THIS meeting was a true Elite League classic – big crowd, great racing, stunning overtaking… all that was missing was the result.
The Buildbase Bees will feel they should have taken at least three points from Good Friday morning, having led and controlled the meeting almost throughout, having taken the lead in Heat 3 and held it until the dramatic end of Heat 14… but if that race had a sting in the tail, it was nothing compared to the action served up in Heat 15, which may well go down as the race of the season anywhere in 2011.
When the four riders flashed across the finishing line in the finale, it depended where you were in the stadium as to what you felt the result was, but there was no controversy about referee Dan Holt’s call to give the Panthers a match-clinching 4-2.
Setting the disappointment to one side, the Bees had taken part in an epic meeting and longer-term the result may well be seen as a point gained, because the Showground – traditionally a poor venue for Coventry, late-2010 excepted, will surely become a home fortress again this year, especially when all of the Panthers’ home riders become fully dialled-in to the circuit.
And in many ways, Bees’ early hopes shouldn’t have been too high, having gone down to a 62-30 Hokey Cokey Cup defeat at the same venue just over a fortnight prior to the real business of Elite League points.
But it was a very different, and much more prepared, Coventry team who showed up on a glorious Good Friday morning, and they were well and truly up for a big performance in front of an encouragingly large crowd, as the two sides well and truly demonstrated what they had to offer.
The opening race saw a tapes-to-flag win for Nicki Pedersen, the Panthers skipper winning by a distance as Bees shared the points with guest Niels-Kristian Iversen sitting back with Travis McGowan to ensure there was no way through for Linus Sundstrom.
And Heat 2 was also shared, albeit with plenty of place swapping for third place as Nick Morris trapped Dakota North on the inside coming off the fourth bend, only to repeat his fellow countryman’s small mistake two laps later which enabled North to come back at him into lap four. Whilst they were tussling, Przemyslaw Pawlicki found himself under increasing pressure from Norbert Kosciuch, but Coventry’s Pole held on at the line in the first of several spectacular battles he would be involved in.
Bees’ solid start to the meeting suddenly stepped up several notches in the next two races, the catalyst being Ryan Fisher who was outgated by Krzysztof Buczkowski in Heat 3 but made a firm passing move down the inside into lap two and took his opponent so wide that Kenni Larsen was able to follow him through for the first 5-1 of the day.
The next wasn’t long in coming either as Edward Kennett and Pawlicki shot away in Heat 4 and with Troy Batchelor briefly blocked by team-mate North, the Bees had the pace to stay ahead of the home riders and put their side into an impressive 16-8 lead.
One factor in their favour had been that in three of the first four heats, Bees had started from gates one and three, with gate four quickly showing signs of deteriorating, and the home side clawed a couple of points back in Heat 5 when Polish duo Buczkowski and Kacper Gomolski both outgated Iversen. Track knowledge helped the Dane, who made a big dive on the inside going into the third bend, which took him past Gomolski, but not quite past his ex-team-mate, and Buczkowski then rode two excellent laps to fend off the challenge before Iversen settled for second.
Kennett’s blistering form continued with a terrific win in Heat 6, moving Pedersen aside going into the first bend and then racing clean away from the Dane, ahead of a battle for third place with Morris initially holding Sundstrom at bay before being frustrated when he was again passed on his inside on the second lap.
A further shared heat followed with Fisher showing plenty of determination as he was outgated by Batchelor but raced the Australian into turns three and four, got inside Batchelor and simply moved him over and raced away in what was a definite statement of intent, not just in this meeting but for the season as a whole.
It was still looking good for the Bees, six points up, and it got better still in a magnificent Heat 8 in which North gated and held the lead for much of the race – but Pawlicki, after briefly losing ground on the first lap, began to generate massive speed with the widest of outside lines, and after almost going out of the Showground on turns one and two at the start of the last lap, he made the biggest possible straight and shot inside North into the final bend. It was a truly sensational move, and what made things better for the Bees was that McGowan had held off Sundstrom for third place as the visitors went 28-20 up.
Kennett hit the front again in Heat 9, and as he fended off the challenge of Buczkowski, Morris established himself third and had clearly learnt from his previous two races as this time he held Gomolski at bay. But just as it looked like the Panthers would be using a tactical ride in Heat 10, Buczkowski suddenly found grip on the inside off turn two on lap three and moved inside Kennett, although in reality Bees probably weren’t too disappointed to lead by eight rather than ten.
