Breen 'on top of the world' after runner-up spot in Rally Sweden
Craig Breen stepped up to a new level with a stunning second position behind winner Thierry Neuville in Rally Sweden.
True, it was just one place higher than his previous podium in Finland in 2016 but this time it was in the alien conditions of the frozen Swedish forests, a far cry from the Tarmac roads where he has twice won the Circuit of Ireland.
But Breen literally frolicked in the snow, declaring it was the most fun you could ever have in a rally car. More than that, he was pushing for the lead at one point on Saturday, narrowing the gap to Neuville to just seconds.
In the end he and co-driver Scott Martin brought their Citroen home 20 seconds behind the Belgian and 10 ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen, denying Hyundai a one-two finish.
Prone to tearful interviews, a happy Breen insisted: "I'm not going to cry this time. It's awesome, I'm absolutely on top of the world, a big stepping stone this weekend.
"I have to say that I surprised myself in that I was able to fight at the front without making any mistakes. I used to think that quick rallies weren't suited to me, but that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. In any event, my C3 WRC was perfect here and it's great to secure this result for the team - the guys have worked really hard for this."
In contrast team-mate Kris Meeke had a weekend to forget, quipping: "When's the first plane to Mexico [the next round]."
Like all the top finishers from the first round in Monte Carlo, Meeke had the worst of the conditions, running at the head of the field and clearing the loose snow from the top of the tracks which gave Neuville, Breen and Mikkelsen the advantage of their studded tyres being able to bit into the ice below. Meeke, never higher than 10th, was far from alone, Monte winner and World champion Sebastien Ogier trailing behind and Ott Tanak just one place ahead until the Dungannon man plunged his Citroen into a snowbank on Saturday.
It was just a minor excursion but snow was sucked into the engine, killing the turbo. And to compound his misery, Tanak's Toyota cannoned into the C3 as he tried to squeeze past.
Easapekka Lappi, another Circuit of Ireland winner in the past, was the top Toyota finisher in fourth, edging out Hyundai's Hayden Paddon by winning the final Power Stag. Breen is a former Billy Coleman Award winner and Sweden saw his 2017 successor, Callum Devine, make his Junior World championship debut and take an impressive sixth place (33rd overall) despite it being his first snow rally and a first time using studded tyres on his little R2T Ford Fiesta.
"It's been a steep learning curve," said the British junior champion from Co Derry. Victory went to Sweden's Emil Bergqvist.
Meanwhile, Roy White, the 2016 national champion, won the Birr Rally in his WRC Ford Fiesta from the Focus of Donagh Kelly and Declan Boyle in another Fiesta. Joe McGonigle was the top Ulster finisher in fourth in a WRC Mini after Garry Jennings retired his Subaru.