Nigel Green can rightly claim to be the new dominant force in F1 stock car racing with a near perfect drive to win the World Championship Final at Ipswich on September 16.
Green, who won the European Championship in July, started the race as the hot favourite from pole position and led throughout the 25-lap race to claim his first gold roof in only his second World Final.
But this was no facile victory. Green had to work for it while under constant pressure on every lap from rival Dan Johnson. The 32-year-old had to hold his nerve after a restart on lap two and had to withstand forceful tactics from a couple of lapped Dutchman before he could become the new world champion.
And despite a desperate and unsuccessful lunge on the final bend from Johnson, Green remained unruffled. With superior pace compared to his rivals, it was a composed and professional performance from the Leicestershire superstar, who took a well-deserved victory.
Prior to the race the overseas entrants took part in time trials to establish their order on the grid, and it was Frank Wouters who surprisingly claimed the fastest lap. Wouters came in as a late reserve to replace Geert-Jan Keijzer, who suffered major engine problems prior to the event, to line up on the inside of row three, with Wesley Schaap alongside.
After commentator Steve Linfield called for the drivers to start their engines, the 34-car field began their rolling laps. As the field cruised down the back straight prior to the green flag, Johnson tried his best to unsettle Green by leading the field as they prepared for the start, but Green would have none of it. Johnson was forced to back off to allow the pole man to draw alongside and in doing so Green seized his chance and set off in front as the green flag dropped.
“It got to the point where he was at the place where I knew you would be able to set off from and it not be a jump start,” said Green. “So I was thinking, is he going to slow down? If he had set off I would have been in a bit of a pickle, but fortunately he didn’t, he sort of waited.
“It was a bit strange why he wanted to be so far in front. I was the pole sitter, so in my mind I should be the one setting the pace.”
By slowing as Green accelerated Johnson backed up those behind him, particularly Stuart Smith Jnr, allowing the inside rows to gain an immediate advantage and allowing Green safe passage into turn one.
“I think Daniel is his own worst enemy sometimes,” said Smith Jnr. “On the first start he completely screwed himself and me up and the third row overtook me immediately.
“It was only going to be us two who were going to give Nigel a run for his money on those first two laps.”
Into the first bend Paul Hines led the rest of the field, with Johnson next, followed by Smith Jnr and reigning world champion Frankie Wainman Jnr.
Behind these all hell let loose as National Points champion Rob Speak, competing in his last race and starting from the seventh row, made an immediate impact by pile-driving into those in front of him into the first bend.
“I made the ground up at the start. I hit them all hard into the first bend, didn’t I?” Speak said with a smile. “I did the lot of them.”
In an instant a large swath of overseas entrants plus Mark Gilbank were catapulted into the Armco. Wouters, Schapp, Jan Roelof Wijbenga, Christian Weyenberg and Wayne Hemi, in the Lee Fairhurst Tarmac car, were all wiped out on the spot.
Fairhurst himself also became embroiled as did Luke Davidson, while a lap later Mat Newson and Mark Woodhall also joined the carnage.
Upfront, Green already had a sizeable lead, while Johnson moved Hines wide into turn three. Wainman Jnr had swiftly got passed Smith Jnr to go fourth.
On lap two Green led Johnson, while Hines was forced wide by the pack led by Wainman Jnr and Smith Jnr.
As the yellows came out due to the excessive pile-up in turn one, Smith Jnr speared Wainman Jnr into the melee.
Wainman Jnr later expressed his views to Smith Jnr concerning the move. “I was unhappy earlier on when we were on the yellows for half a lap and Stuart stuck me into a load of parked cars,” he said. “I was even waving out of the window going down the straight and I only had one hand on the steering wheel when he hit me!”
Smith Jnr had a different view of the incident. “Frank came up to me afterwards asking me about it, as though I did it on purpose,” he responded. “I went down the home straight and caught him up because my car was quicker than his at the start and I put him into the pile up. I didn’t know the yellows were out, but as soon as I came out of the corner I saw the yellows waving.
