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The World Championship-New or Old, Same or Different?
By Bill Elliot

This year, after following speedway for over 40 years, my wife and I got the chance to go to Cardiff for the very first time, and it was a quite amazing experience. I've watched many of the previous British Grands Prix via the usually excellent Sky Sports coverage, but found to my delight that only a very small way does it capture the magic of what is an entire package of experiences, rather than simply record another speedway meeting. However, my birth certificate (not to mention my hairline, which is receding at approximately the same speed as my waistline increases) clearly indicates that I am very certainly old enough to remember the "old style" World Championship format, It is therefore almost inevitable that I begin to compare what I was used to many years ago (ie a whole series of qualifying rounds culminating in a "one off" final, for the purposes of this discussion at Wembley, as I never have had the cash to visit a foreign venue for the "Big One"), against what is now the recognised system of a series of rounds, using basically the same group of elite riders competing in various countries, with the winner being the rider accumulating the most number of points over a season.

The Venue

I am in no doubt that Cardiff edges it over Wembley as a venue, not just because the (albeit temporary) track actually lends itself to passing, something for which Wembley was never noted. Further, accepting that presentation skills have moved forward markedly in a generation, I have to say that, with some qualifications, the presentation before, during and after the Cardiff 2009 Grand Prix certainly exceeded what I remember from World Final nights at Wembley. The pre match entertainment, the actual meeting and pre race announcements, and the post meeting fireworks certainly were miles ahead of the fairly staid fare we got at Wembley in the alleged "Good Old Days".

What I did find strange, and apologies if I sound a little sensitive (as a Scot) in illustrating this point, I did find the pre race announcements re "Chris Harris and Scott Nicholls of Great Britain" somewhat at variance with the immediate pre race "Come on England" recordings-for the benefit of the geographically challenged, Great Britain consists of 4 countries rather than merely England, and I did see more than a few foreign visitors with a puzzled look on their faces.

I do think back to the days, albeit a while ago, when British riders outwith those of English birth rode with distinction at Wembley World Finals, and it did make me think along the lines of what would have been played if any of them (eg Freddie Williams of Wales) had been miraculously beamed into a Cardiff Grand Prix? Given that this particular round of the Grand Prix was actually being held in Wales (ie not in England) I did wonder about the anomaly of riders going from British to English in the space of 30 seconds-OK, I'm being paranoid-someone can explain it to me!

I also felt there was no doubt that Cardiff as a city was a perfect venue for British speedway's "big weekend". Accepting that London has a range of attractions on the day of a big event, I could clearly identify Cardiff, which had a huge number of speedway fans in a fairly enclosed area for a specific period, as reproducing the kind of atmosphere which we used to get, for example, when supporters took over Belle Vue for the traditional BLRC at Hyde Rd every October.

Effectively, Cardiff belonged to speedway for one weekend in the year and that was a very special feeling, one worth preserving. It's also a beautiful city (not that London isn't), and it is a place to visit for it's own value (although maybe next year all the roadworks on the M4 can be postponed for the weekend-didn't really want to see all the sights on the way in 'cos we couldn't do more than 20mph on the way in and out-was this a cunning plan by the Cardiff Tourist Board?).

The Format

As I alluded to in my earlier paragraphs, I've had the privilege of watching World Championship speedway over (too) many decades, and I have read in recent times of comparisons between the newer Grand Prix formula and the old style series of qualifying rounds from around April through to the final itself in late summer/early Autumn. For what it's worth, here's my take on the differences between the "new" and the "old":

The newer format has a number of pluses:

  • At the end of the year, it will usually be the most consistent rider over that year who wins and is crowned "World Champion"

  • Many countries throughout the speedway world get the chance to host their own Grand Prix and thus showcase themselves

  • Thanks to the excellent Sky coverage, there are a number of high class meetings shown on TV, on a frequency we couldn't dream about 40 years ago when we were lucky to see a Wembley Final, or its highlights, on the box once a year.

  • Without being party to the financial aspect of world speedway. One would assume that the various rounds generate money and one would hope that such income generated, or at least some of it, is going to further the development of our favourite sport.

    However (you just knew this or a "but" was coming, didn't you?), there are also a number of significant minuses:

  • I cannot get my head around the fact that in a so-called "World Championship" process, the vast majority of participants are effectively excluded from their opportunity of grabbing 15 minutes of fame. Yes, I know that there are qualifying meetings of a sort, to work out who will join the top 8 in the following year's competition, but in practical terms the chances of someone doing a "Roy of the Rovers" job, and getting through a series of qualifying rounds, are probably less than the probability of my 6 lottery numbers coinciding with those read out in order on any given Saturday. While the old style method in the UK of 3 qualifying rounds and then a series of progressively tougher semi finals and finals did take a while, it did throw up the odd surprise qualifier who gave the championship some added interest.

