Craig Breen believes his familiarity with the M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 car on gravel will pay dividends on Rally de Portugal, which begins tomorrow morning with the traditional short shakedown stage.
When Breen inked his deal with the British team late last year, he was immediately put to work in the new hybrid-powered car, testing and refining it with his team-mate Paul Nagle in England and Spain.
Much of the early running was carried out on forest roads and mountain tracks as seven of the 13 rounds that make up the FIA World Rally Championship calendar this season take place on the loose.
In comparison, engineers from rival squads Toyota Gazoo Racing and Hyundai Motorsport have less data on the surface to go by as they were much slower to finalise the spec of their Rally1 test mules.
Rally de Portugal is the first pure gravel counter of 2022 and Breen arrives there in good spirits.
“We had a good test, I felt good in the car and we got some good work done,” said Breen, who sits third in the WRC standings after appearances at rallies Monte Carlo, Sweden and Croatia.
“I’d like to have a bit more speed than we showed in Croatia, so we will be working hard to make that possible.
“We’ve done a good bit in the gravel car. We’ve done a couple of proper days in Spain last year and then there’s been a day or two at M-Sport’s test facility.
“So, from that side, I think we are well prepared. We now have a fair idea of what to expect from the car on the loose. I’m looking forward to seeing what the pace of the Puma will be in Portugal.”
Breen was reluctant to really stretch the legs of his Puma last time out in Croatia and that, in tandem with an incorrect tyre call on the closing day, allowed Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville to leapfrog him and round out the podium places.
He is sure, however, that there will be no such problems this time and insists he isn’t overly concerned by the fact his last Rally de Portugal appearance was four years ago.
“I haven’t done Portugal since 2018 but I have done two of the events in Porto and I did the recce last year so I know most of the stages, but it’s not quite the same as being out there competing,” said the Irishman.
Breen will share the stages with Motorsport Ireland protégé Josh McErlean. The 22-year-old Kilrea driver resumes his WRC2 campaign with back-to-back outings in Portugal and Sardinia alongside James Fulton.
“We have two very tough and challenging events ahead that are extremely close together which, of course, brings its challenges, both logistically and for us as a crew,” said McErlean.
“But we are well aware that these are two very strategic rallies in our Championship campaign, and we are very much focused on delivering a result which gives us solid points for the Championship.”