Frankie Wainman Jnr won an unprecedented ninth BSCDA British Drivers Championship at Sheffield on Sunday, successfully defending the title he won a year ago, in a dramatic race that resulted in heated exchanges after the chequered flag fell.
The 46-year-old was winning the race for the third time at Owlerton Stadium, having won the two previous titles at the track in 2004 and 2005.
But while Wainman Jnr enjoyed another championship victory, emotions ran high between Tom Harris and Dan Johnson afterwards, after a lap down Johnson had noticeably slowed down in front of early leader Harris, allowing Wainman Jnr to close the gap.
Wainman Jnr, who went into the British event having won just one race during the season in March at King’s Lynn, began the meeting in the 21-car opening heat, which included former British champions Paul Harrison and Lee Fairhurst.
The race began on a greasy track, which caught out Harrison, who spun. Wainman Jnr got to grips with the surface early on and was already up to second place before halfway behind Karl Hawkins.
Hawkins continued to lead into the closing stages, but Wainman Jnr had caught the B-grade driver going into the last lap.
Mindful that too big a hit at the tricky Sheffield track could result in both cars heading fencewards, Wainman Jnr tried to slide up the inside of the leader, but in the sprint to the line Hawkins held on to win. Danny Wainman finished third, with Mark Gilbank, Fairhurst and Billy Johnson rounding out the top six.
Heat two featured many potential winners of the British, with Dan Johnson lining up with the star graders, and former British champion Craig Finnikin, Tom Harris, Ryan Harrison and Stuart Smith Jnr starting at the back of the 19-car field.
The yellows were soon out after Ricky Wilson hit the fence just past the start/finish line, ripping off both front wheels. Richard Woods led the restart ahead of Russell Cooper and Will Hunter, with Johnson, from his star grade start, already up to fourth.
Johnson made short work of getting to the front and led by halfway from Hunter, with Harris close up and Smith Jnr fourth.
Into the second half of the race and on a track that was quickly becoming slick and dusty, Johnson maintained his lead ahead of Harris and Smith to the flag. Finnikin finished fourth ahead of Ben Riley and Harrison.
The 22-car third heat began with the track graded and watered, and featured Mat Newson for the time in the afternoon, who had been delayed en route in severe traffic due to an accident.
The race was stopped after a couple of laps after Chris Brocksopp hit the fence entering the first turn, damaging a fence post and at the same time Jason Eaton hit the home straight fence and needed attention. Already Smith Jnr was out with an inside rear flat tyre and Fairhurst had been collected and spun in the home straight and was at the back of the grid.
Robert Plant led the restart but the race was stopped again on lap five after Luke Dennis hit the fence, by which time Hawkins was leading from Neil Scothern, with Newson already up to third place.
After the restart Newson soon took over the lead and went on to a straightforward win, ahead of Gilbank, Danny Wainman and a recovering Fairhurst. James Morris was fifth, ahead of Frankie Wainman Jnr Jr.
The 19-car heat four resulted in an easy win for Harris, who took the lead by halfway and coasted to victory ahead of a chasing Hunter, Johnson, Finnikin, Paul Hines and Bradley Harrison. Wainman Jnr had a quiet race in seventh place.
The yellow flags were soon out in the 16-car fifth heat after Eliot Smith hit the back straight fence, with Woods leading the restart from John Brown, Hawkins and Newson.
There was another stoppage five laps later after Fairhurst collected Daniel Clifford in the home straight and was forced to retire. Woods led them round for the green flag but Newson, who had lost ground early, came through to take the lead.
It was clear that once in the lead and the track became slick, it was difficult for anyone to make in-roads on those ahead of them. Newson was always in command to win his second consecutive heat from Harris, Danny Wainman, Paul Harrison, Bob Griffin and Hines.
The 20-car final qualifying heat for the British final was the most entertaining of the afternoon as a heavy rain shower turned the track into a skating rink, with cars grappling for grip throughout.
Wilson, having repaired his car from his earlier trip to the fence, paid it another visit on the pit bend fence on lap four to bring out the yellow flags.
Cooper led the restart but it was Johnson who adapted to the tricky conditions the best and took a lead that he then extended by nearly half a lap from Wainman Jnr.
Newson, in particular, was struggling in the wet conditions. “My goggles broke,” he said. “I couldn’t see, so it was a case of keeping going and get a position for the points. I was just a passenger.”
The European champion looked set for an easy win but then went in too deep into turn three and spun backwards into the fence, giving Wainman Jnr the lead. Johnson recovered to gradually claw back the deficit and was on Wainman Jnr’s tail as the lapboards came out.
Under pressure from Johnson, Wainman Jnr then also spun into the turn three fence to give Johnson back the lead and the victory, with Smith jnr slipping by to finish second, ahead of Wainman Jnr, Newson, Finnikin and Morris.
The sun returned to dry the track prior to the big race, with 23 cars surviving a brutal day’s racing to line up for the 20-lap British Drivers Championship final.
There was a minute silence in memory of those who had lost their lives in Manchester and the previous night in London, before a round of applause.
The cars then fired up their engines and began two rolling laps on the graded and watered track. Johnson started from pole position, with Newson alongside. Harris was on the inside of row two with Danny Wainman, while Wainman Jnr lined up immediately behind Harris on row three with Finnikin alongside. Hunter was next with Smith Jnr on the outside of row four.
As the green flag dropped Johnson led into turn one but went into the corner too deep allowing Harris to slide through on the inside, forcing Johnson into the mud, to take the lead as the cars entered the back straight.
Wainman Jnr got a great start on the inside to go third, with Smith Jnr an even better getaway in fourth.
Down the back straight for the first time Harris led as Johnson tried to recover, while behind Smith Jnr went in too deep and spun into the fence. Luckily for him, he was collected and straightened up by the pack that was led by Gilbank.
