Each year as clusters of daffodils and dawn birdsong usher in the hope of better weather to come (before the British summer scotches that hope with a reality of slate grey skies, slanting August rain and cagouled picnickers, huddled together under trees), my twitter feed chokes to life. Although far from dormant throughout the winter, March heralds a sea change where sea containers are oddly prominent.

I could be forgiven for worrying that I have inadvertently started to follow the twitter accounts of haulage and shipping companies, such are the photos of packed crates in readiness of an epic journey half way around the globe. But no, it isn’t that I’ve somehow, unknowingly become a shipping container spotter, it’s just the start of the Speedway season, slowly coming to life like a bear out of hibernation.

The containers in those photos are meticulously packed full of bikes, tools and all the other paraphernalia that the world’s top 15 speedway riders will need as they each embark on their challenge for the world title. The crates, currently in Amsterdam are being prepared to embark on a journey to New Zealand, where on Saturday 5th April the engines contained within will fire up proceedings on the opening round of the 2014 Grand Prix series.

Although only the 3rd staging of the event at Auckland’s Western Springs circuit, the only SGP event outside of Europe, it has become a popular venue and not least with the riders who seem happy with the combined efforts of BSI [who own and run the SGP series] and the local organisers. Despite the shale sport’s presence across the globe – with meetings run in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Argentina – a previous attempt to stage the event in Australia in 2002 was deemed a commercial flop. The Sydney failure deterred further attempts to take the SGP outside Europe until 2012 and BSI and the NZ promoters should be congratulated for their concerted efforts to make the Auckland meeting a success, at what has to be the most scenic of the 12 SGP circuits.

With the bikes and equipment all safely packed and ready for the new season, what of the riders? For the first time since 2001 it is a British rider who enters a series looking to retain the world title. Previous to Tai Woffinden’s hugely impressive bruised, battered and battling victory last year, Mark Loram was the last British World Champion. The season that followed Loram’s series win though saw him finish a disappointing 9th in the standings. Part of that 2001 season was curtailed by injury for Loram, a spectre that all too familiarly hangs over the sport, but barring the same luck Woffinden should enjoy better this year. Woffinden’s self-belief and effortless skill on the bike should see the 23 year old, contend at this level for many years.

The only other British rider on the roster is the ever popular Chris “Bomber” Harris. His aims will surely be lower than Woffinden’s, although he’ll be desperate to improve on his 2011 & 2012 SGP attempts that saw few highlights and finishes of 11th & 12th respectively. Harris will consider a top 8 finish as success and if he can get his equipment and the pits support right, he is capable performer on the world stage. With 7 previous stage podium finishes and that famous win at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in 2007 a top 8 ranking is within his ability.

2014 will be the first time that the SGP series has featured 3 full time Australian riders since 2005, following the late call up for Troy Batchelor. Emil Sayfutdinov who suffered an injury hit 2013 and personal struggles with the death of his father has made the decision to pull out of this year’s series. The FIM and BSI both released statements suggesting that injury is the main cause for Sayfutdinov’s absence this year, although the rider’s twitter feed suggests a lack of financial support is the key issue. Whatever the truth, one man’s ill fortune is another man’s opportunity and the sparky Batchelor will no doubt ruffle a few feathers this year. He has never been afraid to talk the talk, however in the last few seasons domestically around Europe, he’s been doing a passable impression of walking the walk too.

Batchelor’s compatriots are both hotly tipped to feature on the podium come the final reckoning. 2012 World Champion Chris Holder will look for a happier year this time around. The Sydney rider’s 2013 season was ended abruptly riding for Poole in the British Elite League. A punishing crash at Coventry ended up with Holder sliding under the air fence and with a broken heel, a fractured hip and broken shoulder. Surely one of the favourites this time round Holder will have to get one over his good friend Darcy Ward.

Ward completed a first full time SGP season last year and is surely a champion in waiting. He will however need to find consistency where last year he was haphazard. But like Woffinden and Holder, he is so effortlessly talented on the bike, his irresistible class, as with those riders, will surely at some point win him the world title. Maybe Ward needs to look to the example of Holder and Woffinden, his good friends, as their titles and coming of age noticeably dove tailed with their growing maturity. Something Ward has yet to fully realise within.

Despite being around the SGP series since 2000 Jaroslaw Hampel has struggled at times to harness his potential into results. In the last two seasons however, Hampel has looked ready to step up on the world stage. 2012 saw him make a solid start to the series and ranked 6th going into the Danish GP. A fall in his first lap at the Parken Stadium essentially ruined his year but better would come the following season. 2nd only to Woffinden last time out and this time without the domineering presence of Tomasz Gollob, hugely popular and an icon of the sport in Poland, he will look to retain the consistency he found in 2013 to go one further in 2014.

Niels Kristian Iverson and Freddie Lindgren are two riders going into the new season on the back of contrasting experiences in 2013. Whilst NKI continued to ride the crest of wave, consistently topping the point averages across Europe’s leagues and achieving a world ranking of 3, Freddie’s star seemed to wane. Out of sorts in the GP series and a final placing of 11th, a doubt was cast over his appearance this season. So 2014 could mark a make or break season for the Sweden rider, who incidentally has opted not to ride in Britain (at Wolverhampton), for the first time in a decade. Conversely NKI will go into this series with the confidence of his recent blistering form. At 31, a speedway rider’s prime, the man from Esbjerg in Denmark has to be a real contender for the crown.

Of the remaining field it will certainly be interesting to see how the irrepressible, fastidiously professional pantomime villain that is Nicki Pedersen will fair this year. Two years ago he pushed Chris Holder all the way in every sense and last year some dominant showings coupled with slightly erratic performances meant a rank of 5th. Always a threat and always entertainment he cannot be underestimated. Will 2 times World Champion, Greg Hancock, be able to defy the laws of time and continue to outperform riders nearly half his age. The popular Californian ended one place above Pedersen last year which suggests he’s not ready to give in the ghost yet, however at 43 this may be his last SGP outing. In what is an astonishing achievement, Hancock has ridden in every single SGP event since it’s inception in 1995.

The daffodils will be a distant memory come 11th October where in Torun, Poland, the Speedway World Champion will take his place on the rostrum. But before then there’s a lot of travelling, hard exciting racing and no doubt the odd thrill and spill too to be had.

At 8/1 Hampel looks a decent shout following his performances last year and rank of 2. But I can’t see past the dynamic trio of Ward, Holder and current Champion Woffinden. At 100/1 and with bags of talent, experience and determination, Freddie Lindgren poses a good value shout as an outsider to potentially upset the odds.

(source: Oddschecker.com)
Darcy Ward 5/2
Tai Woffinden 4/1
Chris Holder 7/1
Jaroslaw Hampel 8/1
Niels Kristian Iversen 8/1
Nicki Pedersen 12/1
Greg Hancock 16/1
Matej Zagar 29/1
Frederik Lindgren 100/1

2014 Line Up
1 Tai Woffinden GBR
33 Jarosław Hampel POL
88 Niels Kristian Iversen DEN
45 Greg Hancock USA
5 Nicki Pedersen DEN
55 Matej Žagar SLV
43 Darcy Ward AUS
507 Krzysztof Kasprzak POL
66 Fredrik Lindgren SWE
23 Chris Holder AUS
100 Andreas Jonsson SWE
91 Kenneth Bjerre DEN
84 Martin Smolinski GER
37 Chris Harris GBR
75 Troy Batchelor AUS