European champion Nigel Green won a tense World Championship semi-final at Skegness on Saturday night, after a race-long battle with Stuart Smith Jnr.
Prior to the race, many believed that if Green, the man in form this season on Tarmac, got away during the opening laps he would cruise to victory. Smith Jnr, however, was able to keep the pressure on Green throughout the 20-lap race with the Leicestershire driver only pulling away during the last few laps.
Green got a clean getaway from pole position, with Smith Jnr able to tuck inside as the green flag dropped on the 24-car grid. Into the first bend and behind the front two Rob Speak, the National Points champion, who was making his eagerly-awaited return to action in the semi-final, piled into those in front of him, pushing by Lee Fairhurst wide and holding up Paul Harrison along the way. As Speak and Fairhurst drifted wide, Ryan Harrison, Craig Finnikin and Ben Riley were able to slip through on the inner.
Up front Green led from Smith Jnr, Newson, Ryan Harrison, Fairhurst, Finnikin and Speak, who had past Riley and then got inside Finnikin out of turn four on lap two.
By lap six Green and Smith Jnr had pulled clear of the rest, as Newson was swallowed up by Harrison and Fairhurst into turn one and dropped down to fifth. Speak was next with a gap back to Finnikin, Riley and Paul Harrison.
Up front the leaders began to negotiate backmarkers, and with Smith Jnr close behind Green was forced to use the front bumper to full effect. First to go into turn one was Paul Carter, who was sent careering into Bradley Harrison who had a couple of laps earlier been involved in a tangle and was parked by the fence.
Next lap and Green went for what appeared a desperate lunge at Steve Webster into turn one, but only managed to spin the A-grader and was lucky not to be collected himself rather than simply drifting wide.
This manoeuvre allowed Smith Jnr through on the inside to take the lead at the halfway mark. Further back Ryan Harrison was still keeping Fairhurst at bay, with Newson closely pursued by Speak, ahead of Finnikin, as Riley slowed with a rear puncture.
Two laps later and Green forced his way back into the lead out of turn two and led past halfway from Smith Jnr, Ryan Harrison, Fairhurst, Speak, Newson, Finnikin, Paul Harrison, Michael Scriven and Frankie Wainman Jnr Jr.
From then on the race was about whether Smith Jnr could close on Green and snatch a famous victory. With an important top-two finish on the cards, the Milnrow star was driving a restrained race and was never in a position to safely make a move. Indeed, in the last five laps Green began to edge away and went in very deep on the brakes into the last bend just to create more distance and was able to take the flag and a front row slot for Ipswich in September.
Smith Jnr finished a very solid second, with Ryan Harrison holding off Fairhurst for third place. Speak came home on his own in fifth, with Newson sixth. Finnikin finished seventh, ahead of Paul Harrison, Scriven and Wainman Jnr Jr, who qualified for his first World Final in tenth spot.
So, in just a matter of a couple of weeks Green has won the European title and earned himself a place on the front row of the grid for the second year in a row for the World Final.
“I judged the start well and managed to get a break and got round the first corner clean – so that was the first box ticked, “ said Green. “And it was going well for five laps but as soon as we caught the backmarkers up, nobody was moving at all, and obviously I had Stuart behind me about ten yards off my back bumper.
“I knew I couldn’t give those in front of me too much time and give Stuart too many opportunities, so I had to clear them up. Unfortunately, it was a bit wet offline and I hit one lad (Webster) and he got sideways across the front of me. Fortunately I squared him back up but that put Stuart in front of me.
“I thought I’d go with him, actually, and sort it out at the end of the race but I braked a bit later than him and ended up pushing him wide and got underneath him without really intending too.
“So from then on he drove with his head and we didn’t start crashing into each other and we finished 1-2. It worked out well and it’s good to know I can race with him. It was a good race, but not a perfect race for me at all. I feel a bit sorry for those boys as they were taken out of the race but if you’re not looking in your mirrors you’re going to get moved. I didn’t have time to be too fair in a race like that!”
Smith Jnr was more than happy with second place and his car around the Skegness Tarmac.
“I think I was more consistent but it’s always easier to be the one chasing,” said Smith Jnr. “But Nigel did sort of get it wrong with one backmarker which let me get past, but even before then I was there or thereabouts.
“In the last five laps the car really began to tail away, otherwise I would have had a closer shot at him. If I had been close enough I would have gone for it –100 per cent.
