SGP Season Guide: Can Chris Holder go back to back?

The last two SGP World Champions - Greg Hancock (2011 - left) and Chris Holder (2012).

The last two SGP World Champions – Greg Hancock (2011 – left) and Chris Holder (2012).

The 2013 Speedway Grand Prix World Championship promises to be one of the tightest in the event’s history. With an Australian defending his World Championship from 2012 and a new Aussie star entering the Series fulltime in Darcy Ward, interest downunder will be at an all time high.

Some of the veterans of the sport, namely Nicki Pedersen and Tomasz Gollob have been up against it in recent seasons, however the wiley Europeans are absolute Championship contenders from the get-go. Meantime, one of the most decorated riders in history, Greg Hancock can easily defy his 43 years and make it World Championship number three in 2013.

With a number of competitors making a return to the Championship this year, along with some very fast rookies and proven stayers out to prove their worth, making it into the critical top eight at the end of the season to guarantee a position in 2014 will be more intense than ever. Any number of the 15 contracted riders able to make it in – or more importantly, out – of the octet.

We’ve analysed each of the competitors and their chances in 2013.

#1 Chris Holder (Australia)
Holder goes into his title defence in the best frame of mind possible after a relaxed summer spending a bulk amount of time in Australia with his family. The unassuming Sydney-sider was not expected to win last year and he will feel as though the pressure is on his opposition to beat him rather than being focused on defending the Championship. Whilst others would get carried away with being labelled World Champion, Holder is still the same grounded kid from South-Western Sydney. If anyone can repeat a World Championship (a rare feat in the Grand Prix era), its Chris – which many are predicting he will.

#2 Nicki Pedersen (Denmark)
The three times World Champion showed last year that he still has another World Championship in him. He would ride over his own grandmother if it meant winning a race! Whilst this ultra-aggressive approach doesn’t endear him to either the fans or his fellow riders, there’s little doubt that he is arguably the fastest rider in the field and will be right up there at the end of the Championship this year. From his 121 Grand Prix events, he has made 49 finals, winning 13 of them – one of the most consistent records in SGP history.

#3 Greg Hancock (USA)
The oldest rider in the field, the twice World Champion cannot be discounted. After a few lean years, he struck back in 2011 to win the Title. He led for much of last season’s Championship campaign, until some young Aussie bloke edged in front with a couple of rounds to go. His operation is one of the best in the paddock with a typical bit of American chutzpah. Having said that, Hancock is considered to be the nicest bloke in Speedway. He rides very little outside the Grands Prix and the 43-year-old seems to have found a sweet spot in recent times. Expect him to challenge the top five again this year.

#4 Tomasz Gollob (Poland)
The enigmatic Pole is somewhat in the Pedersen mould. He seems to keep to himself quite a lot and speaks very limited English. The 2010 World Champion has 22 Grand Prix wins to his credit from 152 Grand Prix starts. Gollob will take race wins throughout the season and is always phenomenal to watch on home turf in front of the mental Polish fans. Can he win another World Championship? That is the question that remains to be answered.

#5 Emil Sayfutdinov (Russia)
The rapid Russian has shown that he is immensely fast, however he seems to have a magnetism towards the airfence. He won three Grands Prix back in 2009 on his way to third in the World Championship and made two finals throughout last year’s campaign. He was Chris Holder’s nemesis in Under-21 World Championship competition, but the Australian has been able to get one over him at the Senior World Championship level. If Sayfutdinov gets some consistency into his year, he could battle for a top three position and is certainly in with a great shot of becoming World Champion at the end of the 2013 season. He needs to put in a big performance this year.

#6 Antonio Lindback (Sweden)
Lindback is a unique character in the Grand Prix scene. A Brazilian born Swede, he is the first black rider to win a Speedway Grand Prix and after a couple of years away from the sport to deal with some personal dramas, he’s back and very strong. Qualifying from the 2011 GP Challenge for last year’s Series, he took two wins and overall four podiums. With that full year back under his belt, expect him to be even stronger in 2013. He is an outside chance to become World Champion.