Johnson tried to regain ground on Harris but the Worksop driver went wide into turn three and as he entered the straight clipped the fence and spun, allowing the rest of the field to go by.
In just a couple of laps Harris built up a commanding lead of nearly half a lap, with Wainman Jnr now chasing in second, and Gilbank third.
As Harris drew clear of Wainman Jnr, the complexion of the race changed dramatically as Harris caught up on Johnson, who was a lap down, on lap five. It was then that Johnson controversially slowed in front of the leader, and within moments Wainman Jnr was on the Harris back bumper.
By the time Harris had passed Johnson, and before Wainman Jnr could capitalise, the yellow flags came out after Wainman Jnr Jr had gone into the third bend fence.
Luckily, Tom had no idea I didn’t have a clutch. Had he known, all he would have had to do was hit the brakes going into the corner and I would have stalled it
The order was Harris, Wainman Jnr, Gilbank, Johnson was next in line, although a lap down, Fairhurst was up to fourth from his sixth row start, with Newson next, followed by Finnikin, Smith Jnr and Hines.
As the field set off on the rolling lap again, all was not well with the Wainman Jnr car.
“I had no clutch pedal and had to start in first gear,” said Wainman Jnr. “Luckily, Tom had no idea I didn’t have a clutch. Had he known, all he would have had to do was hit the brakes going into the corner and I would have stalled it.
“It would have restarted but I would have been a mile behind him. Luckily, I managed to keep on his bumper and I was off the brakes and the throttle to keep going and when it went green I could only go so many revs and clip it into second without the clutch. I got that right, locked it in gear and obviously I dropped that bit behind him.
Tom just glanced Gilbank’s bumper, and it held him up for that split second and I knew at that point I could get to him
On the wave of the green flag, the battle was on. Harris took off and as the track began to dry was able to maintain his lead from Wainman Jnr. Further back Gilbank was sent wide by Johnson and slowed on the outside of the track and rejoined the race immediately in front of Harris, who was momentarily baulked as Gilbank tried to get to the infield. It meant Wainman Jnr was much closer as they entered turn one.
It was a game-changing moment. Wainman Jnr seized his chance and launched himself at the Harris rear bumper, sending the Banbury driver into the pit bend fence.
“Mark Gilbank had got damage and came across from the fence, hit the kerb and lost it a bit,” said Wainman Jnr. “Tom just glanced Gilbank’s bumper, and it held him up for that split second and I knew at that point I could get to him. I thought it was now or never.
“Luckily, I held it and I just missed him when he bounced out.”
Wainman Jnr was now in the lead for the first time and with clear track ahead of him was able to control the race. Behind him Smith Jnr was the fastest man on the track and, after having climbed up to second place after passing Newson, was making in-roads into Wainman Jnr’s lead. But the laps were running out.
As the chequered flag came out Wainman Jnr flashed across the line to take a famous victory. Smith Jnr was a fast-finishing second, with Newson taking third and the final podium slot.
Finnikin was fourth, Hines fifth, with Harris recovering to finish sixth, ahead of Johnson and Hawkins, who was the only other car to finish.
Wainman Jnr climbed on to his car’s roof and acknowledged the crowd with the chequered flag in hand.
“The car was hooked up really good in that,” said Wainman Jnr. “It was really quick in the first heat. I had new tyres on for that, and I used them again in the final.
“I knew if I could survive the first couple of laps I could influence the outcome.
“My car was properly on it, and I was able to pull away from Dan Johnson behind me, who’d been really quick but I knew he was a lap down. I then backed off in the last few laps. I steadied it down a bit as there wasn’t anyone near me, and that was it.”
Everybody else went up the kerb and I didn’t and it cost me the race
Despite finishing runner-up, Smith Jnr was a disappointed man. “I made a mistake,” he said. “It was really tricky at the start. I was committed to my line and it was too wide.
“I should have put the front wheel on the kerb but I didn’t want to because all day I’d been putting a tyre on the kerb and it spat the front end away from me.
“So I wanted to enter it without touching the kerb and keep on the dry, as I knew then that would propel me forward and keep me on the right racing line. But everybody else went up the kerb and I didn’t and it cost me the race.”
Similarly, Newson was dissatisfied with third place. With the outside rows of the grid being at a disadvantage due to the muddier surface, Newson went from a front row start down to eighth place going into the first corner.
“One more point and I would have been inside as Dan beat me to pole by one point,” said Newson. “He had two wins and a third, and I had two wins and a fourth. Or if I had dropped a couple points and been where Tom lined up would have been better.
“From there, the car felt good and I got going and got back to third, but it was too little, too late.”
That’s not racing. He deliberately held me up for more than a lap.
However, much of the talk after the race was about Harris and Johnson. As the season moves into the heat of summer, so the temperature has risen in a feud between two of the sport’s top stars.
Harris was furious at what he saw as a deliberate move to jeopardise his race. “Frank put me in the fence and I have no problem with that,” said Harris. “Fair play to him. I would have done exactly the same thing to him if it had been the other way round.
“But what Dan Johnson did? What a —. That’s not racing. He deliberately held me up for more than a lap.”
I thought the yellows had come out, so I slowed down…
Johnson believed Harris used unfair tactics to take the lead on the opening lap. “At the start he came into my side rail and you’re not even meant to be allowed to do that,” he said.
Harris retorted: “When I went past him into the first corner, I was on full lock trying to get round! It was so wet the car pushed on as I tried to turn in.”
Asked about the incident when Harris went to lap him, Johnson said: “I thought the yellows had come out, so I slowed down…”
Neil Randon 2017
Photos courtesy of Colin Casserley and Neil Randon