Stuart Smith Jnr secured a second British Championship title after a memorable and dramatic last-gasp lunge ended long-time leader Matt Newson’s title hopes in the Belle Vue wires.
Smith’s last-bend heroics seemed unlikely with Newson appearing to be closing in on a maiden title, following a commanding drive in the Manchester heat. However, it was the Rochdale ace who snatched victory with a huge last-bend charge.
The 390 car made just enough contact with Newson’s inside rear corner to send both cars heading into the wires.
The chasing pack, headed by Mark Gilbank and Dan Johnson, had been some way adrift and Smith Jnr had enough time to power out of the loose shale in front of Gilbank and Johnson to take the chequered flag, with Newson eventually firing up his car to come home a disappointed sixth.
On an afternoon of near 30-degree temperatures, and Belle Vue basking under brilliant blue skies, the ebb and flow of the qualifying heats produced fast and frenetic racing with Smith Jnr and Frankie Wainman Jnr exchanging hits from the off. The bumpers were flying as the star men signalled their early intention. In heat one, in one of the best races of the day, Wainman Jnr came through to challenge Smith Jnr and the two traded blows before the 515 car nudged Smith Jnr wide to edge the battle on the sprint finish to the line.
In heat two there was early trouble for the superstars allowing Newson to get his afternoon off to a winning start. Tom Harris, who would endure a difficult afternoon which culminated in missing the grid for the final after a frantic rear axle change brought no reward, came home in second. Johnson recovered from an early tangle involving Danny Wainman and John Dowson to net a fifth behind Rob Plant and Mark Woodhull.
There were further wins for both Smith Jnr (two) and Newson (one), with both drivers looking imperious throughout the remaining heats. Will Hunter and Gilbank were other drivers impressing, together with Paul Hines, who like Smith Jnr, was chasing a further British title.
Wainman Jnr was another driver on course to contend for a front-row start, yet the former World Champion appeared satisfied to settle for a row two berth, a tactic he would arguably come to regret.
In the final heat, Wainman Jnr seemed at ease as Smith Jnr pulled away and Gilbank overhauled the 515 car for second. Harris meanwhile continued to have a difficult afternoon. After making early headway in heat six, the 84 car retired with a puncture after getting caught up with a number of other cars on turns one and two.
Lee Fairhurst was another former title-holder whose luck was absent after early mechanical problems saw the Bolton-based driver retire early in his opening heat. For Fairhurst it was a frustrating afternoon on his home track, with the 217 car ultimately failing to finish the main race.
On the green flag for the British Championship race itself, Newson anticipated the start and had a sizeable lead ahead of Smith Jnr in the early stages on a heavily watered track.
Indeed, the 390 car struggled to stay in contention as Newson built a commanding gap following two stoppages. Wainman Jnr joined a host of big names retiring after an early melee saw the track partially blocked in turn two, resulting in the first caution. FWJ was unable to avoid spinning into another car while the field behind him jostled for positions and struggled with the track conditions in the early stages. The 515 car, with a rear puncture, joined the likes of Hines and Hunter on the infield before the resumption.
At the restart Newson again re-established his dominance on a now rapidly drying track, before a further caution for the stranded Sam Makim car at half-race-distance, brought the field together again.
Newson led as the lap boards counted down, before Smith made his audacious move and dived across the kerbs to put pay to the long-time leader’s title hopes.
“Fair dues to Matt, I don’t think my car was as fast as it had been,” said Smith Jnr. “His car was certainly the best it had been all day.
On the critical moment, a delighted Smith Jnr said: “I had to do it, I’m not a driver to finish second, I never have been… I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved.
“The spectators all come here to watch good racing and I’ve always had this in the back of my mind, and I think that’s shown in my racing.”
Gilbank said of his second-place finish: “I had nothing on Stuart or Matt and in fairness they were long gone. I just kept myself steady and out of trouble.”
Third-placed Johnson was in a reflective mood: “It wasn’t the best of drives and I struggled to find my rhythm through the race.”
Report by Simon Hughes