#7 Freddie Lindgren (Sweden)
Fast Freddie is one of the nicest guys in the Grand Prix World Championship and had his inaugural SGP victory last year at home in Gothenburg. He’s vowed he wants to take more wins this season. He should be able to maintain his position in the top eight.

#8 Andreas Jonsson (Sweden)
AJ is the rider that everyone is looking towards and waiting for that break out moment that sees him as a legitimate World Championship challenger – that could come in 2013. He finished twice on the podium in 2012 but didn’t take a win. Throughout his career, Jonsson has seven Grand Prix victories to his credit, so he knows how to taste the victory champagne. He’s a tremendously talented racer and really needs to start his year off with a bang if he is to be considered a Championship contender.

#9 Martin Vaculik (Slovakia)
Very much an unknown quantity entering this year’s Title race, 22-year-old Slovak Vaculik is one of the new faces of the Grand Prix Series. Having won the Grand Prix at Gorzow last year as a wildcard, he is without doubt immensely talented and in the field absolutely as a contender. Organisers are attempting to build a younger profile, particularly in the Eastern Bloc and Vaculik would appear to be at the centre of this. A former Swedish League winner, he is a quality addition to the field.

#10 Jaroslaw Hampel (Poland)
Hampel is one of the veteran riders in the 2013 Championship with 69 Grand Prix starts and two wins. After breaking his foot badly during last season, he is aiming to strike back in a big way. He’s scored a second and third placing in the Championship in the past and was right in the mix last year until he broke his foot. Jarek is considered to be the man to lead the Polish contingent when Tomasz Gollob eventually steps away. With five World Cup Titles with his nation under his belt, expect a solid season from the supremely talented 30-year-old.

#11 Krzysztof Kasprzak (Poland)
KK comes back into the fold after doing a full season in 2008 and having two Grand Prix starts last year – finishing second to Chris Holder at Cardiff. Another one of the string of Poles at the top of the international speedway scene, Kasprzak is one that’s hard to get a read on. He’s been at the pinnacle of the British Elite League over the last 10 years. Clearly fast, he could be a surprise packet of the season, but not considered a threat to the top step of the podium come the end of the year.

#12 Matej Zagar (Slovenia)
A returnee to the Series, Slovenian Zagar has previously had two full seasons in Grand Prix competition. He finished the 2006 series in seventh placing before dropping out in 2007. A regular wildcard at Grand Prix events, he’s been to three finals in the past and will be aiming for a solid year. He is in one of the toughest to pick World Championship fields in the Grand Prix era – expect him to be involved in the battle for the eighth placed transfer spot – which is going to be frenetic right from this weekend onwards.

#13 Niels-Kristian Iversen (Denmark)
NKI has been showing some solid form in the off-season. Another enigmatic character, he’s never fired at Grand Prix level – making just one final from 26 events – but he is in career best form heading into the 2013 season. His two full years in SGP – 2006 and 2008 – saw him finish 13th and 12th respectively. The three times World Cup Champion has to shine this year and make it into the top eight if he is to be considered for another full-time opportunity in the Series – those in the know are predicting him to do just that.

#14 Tai Woffinden (Great Britain)
The Australian-raised Englishman returns to full time Grand Prix competition this year. First given a start in 2010, Woffinden admits he wasn’t ready for the World Championship stage. During that time, he didn’t make a Grand Prix final, but did take five heat race wins. Put those past statistics completely aside: Some strong off-season performances and tuning from Peter Johns (who tunes Chris Holder’s motors) shows that he will be ready to go when the tapes fly this weekend. His aim will be to finish in the top eight at the end of the season with podiums possible. Being the only Englishman in the field, he will have to try and distance himself from the weight of expectation that will be placed on his shoulders from the supporters back home.

