By BSCDA, Aug 15 2018 07:52AM
Lee Fairhurst booked his place on the front row of September’s World Championship, after battling through to claim victory in the second semi-final at a rain-affected Birmingham Wheels.
The former world champion will now line-up alongside pole-sitter Stuart Smith Jnr at Skegness, as he bids for a second world title at the track where he stormed to victory to take his maiden crown in 2012.
Fairhurst made the best of what proved to be tricky conditions after the arrival of rain threatened to disrupt pre-race preparations. Despite practice taking place on a dry track, competitors were forced to make last-minute changes, including the switch to wet set-ups, when heavy rain began to fall during the pre-race parade.
The deteriorating track conditions resulted in late drama and a flurry of activity. With half the field already on track, teams were granted the opportunity to change to wet tyres moments before the rolling lap.
With standing water and the issue of spray to contend with, the opening laps were tentative as the field noticeably struggled with the lack of grip in the opening stages of the race. Pole-sitter Frankie Wainman Jnr was the man who got a perfect start only to be moved off line by the onrushing Fairhurst. The 217 car moved past the three-times world champion, into what would be an unchallenged lead, with Fairhurst delivering a near perfect drive despite the unpredictable surface conditions.
Undeniably no one was able to match the pace of the Bolton-based superstar, with the 217 car good enough to comfortably pull away from the rest of the field as Fairhurst made his way through traffic.
Fairhurst was happy to be starting this year’s big race from the front. He said: “The race was a bit processional, but sometimes that’s what semi-finals can be.”
Drawing comparisons to the famous 2012 victory, Fairhurst was in playful mood. “I’ve won it from the back but that was a bit boring wasn’t it?” he said “So, we’ll just have to go and try and win it from the front now!”
With Fairhurst away and gone, it was Dan Johnson who moved into second place ahead of one of the pre-race favourites and reigning world champion Nigel Green. Green, who showed at the UK Open in May that he is still the man to beat on Tarmac, saw his pace checked in adapting to the wet conditions. The world champion was unable to get close enough to Johnson to mount any realistic challenge for runner-up spot. Nonetheless, it was mission accomplished for Green as he was able to secure a top-three finish and will now defend his title from row four at Skegness.
It could have been a different story for Green had the post-race issue which forced the 445-car to withdraw from the rest of the meeting, surfaced earlier. Immediately following the race end, the car which took gold at Ipswich in 2017, developed a problem which led to the 445 car being towed off track and into the pits, resulting in an early end to Green’s night.
“I thought initially that it was just a wire which had come off the starter motor, but it’s not,” Green said.
“We tried bumping it and now it won’t start by pushing it. I got pushed onto the scales after the race and it did the same. So now it won’t start at all now.”
Ironically the electrical problems were reminiscent to those that surfaced prior to last year’s world championship race. Nevertheless Green, while undoubtedly again relieved, was pleased to come away with a row-four start.
“I’m in the mix there and not a sitting duck,” said Green. “I think if I started off the front then I’d definitely have a target on my back.”
Johnson was equally happy to come away with a top-three finish. He admitted: “I wanted a top-four finish, I wasn’t that bothered about finishing as high up as I did. I’m happy to qualify and the car did everything it needed to do.”
Johnson was already turning his attention to the Skegness showdown.
“A lot of my rivals are around me and one of my rivals [Tom Harris] is at the side of me,” said Johnson “So I can look to control what I can do with him first.”
In a hint towards what is likely to be another bruising World Final encounter, Johnson added, “We’ll fit the car with a new front bumper and see how it goes!”
Behind the top three, the impressive Chris Cowley was the man on a charge, moving through the field to dispatch Wainman into fifth place. Tarmac specialist Cowley benefited as Paul Hines tangled with Ben Riley and Bradley Harrison in the early stages, with the #37 car making up a number of positions to move up through the field.
A fourth-placed finish was no less than the Nuneaton-based big hitter deserved. The presence of Cowley amongst the front runners will now inject a degree of unpredictability into a race already touted as being one of the hardest World Championship races in recent times to predict.
Hines was fortunate to escape the early skirmishes after finding himself with nowhere to go as Riley (422) and Harrison (25) tangled. After all three cars drifted out towards the Armco, the 259 driver in the loaned Ryan Harrison car, although momentarily halted, was able to spy a gap and quickly rejoined the fold.
The Leicestershire ace then set about making his way back up the order to ensure another World Final berth, with a hard-fought seventh place behind the returning Ben Hurdman (207).
Hurdman, who has been largely absent in 2018 following his heroics for Team GB in New Zealand, was noticeably delighted to claim a place on the Skegness grid as he lit up the rear wheels after coming home in sixth.
Unfortunately for both Riley and Harrison, the time lost would prove costly, with neither driver able to force their way back into the top-ten positions in the closing stages, ending the race in 11th and 12th positions respectively.
There was better news for John Dowson in the borrowed Will Hunter car. Despite lining up in an unfamiliar car and on his unfavoured surface, Dowson, who is widely renowned as a shale specialist, drove a sensible race to qualify in eighth position.
For Dowson the chequered flag would have been a welcomed sight after earlier electrical problems threatened the County Durham-based driver’s involvement in the race. Dowson can be grateful to the Hunter team’s efforts in getting the car out on track after the car developed a small electrical fire as a result of a damaged wire in the ignition box, prior to the start of the meeting.
Joining Dowson on the Skegness grid will be Tristan Jackson (101) and Neil Scriven (11). Youngster Jackson, who has made the successful jump from V8 Hotstox, will now make his World Championship debut after a composed drive saw him edge out fellow Tarmac specialist Scriven, for ninth. Scriven himself did enough to take the final qualification spot, beating out the likes of Riley and Harrison.
While Wainman Jnr had to settle for perhaps a lower finish than most would have predicted, he was content with how the race unfolded.
“I wanted fourth or fifth,” said Wainman Jnr. “I was happy with the car and there was nothing wrong with the tyres.”
Thinking back to the last time the race was held at the Lincolnshire track, Wainman Jnr offered an insight into why perhaps the front of the grid might not be the ideal place from which to start.
“I’ve been there, at Skegness,” he said. “You can go straight into the wall, so mid-pack there’ll be plenty of pushing.
“That’s why I’ve put myself in that position. I got away with it last time, just about, but I couldn’t win the race because my car was damaged”.
Birmingham World Championship semi-final result: 217, 4, 445, 37, 515, 207, 259, 94, 101, 11, 422, 25. Stuart Smith Jnr won the coin toss and selected pole position for the World Final at Skegness on September 15.