The speedway season at Highbridge’s Oaktree Arena got underway with a well-attended fixture on Friday (31st March) when the SGB Premiership Pairs Championship took place.
The Premiership Pairs, which includes two riders from each team in the league, is the first of two National Championship meetings to be held in Somerset this season, with the second being the SGB Championship version, now long established at the Oaktree Arena, on 21st July, the eve of the British Speedway Grand Prix.
On Friday the eight teams were split into two groups of four, competing in a Round Robin qualifier to establish the semi-finalist. Unlike normal team speedway, the scoring system is 4pts for a win, 3pts for second, 2pts for third, with the fourth place a non-scorer, which is designed to encourage team riding within the pair.
The ‘Cases’ Somerset Rebels were drawn in Group ‘A’, alongside Belle Vue, Wolverhampton & Swindon, with Group ‘B’ consisting of Rye House, Poole, Leicester and Kings Lynn.
The opening heat in Group ‘A’ turned into two separate races, as Craig Cook and Fredrik Lindgren flashed from the tapes to battle it out to the turn. Cook eased into the lead, with Lindgren hot on his tail. Lindgren pressured Cook for all four laps, but couldn’t find a run at the Cumbrian.
Meanwhile, behind them Max Fricke was chasing Wolverhampton’s Jacob Thorssell for third place. As the front pair pulled away, Thorssell held off Fricke with some ease, and Wolverhampton to the heat advantage 5-4.
‘Cases’ Somerset Rebels made their debut in an SGB Premiership level competition in Heat 3 (the second heat in Group ‘A’) and produced a winning debut, as Rohan Tungate charged off the start to show former Rebel, and 2016 World Championship contender, Jason Doyle the quickest way round the Oaktree Arena circuit. Doyle tried every line around the Highbridge track, but in the end had no answer to Tungate’s speed.
Patrick Hougaard was last away, but swept around another former Rebel, in the shape of Nick Morris, on the final turns of the opening lap. Once there, like Doyle, Morris had no reply to Hougaard, no matter how hard he pressed. The home fans gave the Rebels pair a resounding cheer as they recorded a 6-3 victory in the heat.
Heat 5 saw Belle Vue’s chances of adding significantly to their score, as Craig Cook was squeezed out on the run to the turn by the fast starting Swindon pairing of Doyle and Morris. To add insult to injury he also caught a big lift off the start, which virtually ended his chance of success before it had even started. Swindon roared to the front, and never looked back as they completed all four laps upsides each other, shutting out Belle Vue and recording a maximum 7-2 victory in the process.
Heat 7 saw the ‘Cases’ Somerset Rebels duo eventually shut out by Wolverhampton. Rohan Tungate was quickly away, contesting the early running with Fredrik Lindgren, but as they hit the back straight it was Lindgren who had established a lead, as Tungate was shuffled back one more place by Jacob Thorssell’s outside run. Late in the race, Patrick Hougaard took up the challenge and was almost upsides Thorssell as the hit the third turn of Lap 3, only to have the door slammed in his face, as Wolverhampton ran out 7-2 winners.
Tungate and Hougaard were quickly back on track as they contested Heat 9 with Belle Vue. As the tapes rose the pair ran to the turn three abreast with Craig Cook. Cook ran Tungate out to the fence, leaving his partner a huge gaping hole to the inside to exploit.
Fricke was quick to take the invitation, as he slipped through, followed by Hougaard. For his pains, Tungate found himself at the back, a position he couldn’t recover from, no matter how hard he tried. Hougaard took the wide route down the back straight, and swept into the lead as they headed for the third turn.
Cook took over the chase from Fricke, but Hougaard answered every question he posed, and in the end took the win with something in hand.
With the ‘Cases’ Somerset Rebels having completed their three rides, and sitting on 12-points, there was still a chance of a semi-final place, but unfortunately, it was out of their hands and relied on the result of Heat 11 going their way. To add to the suspense the race was held up as both teams came to the tapes wearing the same helmet colours.
It would need a 7-2 win by Wolverhampton over Swindon for the Rebels duo to progress to the semi’s, but as the tapes rose the Rebels fate was sealed, ironically by none other than Jason Doyle, who bolted from the tapes and after contesting a tight run to the opening turn with both Wolverhampton riders, took up the lead off the second turn and led every other inch of the way. The result meant that both Wolverhampton and Swindon had qualified for the Semi-Finals from a hard-fought Group ‘A’.
Group ‘B’ turned out to be a more cut and dried affair for Kings Lynn, who produced an almost faultless display to record a maximum 21-point haul to top the group. In their heats, former World Champion, Chris Holder showed what a top notch team rider he is as he was constantly looking for partner Robert Lambert, allowing him through to lead at times, and then sitting on his wheel to shepherd him home. Not that the ever improving and highly talented Englishman needs much shepherding.
Heat 2 saw the experienced Rye House pairing of the Chris Harris and Scott Nicholls open up with a maximum advantage, sweeping off the start to swamp the Poole pair of Brady Kurtz and Jack Holder on the run to the turn. Once at the head of affairs the pair put on an excellent display of team riding to completely eclipse the Dorset duo, with a 7-2 win.
Kings Lynn made their first appearance of the night in Heat 4, with Robert Lambert getting a great inside run at the turn to pass the whole field after a fairly level break. Heading into the back straight, his partner Chris Holder caught the grip, sending his front wheel high into the air. Holder was unflustered by the lift and quickly had the bike down and running again, so much so that he rapidly picked off the Leicester duo of Danny King and Kim Nilsson, and joined lambert at the front, before going on to take the heat with ease, and put 7-points in the bank.
