Great Britain pulled off a surprise win on night one of the Monster Energy Speedway World Cup at King’s Lynn in Norfolk to qualify directly for next Saturday’s final in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
Led by world champion Tai Woffinden, but with solid back-up from his three British team-mates, the home team finished seven points clear of the Americans and eight clear of the Aussies, with the Italians trailing a massive 34 points behind Britain.
The team format for world speedway pits four nations against each other, with one rider from each country in every heat. The Aussies were the favourites, but they were weakened by the withdrawal of injured 2012 world champion Chris Holder on the day of the meeting.
The British team led the way after the first tranche of four heats, thanks to fired-up performances from their two lesser lights. All the attention was on world champ Woffinden, but 32-year-old Simon Stead kicked Britain off with a jet-propelled start in the opening race to take a surprise win over Australia’s Grand Prix front runner Darcy Ward, then Chris Harris followed up with second place in heat two.
And Danny King, who’s riding for a second division team in Britain after his top-flight club went out of business, also won his first outing by beating classy American Greg Hancock. The much-heralded first appearance of Woffinden fell flat as he finished third in his opening ride.
Britain kept hold of their lead after the second series of heats, with Woffinden getting going to win his second ride by some distance. And Stead provided the main back-up with another flying start to win his second ride from the outside gate, inflicting Hancock’s second defeat of the night. With Harris and King chipping in second places in their rides, the Brits held a three-point lead over the Aussies after eight of the 20 heats.
After the third set of heats the Brits had extended their lead to seven. Stead took second in the ninth heat, after Aussie Cameron Woodward fell and was excluded from the re-run. Harris could only manage third next time out, and King took second in Heat 11 before Woffinden won Heat 12. Two non-scores for the Aussies assisted the home nation’s cause, with Woodward’s exclusion in Heat 9 and then a breakdown for Darcy Ward in the 11th putting a major dent in the Australians’ prospects.
Britain weathered the storm of perhaps world sport’s daftest concept, the Joker, to emerge ahead with four heats remaining. The Joker allows teams that are trailing by six points or more to bring their best rider in to replace their slowest in one race, and he’ll also score double points to try and haul them back into the meeting.
Aussie Jason Doyle and American Hancock both won relatively easy races while on a Joker to close up on the leading British team. But the Brits were solid enough to maintain their lead, heading the Americans by four points with the Aussies a further two behind with the final batch of four races remaining.
Britain clung on in the final series of races, with a little more help from the misfiring Aussies. Their captain Ward slowed while chasing Harris on turn four of his final ride, having apparently seen a red light to signal a race stoppage. He stopped and forced the race to be brought to a halt by the referee, who excluded him from the restaging as the red lights weren’t on at the time Ward slowed to a halt. Harris won the restaging to put the Brits eight points clear with two races to go, and unable to be caught.
A third place for Stead and a second for King finished off the job to give the home nation a surprise berth in the final. There they will face the host nation, Poland, along with the winners of a second qualifier in Sweden on Tuesday and the winners from a race-off meeting on Thursday that will feature the Aussies, Americans and the second and third-placed teams from the other qualifier.
In Poland the Brits will be chasing their first world team success for 25 years. But with a strong Polish side already in the final, on home shale, and both the Aussies and Danes in a strong position to complete the line-up in Bydgoszcz, the Brits will need to find another gear if they are to claim the gold medal.
British team manager Alun Rossiter, who made a controversial team selection by bringing back Stead and King to the side, told MCN: "I always said we could win tonight. It's good to stop all the negativity that has been thrown at these boys by people who felt we should have used different riders.
"I chose the riders who were riding well and they have ridden well tonight, for themselves and for me. They all got double figures. In the final it's more than likely I will stick with the riders who rode tonight, but Richie Worrall is also riding well and he could get in for the final."
Rossiter will travel to Poland with his team on Wednesday afternoon to prepare for Saturday's afternoon practice session and evening races. He said: "We will do everything together, as a team. Everything we get from now on is a bonus."
Captain Woffinden, who led the British scoring with 12 points from a possible 15, said: "It was a tough meeting and the boys rode well to get us through to the final. The Aussies had a bit of bad luck, but that's the way it goes.
"The final is going to be really tough, as racing in Poland is a different kettle of fish to racing here. The boys who raced here were going really good. They need to treat it as another day and enjoy their racing."
The Bydgoszcz track is bigger than King's Lynn and will place more demands on engines, but the British riders have all been selected for their performances on larger tracks and Woffinden is confident they can put up a good showing in the final. Asked if they could end Britain's team title drought, he said: "We'll see."