“I thought it was because I put Frank in. He said he had his hand out of the cab but when I’m racing I’m not looking for your hand out of the cab I’m looking at your back bumper!”
As the dust settled, in preparation for the restart and the wreckage was cleared from the track Green led from Johnson. A lap down Davidson separated Johnson from Wainman Jnr, who was reinstated in third place. Smith Jnr was next ahead of Ryan Harrison, Hines, Ron Kroonder, Speak, Craig Finnikin and Dutch driver Johan Catsburg.
As the cars crawled down the back straight prior to the restart, Johnson was close to the back bumper of Green, with the rest of the field bumper-to-bumper in anticipation.
The restart was good. I was getting bumpered down the back straight so I went earlier than I aimed to because I thought “if these guys behind decide when I’m going I’m going to be in a mess here”
The next few seconds were crucial to the outcome of the race. As the green flag dropped Green got another great start, but Johnson was too heavy on the throttle and lit the rear tyres. That split second gave the leader an extra car length of breathing space as the field barrelled down into turn one.
“The restart was good,” said Green. “I was getting bumpered down the back straight so I went earlier than I aimed to because I thought “if these guys behind decide when I’m going I’m going to be in a mess here”, so I picked it up and got away.
On the restart Dan lit his rear tyres up. He just needed to be calm and leave it on, but he was that far away into the next corner Nigel was gone
“Fortunately, I got enough of a gap so I wasn’t in range from the guys behind.”
Smith Jnr said” “On the restart Dan lit his rear tyres up. He just needed to be calm and leave it on, but he was that far away into the next corner Nigel was gone.”
Backmarker Davidson moved out wide to allow the leaders through behind him, as Smith Jnr put heavy pressure on Wainman Jnr, with Harrison close up. Behind these as Hines dropped back, Speak forced Kroonder wide allowing Finnikin through to sixth, but a lap later retook the place.
Green was looking comfortable in front but as soon as he had to negotiate backmarkers Johnson closed the gap. It was before halfway that Green had his first worrying moment with the tail-enders. As he forced his way past Jan Kuin, the Dutch dirt track driver immediately retaliated into turn three and pushed Green wide through the turn. This allowed Johnson get closer to the leader’s rear bumper but Green soon recovered to re-establish the gap.
Behind them Wainman Jnr was on his own in third, but Harrison was picking up pace and had forced his way past Smith Jnr to go fourth.
Green then had another issue with backmarkers a couple of laps later as the race approached the halfway stage. Passing Evert van den Berg down the back straight, Green again received an unnecessary hit from behind as he went into turn three and drifted wide.
As the halfway flags came out Johnson was now only two car lengths behind Green, with Wainman Jnr next. Harrison was beginning to close on Wainman Jnr in fourth, with Smith Jnr next. Speak was sixth with Finnikin close up in seventh place.
As the laps ticked off Green maintained his lead and his composure. Hines tangled with New Zealander Simon Joblin on the inside of turn two in front of him, kicking up a cloud of shale dust, but Green negotiated the traffic unhindered.
As the lap boards came out Green was still just two to three car lengths in front of Johnson, while Wainman Jnr was under pressure from Harrison, who went past the world champion to go third.
As Green entered the final lap Johnson gave everything he had in his locker to try to close the gap. Down the back straight for the final time as Green negotiated the third bend, Johnson launched his car in an audacious and desperate attempt to make contact with Green’s back bumper.
It was a do-or-die effort. As the Johnson car leapt the kerb into the last bend he missed his target and clattered the Armco. After a fine drive Johnson’s race came to an abrupt end just 150 metres from the flag.
Unaffected, Green powered to a well-deserved victory and the gold roof. Harrison came home in an excellent second place ahead of Wainman Jnr, who took the final podium position. Smith Jnr was fourth, ahead of Speak, Finnikin, Catsburg, who was the best finishing overseas driver, Danny Wainman, Michael Scriven and Kroonder.