That theory was borne out in the next race, which did look to have plenty of potential for the Panthers, as Sundstrom conjured a fine start to get alongside Pedersen – but once again, there was plenty of speed in Fisher as he moved in, and when the home riders split, Fisher saw his chance on the last lap and wound up an outside move. He got himself ahead of Sundstrom into turn three but then unluckily spun around and fell, with the other riders fortunately avoiding him – but the Panthers had their 5-1 and a route back into the meeting.
The gap was down to four, and there was more drama in Heat 11 as Iversen and McGowan initially looked set to extend the advantage back to six when they gated on a 4-2. Kosciuch, though, was improving as the meeting went on, and he went past McGowan on the second lap when the Bees man lifted coming off turn two, whilst Batchelor stalked Iversen and then, after looking quicker on lap three, he suddenly found a gap down the inside at the start of the last lap and went through for an excellent win.
The pressure was now on with the Bees just two points up, but Heat 12 did appear to favour them on paper, with Pawlicki replacing Morris for his fourth ride of the day, and he duly made the start with Fisher showing plenty of bravery to squeeze around Gomolski on the back straight when the Pole lifted. Gomolski didn’t give up and kept the Bees duo honest, but his desperate sweep around the final bend ended with a trip into the air-fence, and Bees went into the last three heats 39-33 up.
It never looked like a match-clinching lead though, especially with the Panthers sat on gates 1 and 3 in Heat 13 and also having the choice for Heat 15, and the tension increased with Heat 13 requiring a re-run with Batchelor moving at the start. The re-run saw Pedersen make a faultless gate, but Batchelor went wide on the first bend allowing Iversen to take second place – only for Batchelor to make a dramatic re-passing move down the inside, just maintaining enough control to not go into the side of his team-mate, leaving a frustrated Iversen third and winless back on his old home circuit, and Kennett also out of the points for the first time this Elite League season.
So the gap was back at two points, and with the same Panthers combination clearly lined up for Heat 13, anything Bees could get from the penultimate race would be good news – but in fact it was the race in which they lost the lead. The unbeaten Pawlicki gated but had to cover off Buczkowski’s outside run, which enabled Kosciuch to take the lead by covering the inside. With Larsen unable to get into the equation, Pawlicki chased Kosciuch and passed him in spectacular style, bouncing off the home-straight fence but still moving ahead of his opponent – but then it changed again on the last lap, with Pawlicki holding a more defensive inside line and Kosciuch winding up the outside. Off the final bend Pawlicki knew his opponent was there and moved as wide as he could, but Kosciuch had the run and won the race to the line by fractions, delighting the home crowd and levelling the meeting at 42-42.
With Pedersen and Batchelor not surprisingly nominated for the decider by the Panthers, Bees boss Alun Rossiter made a choice which would not have been expected prior to the meeting, with big guns Iversen and Kennett missing out in favour of the faster-looking Fisher, with three race wins, and Pawlicki who had dropped just one point.
It always looked like Fisher, from the outside, would have to do some chasing, and so it proved with Pedersen and Batchelor getting it spot-on from the start and squeezing out Pawlicki – but it wasn’t long before Fisher got himself into the picture, and a frantic battle began with Fisher clearing Batchelor and then going alongside Pedersen at the start of lap two, only to be clamped off by the Dane. Batchelor, meanwhile, moved back for the outside, and as he was re-passing Fisher, Pawlicki made a huge blast down the inside and the three were briefly three-abreast into lap three before Batchelor just squeezed his way back in front.
That was only the start of it, though, because a remarkable last lap started with Batchelor moving back to the inside and coming almost alongside his team-mate – and given that Fisher had previously challenged Pedersen there, it was probably the case that Pedersen felt it was Fisher again, which effectively meant the two home riders were blocking each other on the slower line. The Bees, meanwhile, had realised they had to be on the outside and that set things up for the final bend with the home duo still pinned on the inside and the Bees surging around the outside with more speed, with Fisher in front and Pawlicki even wider.
Coming out of the bend it was heading for a photo finish with the possibility of the riders finishing in any order – as it was, Pedersen just made it to the line ahead of Fisher, who passed him two or three yards after the finish, and Batchelor’s third place just behind the American was crucially also just ahead of Pawlicki, giving the Panthers the 4-2 they needed.
A quite unbelievable race to finish off a meeting which highlighted everything good about Elite League speedway and the sport in general, and whilst the Bees had to be content with one point on this occasion, the over-riding feeling had to be that everyone was a winner after such a dramatic day.