally, but let's learn to walk before we can run.”