Australia's newest SGP star, Darcy Ward

Australia’s newest SGP star, Darcy Ward

#15 Darcy Ward (Australia)
The only thing to expect from Ward is to expect…everything – and then some! The Australian double World Under-21 Champion finished on the podium in his Grand Prix debut at Torun in 2011 and proves week-in week-out that reputation means absolutely nothing to him. He knows nothing else but flat out and will be the revelation of the season. Expect some of the old heads to try give him a tough time early on. How Ward adapts to the pressure of fortnightly individual World Championship racing will be fascinating to watch throughout the season. Hopefully that additional intensity will lead to a far greater maturity to assist in exorcising some off-track demons. Can he win the World Championship this year? Yes. It would be unfair to expect that, though. He has stated he’d be happy with top five, if he can finish the year inside the top eight and win some races, it will be a superb achievement from the Queenslander.

#16 Jason Bunyan (New Zealand SGP Wildcard)
The #16 race jacket will be occupied by a wildcard chosen by rights holders BSI-IMG Speedway at each event, typically, it is awarded to a racer in the country of the Grand Prix. Jason Bunyan, the New Zealand Speedway Champion, will take to the Springs Speedway for the NZ SGP this weekend. Last year he scored one point, but didn’t have the ideal preparation for the event. Expect a couple more points to come the way of the Rye House Rocket during this weekend’s event.

The 2013 F.I.M. Speedway Grand Prix season will be conducted over 12 rounds in nine countries. The only non-European round will be this weekend in Auckland. Speedway mad Poland (where the sport is bigger than any other, including soccer) will host three rounds, including the Series final at the brilliant purpose-built Torun stadium.

The full calendar is as follows:
Rd 1: March 23, Auckland, New Zealand
Rd 2: April 20, Bydgoszcz, Poland
Rd 3: May 4, Gothenburg, Sweden
Rd 4: May 18, Prague, Czech Republic
Rd 5: June 1, Cardiff, Wales
Rd 6: June 15, Gorzow, Poland
Rd 7: June 29, Copenhagen, Denmark
Rd 8: August 3, Terenzano, Italy
Rd 9: August 17, Daugavpils, Latvia
Rd 10: September 7, Krsko, Slovenia
Rd 11: September 21, Stockholm, Sweden
Rd 12: October 5, Torun, Poland

Racing Format:

All 16 riders will each have five rides in a field of four for a total of 20 heat races over four laps. The top eight are then seeded into a pair of semi-finals. Semi-final one consists of riders that finished 1st, 4th, 6th and 7th after the heats, with those that placed 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 8th making up the second semi-final. Starting positions for each are chosen by the riders depending on where they finished after the 20 heats.

The top two from each semi-final advance to the Big Final which will then crown the winner of the Grand Prix.

The 500cc bikes have no brakes and will skelter into the first turn four abreast at over 100kph. Riders carry a number on their race jacket, with the leader of the World Championship (in the case of the NZ SGP, the defending World Champion) wearing a yellow jacket. A draw takes place on the day before the Grand Prix to determine the starting order for each race.

Crowds can determine the riders in each race by their helmet colours, which also double as their starting position – red for inside, blue for gate two, white for three and the extreme outside wears a yellow helmet colour. Each rider will have one start from three gates and two starts from another. They face each competitor once.

Pointscores are attributed 3 for a win, 2 for second place, 1 for third and 0 for fourth place. Riders that are excluded from a race also receive no points. The semi-finals and Big Final award points on the same basis, which is one major change from last year (formerly, riders in the Grand Final received double points).

World Championship pointscores are an accumulation of the points scored throughout a meeting, so if you have a low scoring meeting it impacts your entire World Championship campaign.

The Buckley Systems New Zealand Speedway Grand Prix gets underway at Springs Speedway in Auckland this Saturday afternoon.

Australian television coverage will be on SPEED TV Australia from 1:30pm AEDST – three times World Champion, Jason Crump and former World #2 Leigh Adams will be joined by SPEED TV’s own Chad Neylon in the studio.

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