Having won the World Cup at Venray less than a week earlier, Ryan Harrison proved himself to be “The Boss” on Tarmac with victory in the final at the opening round of the Mintex National Points Championship Shootout at Birmingham.
Arriving at the Birmingham Wheels track Harrison was 26 points behind the Shootout series points leader Frankie Wainman Jnr in 12th place, but came away at the top of the table, four points clear of Stuart Smith Jnr, who was three points clear of Nigel Green.
But the meeting, run as a two-thirds format, didn’t exactly start off with a bang for Harrison – far from it, in fact.
In the 22-car opening heat, while George Elwell was taking the lead from Kelvin Hassell with five laps to go, and Lee Fairhurst was moving Rob Cowley aside on the last bend to win the drag race to the line for third place, Harrison was struggling for grip down in ninth place.
Fortunately, the handling of the car was due to one simple error, discovered soon after the race.
“It was really loose and we were scratching our heads thinking, “this is really bad”,” Harrison said. “And then my dad checked the tyre pressures…”
“We forgot to let the tyres down!” said Harrison. “The left rear had got 36psi and we normally run 15.”
The 23-car heat two was also led by Hassell before Chris Cooke took over by halfway, and these two comfortably stayed at the head of the field for the remainder of the race. Cooke took the flag from Hassell, who finished in another excellent second place in the Mat Newson hire car. Joff Gibson was third, in front of Shane Geary and Elwell. The Shootout drivers made little impact with Fairhurst again the main protagonist in sixth place.
Heat three had 22 cars on track and was led by Aaron Leach in the early stages, with Tristan Jackson chasing. Green, who had had a lacklustre heat two, was more of a factor, having earlier passed Harrison to close on the leaders as the lap boards came out. Jackson caught Leach and took the lead into turn three with four laps to go. Green swiftly caught Leach to go second, and tried to deliver a last-bender on the last lap but the contact wasn’t enough to dislodge Jackson, who held on in the sprint to the line to take his first F1 stock car victory. Harrison took third place ahead of Leach, with Wainman Jnr fifth and Luke Davidson sixth.
For Harrison it was a case of playing catch up. “The car was better but it still wasn’t right,” said Harrison. “With everyone getting two races and time to adjust the car for the final, we only had, in effect, one race then time to adjust the car for the final.”
The 32-car final was fast and furious. Stephen Malkin, who had made his presence felt in the heats with some entertaining driving – and clearly not fazed by any reputations – led the field in the early stages. It was Harrison who led the Shootout drivers, with Smith Jnr close behind, having shoved Fairhurst wide into turn three on lap three.
Green was having a busy race behind. Having immediately followed Smith Jnr past Fairhurst, Wainman barged both Fairhurst and Green wide into turn one to go past both. Half a lap later and Wainman Jnr was also in front of Green.
Up front Malkin was still leading the race, as Smith Jnr pushed Harrison wide into turn three, only for Hassell and Cowley to spin in front of him in the home straight allowing Harrison to take the position back.
In the concertina-effect created behind, Wainman Jnr and Wainman got caught up in the melee, allowing Green to slip through on the inner to split the two brothers.
These three were having a great race together, trading places for the next few laps, before Wainman Jnr hooked up with Danny Colliver on the home straight.
Past halfway and Malkin remained in the lead from John Fortune and Elwell, with Harrison and Smith Jnr closing in on the leader.
Smith Jnr then pushed Harrison wide into turn one, but dived in too deep into turn three, which allowed Harrison to retake the position.
As the laps boards came out Fortune took the lead from Malkin, but the C-grader immediately fought back by diving inside of the new leader, who had drifted wide into turn one. Side-by-side down the back straight Malkin kept the inside line but both drifted wide into turn three, which allowed Harrison, who was now right on their tails, to take the lead into the home straight as the three laps to go board came out.
We changed a few things on the car and went with a rally tyre for the inside front. When I got to the first corner I thought, “yeah, this is good enough to win”
The feisty Malkin wasn’t done yet, and launched at the Harrison back bumper into turn one but Harrison withstood the challenge. Smith Jnr, now past Fortune, then shunted Malkin wide into turn three to take second place.
Harrison was able to sprint clear, with Smith Jnr in second. Behind them Fortune was now third, but Malkin moved him aside into turn three as the last-lap board came out. Harrison took the flag and an excellent victory, with Smith Jnr second. Fortune gave Malkin a last-bender to finally resolve their private battle for third. Gibson finished fifth, Wainman sixth, with Fairhurst, Green, Newson and Wainman Jnr rounding out the top ten.
“We changed a few things on the car and went with a rally tyre for the inside front,” explained Harrison. “When I got to the first corner I thought, “yeah, this is good enough to win.”
“And that was it. I just powered on. Stuart was doing his best to fire everyone into me, which was slowing me up and then he got by me – he gave me a good shot – and on the next bend he went straight on. He must have been expecting a big one from me and I drove right by him.
“I took the lead from Stephen Malkin with about three laps to go. I’ve been practicing with him twice, helping hjm out and getting him up to speed with a few things on his car – and once I got by he had a right good old shot at me!”
The Grand National field 25 cars with Harrison taking the one-lap handicap. Another hectic affair, the race was stopped on lap two after Whittle and Scott Davids tangled on the pit bend, which involved Newson, who was left stranded in turn four.
Malkin led the restart from Geary, as Smith Jnr catapulted his way through the field to go third. Further back the bumpers were flying in with Wainman being put into a spin by Green into turn three. Then a lap later on the same bend, Harrison made up four places with a four-way plant by firing Jackson into Ben Riley, into Fairhurst into Nigel Land.
In the National the car was even quicker and I had my worst tyres on. I was really moving and shovelling quite few
Smith Jnr soon caught and passed the leaders to take the lead after halfway, with Green following suit soon after. Wainman Jnr swiftly moved into third spot, but was spun with five laps to go after drifting wide into turn three. Davidson had forced Malkin wide, who ended up clipped to back bumper of the world champion. This promoted Harrison into third spot.
Smith Jnr coasted to an easy win, with Green second and Harrison an impressive third from the one-lap handicap. Davidson was fourth, ahead of Paul Hines and Fairhurst.
“In the National the car was even quicker and I had my worst tyres on,” Harrison revealed. “I was really moving and shovelling quite few.”
Going into Belle Vue on Bank Holiday Monday, the National Points title already looked wide-open, with Harrison now at the head of affairs. “I said beforehand we’d see how things went in the first couple of rounds,” he said. “And at Birmingham we smoked them pretty good, to be fair.”