"I would have gone for the win. I tried to but as I committed he committed into going faster. So then I backed off and put the brakes on.
“I could have left it all on and hoped that he'd hit Chris Cowley and gone in the fence but it would have been do-or-die and in a semi-final sometimes you can’t do it.
“I’ve done my job. I couldn’t have asked for more from the lads and got car was going great. Now we've got to go to Ipswich now and finish the job.”
Harrison was the one driver to make significant inroads from his grid position on the fifth row and was satisfied with his night’s work.
“My plan all week has been to just get into them but Speaky took such a charge I just sat back a little bit and let him do all my dirty work,” said Harrison. “I took a fair shot at the next bend but the car was really good, it was nice to drive.
“Everyone is so close now if you gain a tenth on a lap you know you’re doing something right.”
Fairhurst was also pleased with his result. “I was sniffing for third at one point but I didn’t want to risk taking myself out, going for it and the yellows coming out,” Fairhurst said. “To be honest there’s little difference between rows four and five.”
Racing for maybe the last time in an F1 stock car, Rob Speak enjoyed his race. “It was good. I really enjoyed it,” Speak said. “I gave them the big ‘un going into the first bend and it came out of gear and I couldn’t get it back in and by the time I’d got it sorted… it wrecked the race for me really. The car was quick enough though.”
The meeting began with a massive 31-car opening heat, which featured Mick Sworder, racing for the first time since Hednesford in April. Immediately the green flag dropped Jacklyn Ellis lost her offside rear wheel going into turn one, causing a complete restart, which began with 27 cars.
The race was dominated by Todd Jones, who scythed through the lower graders to take up the running by the time the race was stopped on lap five after Sam Render was left side-on to on-coming traffic at the end of the home straight.
Jones led the restart from George Elwell, Dean Whitwell and Neal Hooper. Further back Frankie Wainman Jnr had charged through the pack and was the leading star man, ahead of Dan Johnson.
On the restart Jones surged clear to win comfortably from a very fast Wainman Jnr and Johnson. Elwell finished fourth ahead of Hooper and Tom Harris.
The consolation fielded 22 cars and was led from flag-to-flag by former BriSCA F2 driver Craig Tomblin in his first outing in an F1 stock car. Danny Wainman had charged through to second and was almost upsides the leader by the chequered flag. Chris Cowley was third, ahead of Riley, Danny Colliver and Matthew Armstrong.
The forecast rain began to fall before the 30-car final and got heavier as the rest of the night’s racing progressed.
The yellows were out after a couple of laps after Mat Newson was stranded on the home straight. Whitwell led the restart ahead of Aaron Leach, Hooper, Colliver, Tomblin and Jones. Leach took over the lead while Jones had sliced through to go second when the yellows came out again.
On the restart Jones took over at the front while further back Riley tangled with Elwell. Harris managed to dive around the outside unscathed, but Finnikin, Smith Jnr, Johnson and Wainman Jnr all piled in to bring out the yellows once again. With the rain teeming down Jones set off at the green flag ahead of Hooper, Leach, Will Hunter, Colliver and Harris.
By halfway Jones had a sizeable lead but the fastest man on the track was Harris, who made dramatic inroads to go second and set about catching the leader. With three laps to go Harris caught Jones and hit him wide into turn three to take the lead and an impressive victory.
Jones recovered to finish second, with Nigel Green launching a last-bender on Hunter to take third in a drag race to the line. Wainman finished fifth ahead of Paul Harrison, Luke Davidson and Smith Jnr.
“I always excel in the wet and when it started to rain I had a big smile on my face,” said Harris. “I wanted to catch Todd unawares so he didn’t come back at me. In conditions like these you only have to hit them at the wrong angle and it can end your race.
“We’ve found a starting point with the car now – it’s a new engine – and changed a lot in between the heat and the final. With driving in the wet it’s all about being smooth and it suits my driving style.”
Harris started from the one-lap handicap in the 27-car Grand National and made up vast chunks of ground and was already up to 14th when the yellows came out just before halfway.
At this stage Armstrong led from Hooper and a flying Smith Jnr, who soon took the lead. From then on Smith Jnr was able to control the pace and ease to a comfortable win. Green came through to finish second, with Harris closing with every lap in third place from the one-lap handicap. Hooper finished fourth, ahead of Finnikin and Wainman.