Craig Breen rides his luck to land dream Circuit of Ireland win
Craig Breen is the new leader of the European rally championship but nothing means more to him than being a Circuit of Ireland winner.
He snatched the win he has dreamed about since he first watched the rally as a youngster, perched on the shoulders of his father Ray, himself a former Irish champion. Ray and the rest of the family were there to hug an emotionally drained Breen as he brought his battered Peugeot T16 to the finish of the final stage, the winner by a mere six seconds over Poland's Kajetan Kajetanowicz.
But what none of us knew, not even the family, was how lucky he had been. Yes, we could see the damage to the car and he said he had spun on the penultimate stage as well as overshooting a junction on the last one. But it was only when the Eurosport helicopter footage emerged later that it became clear how close he had come to disaster.
In a fast left-hander, the Peugeot skated wide, the rear bouncing off a bank before spinning across the road and slamming nose first into another hedge. It was a hard hit but somehow Breen was able to continue, albeit with his lead cut from 19 to five seconds.
With the pressure he had heaped on himself by openly admitting he was "desperate" to win the Circuit building to boiling point, he made another mistake on the final stage, overshooting a junction and stalling the engine.
Almost weeping in frustration, Breen, who had battled throughout with a turbo issue, thought he had blown it and later credited co-driver Scott Martin for "keeping his head together".
"Scott kept telling me to keep believing, telling me I could still do it. I don't remember much about that last few miles, just that I gave it everything I had and I still didn't know if was enough. At the finish line people were telling me I had won but I couldn't take it in.
"I have dreamed of winning this rally and emulating my rally hero Frank Meagher for as long as I can remember. To have my name on the same trophy as him is something very special."
But just as good fortune shone kindly on Breen, it deserted Robert Barrable in the dying moments. The former Formula Ford racer had challenged his Irish rival mile after mile and was, indeed, leading - albeit by a mere 1.1 seconds - after 15 of the 18 stages.
Then Barrable braked late on a slippery corner, his R5 Ford Fiesta sliding straight on into a ditch where it remained stuck, a devastating end to a superb drive by the Swords privateer.
His exit allowed the popular Kajto into second place and although he has lost the ERC lead to Breen, the Polish champion was far from downbeat. "I am sure it was the best tarmac rally in my life, really hard with amazing stages. I am really happy and I want to come back," he insisted.
Perhaps even happier was Josh Moffett, on an ERC podium for the first time in only his second outing in an ex-Breen Ford Fiesta. He surprised even himself by beating big brother Sam, a double international rally winner who was fourth.
Breen's Peugeot Academy team-mate Charles Martin took fifth but leading Ulster driver, Jonny Greer, who was sixth after the final stage, never made back to the finish at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast when a small fire damaged the wiring of his Citroen.
And Inessa Tushkanova? The Russian glamour model crashed out, her Mitsubishi suffering heavy damage when she mowed down a row of fence posts. But she coolly tweeted a picture of the wreckage with the message: "No pic from the ambulance so I am OK."
Idris Elba was also 'OK' after he too crashed, the Luther TV star going off the road in his Peugeot although he was able to re-join later.
Derek McGarrity added a first National win to his five Circuit victories, finishing ahead of Kenny McKinstry, both in Subarus.
Circuit of Ireland International leaderboard:
1 Craig Breen and Scott Martin (Peugeot T16) 2 hrs 04 mins 04.5 secs; 2 Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Jaroslav Baran (Ford Fiesta R5) + 6.4 secs; 3 Josh Moffett and John Rowan (Ford Fiesta RRC) + 1 min 42.3 secs; 4 Sam Moffett and Karl Atkinson (Ford Fiesta RRC) + 2 mins 24.1 secs; 5 Charles Martin and Thierry Salva (Peugeot T16) + 2 mins 41.2 secs; 6 Alexey Lukanyuk and Yevhen Chervonenko (Ford Fiesta R5) + 4 mins 36.1 secs; 7 Tommy Doyle and Eamon Hayes (Skoda Fabia S2000) + 5 mins 23.5 secs; 8 Jaromir Tarabus and Daniel Trunkat (Skoda Fabia S2000) + 7 mins 27.7 secs; 9 Raul Jeets and Andrus Toom (Ford Fiesta R5) + 8 mins 35.5 secs; 9 Emil Bergkvist and Joakim Sjöberg (Opel Adam R2) + 8 mins 38.3 secs.
Circuit of Ireland National leaderboard:
1 Derek McGarrity and James McKee (Subaru Impreza) 2 hrs 02 mins 18.2 secs; 2 Kenny McKinstry and Noel Orr (Subaru Impreza) + 2 mins 27.2 secs; 3 Wesley Patterson and Johnny Baird (Ford Escort) + 5 mins 15.6 secs; 4 Robert Duggan and Gerard Conway (Ford Fiesta R2) + 6 mins 53.5 secs; 5 Keith White and Damian McCann (Ford Escort) + 7 mins 00.8 secs; 6 Frank Kelly and Sean Hayde (Ford Escort) + 7 mins 38.1 secs.