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Breen in battle for lead as Estonian stages take their toll on top contenders



Craig Breen. Credit: Helena El Mokni

Craig Breen. Credit: Helena El Mokni

Craig Breen. Credit: Helena El Mokni

Craig Breen says it is one of his favourite rallies and he showed why with a strong start to the Estonian round of the World Championship.

Runner-up to home hero Ott Tanak last year and called back into the Hyundai team to help stem their run of disappointing results, Breen and co-driver Paul Nagle were in second place last night less than 10 seconds behind the leading Toyota of Kalle Rovanpera.

The first full day in the fast Estonian forests took their toll on a number of leading drivers including team-mate Tanak, who was forced to retire with punctured tyres after going off the road into a field. Out too went Ford’s Gus Greensmith and his Ballyclare co-driver Chris Patterson, their Fiesta suffering water pump failure.

Hyundai lost a second car when Oliver Solberg, co-driven by Fintona’s Aaron Johnston, retired their i20 with a broken radiator after a heavy landing off a jump.

And Takamoto Katsuta pulled his Toyota out of third place when co-driver Daniel Barritt injured his back in another heavy landing.

At the front, Estonian-based Finn Rovanpera and Breen traded fastest stage times to pull 50 seconds clear of the Hyundai of Thierry Neuville in third place with the Toyotas of world champion Sebastien Ogier in fourth and Elfyn Evans fifth .

In fact, Irish Tarmac champion Breen led after three stages but ended the leg eight seconds behind Rovanpera.

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“It has been a really good day,” said Breen, who is still looking for his first World Championship win. “The car was awesome and apart from one or two incidents – like when I was held up behind Gus Greensmith’s Fiesta limping through a stage – it couldn’t have gone much better.

“I saw what was happening to some drivers over the big jumps and treated them with respect. I’m happy.”

Further back, Jon Armstrong was engaged in another tight battle for Junior WRC points, the Kesh driver in his RC4 Fiesta just 14 seconds behind the leader, Sami Pajara of Finland. They were over half a minute ahead of series leader Martins Sesks in fourth.

“I’m feeling really good with the car and pacenotes. I’ve probably never driven so well on fast gravel roads,” said Armstrong. 

Moira’s William Creighton was seventh but two minutes adrift of the leading pair.

Meanwhile, Andrew Watson is back in World Endurance Championship racing this weekend with the Japanese D’station team, sharing a GTE Aston Martin Vantage with Satoshi Hoshino and Tomonobu Fujii.

After an encouraging start to the series in Belgium, they were forced out of round two when their Vantage was hit from behind by one of the new hypercars before Watson got to take part.

“We never really got going in Portugal so our main goal is to make up for it this weekend. We’ve shown some strong pace so far this season, we just need luck on our side as well,” said the Tyrone driver.

Qualifying takes place today with the six-hour race tomorrow afternoon. 

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