“It was an enjoyable race,” said a delighted Green. “It all went to plan but it was a bit unfortunate when the yellow flags came out but it could have been worse.
“The car was amazing. The car was set up perfectly and was nice to drive. I was just taking my time through the traffic and that was where some of the gaps were closed up with Dan and he was making the most of every opportunity. I was just approaching everything with caution. The bumper I received from a few of the backmarkers didn’t help me, but fortunately I hung it out and happy days! World Champion!”
While Green came away happy with his night’s work, those finishing behind him had a less than satisfactory outlook on the race.
“It was really frustrating,” said runner-up Harrison. “I just didn’t get going at the start. The car just wasn’t playing the game. Everyone has been struggling recently with right rear tyres that are splitting. We went to Northampton on Wednesday with Rob Speak and we did a lot of laps. We used ten new tyres there and every one of them split.
“So I refused to run them because they are terrible when they split, so I ran a tyre that was old and had done two heats and the final at Birmingham, but Birmingham is the worst place to rerun tyres because it shreds them.
It was all coming at the end and doing what it was supposed to – but it was too little, too late
“But I said to my dad, I’d rather run a tyre that’s bit worn, a bit old, than have one that splits and is a waste of time.
“So we went with it, but that hurt me at the start of the race because it took too long to get going. But once it did, it was all coming at the end and doing what it was supposed to – but it was too little, too late.”
Wainman Jnr put in a game performance in defence of his title in third place but always believed Green would be hard to catch.
Ryan when past me apparently with one lap to go, but then the four lap to go board came out after that!
“I got a good start, we couldn’t do more than we did,” said Wainman Jnr. “I said beforehand if Greeny got away at the start he’d be gone, and he did.
“Ryan when past me apparently with one lap to go, but then the four lap to go board came out after that! When we had the one lapboard, I could see Ryan panic and he got past then.”
Fourth-place Smith Jnr, one of the pre-race favourites, was disappointed with his result.
We made some changes here after practice and I wish we hadn’t, because yesterday we had the car good but I think we’ve over-thought about it
“The car was a lot poorer than I thought it would be,” he said. “After the first start I felt I had the drive but a couple of laps after the second start I could tell my car wasn’t that good. I was just hanging on then.
“We made some changes here after practice and I wish we hadn’t, because yesterday we had the car good but I think we’ve over-thought about it. We should just leave things as they are sometimes.”
It just didn’t click. But how can it when you’ve done just one race, a semi-final, and then get into a different car and race in the World Final?
Speak, competing in his last race before continuing his role as Skegness promoter, felt fifth place was as good as he was going to get. “It was alright, fifth was good,” he said. “But no-one was going to catch Nigel.
“I think I went off a bit by the finish. You try so hard at the start and then you try and relax into a rhythm to get yourself going and then after that you haven’t enough time to find a rhythm. I think I found one, then I went off a little bit and then it just didn’t click.
“But how can it when you’ve done just one race, a semi-final, and then get into a different car and race in the World Final?”
Danny Wainman made up the most places in the race from row 13 to finish eighth. “I did the gearbox on about lap four,” said Wainman. “It was vibrating its head off at about 4,500 revs.
“I wasn’t even braking into the corners, just rolling in and just picking it back up. It was mint. It actually went better than I thought it would being that slow down the straight.”
I wasn’t interested in finishing second, so I had to go for it
After such a determined drive Johnson came away with a DNF to show for his efforts. As Green celebrated on the centre green, Johnson received one of the biggest receptions from the stands after the race.
Having sacrificed a certain second place in an attempt to win the World Final, he had his car pushed around the track on a lap of honour by Smith Jnr in front of an appreciative crowd.
“I wasn’t interested in finishing second, so I had to go for it,” said Johnson. “I just didn’t have enough drive out of the corners. Nigel was just playing with me, but I kept it as close as I could.”
Neil Randon 2017
Photos courtesy of Colin Casserley and Neil Randon