Craig Breen's all out to fulfil Circuit dream
Craig Breen may have won his first European Championship rally – the iconic Acropolis Rally to boot – but that hasn't diminished his desire to become a Circuit of Ireland winner too.
"Nothing beats the Circuit," he says. "When I think of all the famous names on that beautiful trophy, I want mine there too. This rally has a special place in my heart."
It could appear that Breen is heaping pressure on himself ahead of this evening's ceremonial start at Belfast City Hall, but the 24-year-old former World S2000 champion from Waterford doesn't see it that way.
After a string of top five finishes, including a hat-trick of second places in past ERC rounds, he feels his victory in Greece has lifted a weight off his shoulders.
"I tried so hard to get a win last year and if I hadn't won the Acropolis I think all eyes would have been on me to try to get my first victory on the Circuit. In those circumstances it might have been a whole lot more difficult, more pressure," he explained.
"But now I've got one under my belt I'm feeling more relaxed knowing I have both the speed and consistency you need to win."
And he also has Peugeot's new 208 T16 at his disposal. "It is a significant step forward from the 207 S2000 car I was driving until the Acropolis. Not day and night difference but enough to put Peugeot back in the game," he said.
"You have to remember the 207 originated in 2006/07 and Kris Meeke won the Intercontinental Challenge in one back in '09. It was a good car but just outdated under the new R5 regulations. The ERC also allows in RRC cars (scaled back versions of the current World Championship cars) like the Ford Fiesta and the Citroen DS3 so the old 207 was showing its age.
"I did a lot of the test and development work on the new car so I knew it was good and the performance on the Acropolis, not just by me but my Peugeot Academy team-mate Kevin Abbring as well, was confirmation of the positive feelings I had."
Indeed, Abbring led for the first four stages in Greece before a water leak forced his retirement and Breen expects another strong performance from the Dutch driver.
"It didn't surprise me at all that Kevin was so competitive. He's a very experienced driver who has won at Junior World Championship level and in 2012 had a season as Sebastien Ogier's team-mate at Skoda. And he has been here before, at Rally Ireland in 2009, so he knows what to expect from the Irish stages. No one should underestimate him," he added.
Bryan Bouffier, a former Monte Carlo winner and runner-up to Breen in Greece, was expected to be his big challenger on the Discover Northern Ireland Circuit but budget issues means the French ace doesn't start.
"It is disappointing Bryan isn't here. After the Acropolis he made a point of saying he was coming to Ireland to get his revenge and I was looking forward to the fight. But with or without him it doesn't change my approach. I will be going for the win."
Another major threat is expected to be Esapekka Lappi, the 23-year-old Finn who sits second in the ERC standing four points behind Breen and leads the Skoda challenge. But despite his impressive record around the world, which includes wins in Australia, New Zealand, China, Poland, Switzerland and Latvia, he had a disappointing Acropolis, finishing fourth.
"He was down in the dumps in Greece and seemed to be looking for excuses," said Breen. "Maybe that was just a one-off and he'll bounce back . He is clearly a very good driver and, don't forget, Skoda finished 1-2-3 on the 2012 Circuit and won the European title last year."
If Lappi was "down in the dumps" it was because he felt his old technology S2000 Fabia was being out-gunned by the new turbo-charged cars, explaining: "I don't know if it was me or because we don't have the turbo, maybe both. The car worked perfectly but the power was not enough against turbos."
Power will be a factor this weekend but so will reliability and in that regard Skoda, who have German Sepp Wiegand backing up Lappi, have a track record that might just dent Breen's dream.