There was a close fought battle to the turn in Heat 6, as Holder and Lambert, in a quick return to the track, battled it out with Scott Nicholls. As Holder hit the front off the turn, Lambert showed Nicholls the long way round and put an end to the challenge before they reached the back straight. The opening turns were really the story of the race, with Kings Lynn heading home from Lap1, and scoring another maximum haul.
Danny King and Brady Kurtz provided the entertainment in Heat 8, after King and his partner, Kim Nilsson, had given Leicester early hopes of a maximum heat win. With Nilsson taking up the running, King was relegated to third by Jack Holder as they ran the back straight for the first time. As Nilsson and Holder headed for home, Kurtz was giving chase to King, and for three laps he closed him down, at times getting close to finding a way through. As they ran into the first turn for the final time, Kurtz found an opening, slicing through the inside as King left a gap. If he thought that he had stolen a heat win late on, Kurtz had to think again, as King repaid the compliment on the very next turn, giving his team a 6-3 heat win.
Heat 10 opened with a pretty physical battle at the opening bend, as Scott Nicholls and Chris Harris tried to shut out Kim Nilsson. Whilst it was partially effective, Nilsson was at his belligerent best as he muscled his way into second place, demoting Harris to third, but Nicholls had stolen a march and was now heading for home. Harris was soon harrying the Swede all the way. Nilsson took the pressure well, and answered every call Harris made, holding him off to the flag, but with Danny King not getting into the race, it was Rye House who carried off the heat win, 6-3.
Robert Lambert produced a stunning ride in Heat 12 to ensure that Kings Lynn headed into the semi-finals unbeaten, but for a long time that outcome looked highly unlikely. All but lambert fought out the run to the turn, with Chris Holder getting the better of younger brother Jack and Brady Kurtz at the opening bend, with Lambert bringing up the rear.
That’s how the race settled and for a long time it looked as though the Poole pair had stopped the Stars from going unbeaten through the night, but Lambert clearly had other ideas. As they headed to the completion of the second lap, Lambert found the drive he wanted, and quickly closed on Jack Holder, sweeping around the fence line to grab third place as they hit the third lap, then almost on one fluid movement he switched his attack inside, cruising serenely up the Kurtz inner as they headed out onto Lap 3. Once there it was game over, as he quickly put distance between himself and his pursuers, to keep the unbeaten record intact.
So the semi-final line-ups were now complete, with the Group ‘A’ winners, Wolverhampton, lining up against Group ‘B’ runners up, Rye House, whilst Kings Lynn’s opponents were Swindon in Semi-Final 2.
Semi-Final 1 turned out to be a muted affair, with the Wolverhampton pair completely dominating Rye House from the off. Jacob Thorssell took up the running inside the rest of the field as they hit the opener, and was quickly followed through by Fredrick Lindgren. Once in place, they cruised to a bloodless victory, never giving Rye House a sniff of the front.
Kings Lynn lost their perfect record in Semi-Final 2, when Jason Doyle blazed from the tapes to lead every inch of the way. Chris Holder took an erratic line off the tapes, as his bike appeared to struggle for grip, weaving its way to the first turn. Whatever problem he had in finding some grip, it was still good enough to see off Nick Morris, who was shut out at the rear. Morris did find some drive and came roaring down the back straight to deliver a strong challenge as they headed into the third turn, but his run fell short as Holder slammed the door shut at the vital moment. Once Morris’s challenged had been snuffed out, Kings Lynn were happy to sit and defend second and third place to take the heat win 5-4 and progress to the final with Wolverhampton.
The Final line up saw Kings Lynn take the inside gates, with Wolverhampton off 2 & 4. In keeping with their earlier virtually impeccable performance, Kings Lynn did it again. Chris Holder was very quickly into his stride off Gate 1, as he and Robert Lambert squeezed out Jacob Thorssell on the run to the turn. Lambert moved wide and sailed around the outside to follow his partner to the front, leaving the Wolverhampton pair floundering in their wake. They then rode the whole four laps side-by-side, with Holder easing off slightly at the line to allow his young partner to take the flag in first place, as at the rear, Fredrik Lindgren retired on the final lap.
It was a thoroughly well-deserved victory for the East Anglian side, who had shown what this competition is all about, team riding as a pair, with Chris Holder, in particular, showing his undoubted prowess in that sphere. For his part, Robert Lambert showed an increasing liking and understanding of the Oaktree Arena circuit, as, until his final visit of the 2016 season with Newcastle, he had been somewhat inconsistent at the Highbridge racetrack, but all that was gone from his game as he showed what an extremely fine rider he is developing into. On this kind of form, if it can be brought to the rest of their septet, Kings Lynn are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming league season.
From the Rebels point of view, although they went out before the Semi-Final stage, they were in there with a shout right up to the death, and Rohan Tungate’s performance in beating Jason Doyle in their first meeting showed that even the best in the world won’t be feared when they come to visit the Oaktree Arena.
The whole night went off smoothly, with the well-organised meeting being kept swinging along at a pace by Graham Flint and the Oaktree Arena staff, giving the tremendous crowd an entertaining evening of speedway to start the season with. For the Somerset fans, in particular, it was a glimpse into what life will be like in the newly formed SGB Premiership. Whatever happens, the ‘Cases’ Somerset Rebels will be giving their all.
Pictured: The scenes at Highbridge’s Oaktree Arena on Friday (photos Colin Burnett)