Breen and Fulton lead Rally Sweden after the opening leg
Irish eyes were definitely smiling at Rally Sweden on Friday.
Seven Motorsport Ireland competition licence holders are contesting the second round of the World Rally Championship.
Based in the University city of Umea, the largest city in northern Sweden, it is the only snow event on the 2023 WRC schedule.
Rally Sweden offers a unique test for both man and machine.
Despite the terrain, the profile of the stages makes the event one of the fastest rounds on the calendar.
The studded winter tyres provide remarkably high levels of grip in the icy conditions, while large snowbanks can be utilised by the drivers to assist cornering.
However this can be a risky game; when the temperature is slightly warmer, the banks can disintegrate on impact and leave cars stranded in the deep snow.
All seven Irish competitors achieved notable firsts on the rally.
Waterford’s Craig Breen has returned to the Hyundai Motorsport World Rally Team after a year away.
Breen is co-driven by Cavan’s James Fulton in their i20 N Rally1 Hybrid.
The pair started Friday morning in seventh place, but a string of fastest times propelled them into the lead.
The Irish team trailed the man who replaced him at M-Sport Ford for the first half of the day before unleashing an early afternoon attack on the Estonian, establishing control as his low starting position offered superior traction on the increasingly rutted second pass.
He outpaced the entire field by 7.8sec on Brattby 2 to go in front, then extended his buffer to 10.5sec with another benchmark time on the very next test. Tänak, however, fought back as darkness fell, reducing the overnight deficit to just 2.6 seconds.
Overnight they hold a 2.5 advantage over Estonians Ott Tanaka and Martin Järveoja, in a Ford Puma Rally 1 Hybrid
Crucially the Irish team will be last to enter each stage on Saturday meaning they will benefit from their rivals clearing the snow from the road and exposing the grippier ice.
While Breen and his now retired former navigator Paul Nagle did previously lead World Rally Championship events, this is the first time ever that an all-Irish crew have the opportunity to defend a lead through the Saturday leg of a rally.
Breen’s demeanour throughout Friday was that of a man having fun at the wheel of a rally car.
“Definitely one of my strongest days. Last year I was usually upside down or stuck in a hedge somewhere, so it is music to my ears to be in the lead tonight. It’s the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and we’re all invited – I can’t wait,” he said.
“It is hard to imagine that things would be as good as they have been today. We have had a good road position, of course, but we also have a good car. We tried to use both to take an advantage; to lead the rally overnight is a bit of a dream. I feel completely comfortable in the car, it feels soft and cuddly. For the moment, I am happy with it but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. I still don’t feel we are at the peak of where we need to be. It’s far from over. Tomorrow is a long day, and we’ve seen today that it’s hard to make much of a difference. I will give all I can, and whatever happens it won’t be for the want of trying.”
It was a day of mixed emotions for Tyrone’s Aaron Johnston and his Japanese driver Takamoto Katsuta.
The Toyota Yaris GR Rally 2 crew recorded the fastest time on the rally’s fourth stage – a first-ever scratch time for Johnston – but they crashed on the next test.
While they managed to get going they retired for the day on stage six and will have to rely on SuperRally rules to get them back on track for Saturday.
The rally is also the opening round of the Junior World Rally Championship and there is an Irish success story in that category too.
William Creighton and Liam Regan have led this category from start to finish
Overnight they hold a 34.5 advantage over the French crew of Laurent Pellier and Marine
“It was a good day,” said the Moira driver. “It was a tricky afternoon loop but we got through.”
Billy Coleman award winner Donegal’s Eamon Kelly and his co-driver Conor Mohan are fifth in this category in what is their World Rally Championship debut.
A puncture earlier in the day dropped him for fourth place but worse was to follow and they rolled out of the rally on stage six. It remains to be seen if their M-Sport team can have their Ford Fiesta repaired in time for tomorrow’s rally.
Saturday is the longest day of the rally and features seven tests totalling 126.22km.
The seven Irish drivers competing in Sweden are not the only ones contesting an all-snow rally this weekend.
Galwegian Marin Brady is in Michigan where he co-driving for British driver Kyle Tilley in the opening round of the American rally championship – the Sn* Drift Rally.
That rally gets underway at around 10 pm Irish time on Friday ahead of two days of action in Montmorency County.
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