Speedway GP Round 1 Auckland

Martin Smolinski was the surprise winner of the Auckland Speedway Grand Prix this weekend. The German rider, in his debut SGP season, confounded expectations to take the top of the rostrum in an incident packed evening at the Western Springs circuit.

Smolinski has eschewed racing in any of the major leagues this season in favour of condensing his focus almost entirely on the SGP series. Looking trim and focused the German has clearly put a huge effort into his preparation for this season and in the New Zealand sunshine, some of that preparation certainly paid off. Being handed inside gate starts in all of his first 3 heats certainly helped his as the grip remained low down in the early part of the meeting. However his bike preparation and tactic to ride a tight inside line around the huge Western Springs track showed good awareness and he made use of that grip returning 8 points from 9 with a 2nd and then 2 heat wins, in his first 3 races.

As the track conditions changed later during the meeting, the grip moved out wider, as did Smolinski’s gate positions and he for the first time in the evening looked vulnerable. In heat 14, starting from gate 4 (the outside, Yellow Helmet, position) he struggled to make a start and was trailing Pedersen, Kasprzak and Ward into the final bend. There he appeared to lose control of the bike and run straight into an unsuspecting Darcy Ward at high speed. The unlucky Australian hit the track hard in what was an awful looking get off and looked to be unconscious during the fall and whilst receiving prolonged attention from the medical staff. In scoring the heat, Ward was awarded a point for 3rd position despite being taken from the track in an ambulance – his meeting over. Smolinski thankfully was able to pull himself up and walk back to the pits with without either attention or a point.

You may have been forgiven for expecting Smolinski to fade from this point. However with a 2nd place in his last ride topping off a ten point haul from the heats, his semi-final berth was guaranteed which in itself represented a terrific nights work for the former Birmingham Brummies rider.

Incongruously and despite Smolinski’s inspired performance throughout the night and eventual win, there were two riders to outscore the German. Krzysztof Kasprzak defied flu symptoms to cap off a commanding performance with 17 points and a 3rd placed rostrum finish. The Pole who at times looked forlorn and out of sorts in the pits, slumped and retching at one point, was anything but on the track. Kasprzak is an undoubted talent and his speed out front at times sets him apart, as was the case in Auckland’s wide open spaces. However his performances in the past suggest a fitful, unpredictable nature when over the course of a long series consistency is key. In Auckland though he looked every bit the world beater and had he not ridden so wide with a lap to go, allowing both Pedersen and Smolinski room, in the final he may have taken the win instead of settling for 3rd.

Pantomime and professional are two words often used to depict Nikki Pedersen, the 3 times world champion from Denmark. However in this opening SGP he was peerless, top scoring with 19 points on the night. His usual highly strung pit-side rants, berating his crew and guttural shrieks were replaced with a more relaxed, even playful demeanour. On track though it was the same Pedersen, fast out from the gate, forceful and combative on the bike and in dropping only 3 points during the night the Dane was awesome.
Dominant in the heats with four wins and a 2nd placing (14 points from a possible 15) Pedersen was rampant. Having already triumphed over both Smolinski and Kasprzak in the heat that saw Ward carted off to hospital, things looked set for Pedersen’s 14th career GP win.

In the final though it was the new boy that won through in the end despite being stone last for most of the initial 2 laps. Kasprzak in red flew out from the tapes and by the exit of the first bend was pulling out from Pedersen in white. Both were riding mid-track to wide lines and looking fast. Pedersen was building up momentum each lap and was able to capitalise as the Polish rider found himself a touch too wide with one lap remaining. With more speed and the better line, the Dane persuasively manoeuvred past Kasprzak to take the lead entering the penultimate bend. Meanwhile Smolinski, using the tactic that served him so well in the first half of the heats, had tracked the bike round the inside line finding impressive speed and found himself up close to the front pair. By the exit of the penultimate bend, with Pedersen moving wide of the line Smolinski was able to muscle himself past the Dane down the back straight and into the lead. Keeping it tight to the white line in the final bend, where he and his bike had worked so well throughout the night, the German rider was able to cap a memorable bow to world championship racing.

It is a rare thing to find a Speedway rider competing in the SGP series who doesn’t combine that with the rigours of racing in multiple leagues across Europe and the hectic schedule that riding a myriad of weekly meetings entails. So it is yet to be seen whether Martin Smolinski’s decision to reduce his competitive action down so starkly is a good one.

Without wanting to corrode his achievement in New Zealand, the opening SGP often throws up a mixed bag in terms of results and performances. Riders still tend to be refining equipment and set ups and the budding competitive sharpness of constant racing, is often yet to fully bloom. So we can better judge the German racer’s performance by the time the SGP takes it’s leave to make room for the Speedway World Cup. What will be giving rise for concern to pre series favourites though is Nikki Pedersen’s start to the series. After the Auckland meeting, he looks like the one to beat.

Outside the top three Swede Freddie Lindgren made up the four in the final, riding and scoring impressively throughout the meeting. This could be a highly influential season in his career. Chris Holder will be very satisfied with his 11 point haul as will Kenneth Bjerre on his return to the series. Woffinden and Hampel, last season’s SGP 1 & 2 were again separated by one position on the table. Hampel won this event last year but will no doubt see this as a solid start to his campaign. Defending World Champion Woffinden looked awkward on the bike early on suffering from the painful effects of a midweek crash in the Bristish League which left him checking himself out of hospital in order to fly across the world for Saturday’s SGP. He’ll be happy then with 7 points and a few weeks to repair the damage to his back and right ankle ligaments, essential to a Speedway rider, before the next round in Bydgoszcz.

Greg Hancock suffered a nightmare start to his meeting with zero from his first 3 rides. He showed his class and experience in scoring 2 wins in this remaining two rides to salvage something from what could have been disaster.

Darcy Ward will wait till he returns to Europe before he assesses when he can get back on a bike. A potential operation on his thumb and knee injury sustained in his shocking looking spill on Saturday will no doubt side line him for a while, whether he will line up on April 26th remains to be seen.

Britain’s other rider Chris Harris had a horror show of a meeting. “Bomber” left Western Springs with as many points as he arrived with. Running four last placings and a disqualification after falling, whilst last, will leave the Cornishman searching for answers. He is nothing but a grafter though and with a few weeks to banish the disappointment of Auckland, he will hopefully come back stronger in Bydgoszcz.