  • It therefore follows that by definition there is a feeling of "same old, same old" every season when it is basically the same set of riders going for the big prize, and without the need to actually win the meeting you are watching to achieve that end-The Russian Sayfutdinov has been a breath of fresh air this year by effectively appearing out of the blue to challenge, but in practical terms, where under the "old" format one of his 3 Grand Prix wins might have given him the World Champion title (if a "one off" version had been held on the track in question), all they have served to do is put him into a possible podium position, a fine achievement no doubt, but in a couple of year's time who will remember? In short, to my mind at least, the existing format is beginning to look a bit tired, with the young Russian an exciting exception to the general rule of watching the same set of guys racing over 11 meetings for the one prize, and with only 2 or 3 of them at best having a chance of nailing the big one..

  • For me, the old style format threw up the possibility of a shock World Champion (remember Jerzy Szczakiel in 1973?), and even shock finalists-guys who these days are denied their 15 minutes of fame. I also hear at almost every Sky covered event descriptions of guys like Leigh Adams and Thomas Gollob, for example, being described as "the best riders never to win the World Championship"-sure, over the season, other riders have shown that bit more consistency, but how many others, like me, would have cheerfully welcomed either as a deserved World Champion, even if it only happened the once?

  • The current format effectively "smooths out" the possibility of someone other than maybe two or three riders winning the biggest title in the sport, and as soon as the odds are against anyone outside an elite (with a small "e") few winning it, I suggest a certain staleness creeps in-this year, for example, since Cardiff at the latest, the only interest has been in when, rather than if, Jason Crump wins his 3rd title. Such a single fact being the main interest for half the championship series is surely bad for the sport-indeed, after watching Sky coverage recently, on the night Crump fell at Belle Vue, the main talking point of the night for a short time at least was whether injury might do what no rider had been able to do this year, namely, stop Crump from winning the world title. With the old style format, I contend, someone like Sayfutdinov could have come from nowhere this year to win it on the right track, or thinking back to 2007, a World Final at Cardiff might have given England a winner on the night in Chris Harris.

    The Future

    I know it is far too simplistic simply to say "go back to the old days" as the sport has moved on significantly, certainly in terms of riders riding in more than one country on a weekly basis, but what the current World Championship format does suggest is that in essence it is a competition run by a select few for a select few, and the sport is maybe suffering as a result, as outcomes are getting far too predictable. I suppose I can live in hope that during my lifetime I get to see a British World Final at Cardiff (after a meaningful series of qualifying rounds giving every rider the chance to get through), with maybe a shock winner on the night, just to engage fresh public interest in our sport. What do you think are the chances?


    This article was first published on 1st October 2009


  • Mike Wilson:

    "While the 'one off' World Final was fantastic, Speedway needed to move forward. Far too often our great sport hangs on to traditions or past glories. Those days are gone and I beleive without SGP the sport would be even smaller. As for saying a GP Champion who was seeded is not a real World Champion 'BOLLOCKS'. Crumpy was seeded last year because he qualified from '08 so is he not really the rightfull champ.......I THINK SO.......Hope you all had a great Xmas and maybe Santa brought the SGP organisers a big bag of dirt for the tracks......"

  • John Owen:

    "I also agree. It is NOT a true World championship. I stopped buying the speedway star after 40+ years when it turned into the grand prix weekly! The only speedway magazine still worth a read is Classic Speedway magazine published by retro speedway, hardly a mention of the fake world championships. I also agree that on television it is good, but it should be billed only as the grand prix championship not the world as it plainly is not."

  • Geoff Langley:

    "The "new or old" World Championship format all depends on whether you want to have a competition to find the best rider in the world or whether you just want a rider who can cause a bit of an upset on the night, but who is not necessarily a genuine World Champion. You also have to remember that times change. Speedway has always depended to some extent on gate positions and a slice of luck but from Jack Young down to Ole Olsen you could say that the winner of the single meeting World Final was generally accepted as one of the best, if not the best in the World, by reason of their season-long performances.

    From 1973 onwards that was not necessarly true. It really came to a head with Egon Muller's win on home turf in 1983. Muller was basically a Longtrack racer, and although he was of international standard at speedway he was by no means a rider that could seriously be raked amongst the real cream. Apart from 1983 he never finished higher than 7th in a World Final. In 1983, with the World Final held in Germany he was given more practice time than the standard practice the others had and the track was prepared more as a longtrack which gave him a great advatage. That was really the final straw and the bottom of a slipery slope that was started by the Sczakiel episode.

    In short the single meeting World Final was fantastic in its time but times have changed. Speedway has changed. The single meeting format has become unreliable. Furthermore nobody can seriously compete at international level without huge amounts of sponsorship and sponsors want season long exposure. There is another point that is missed by those who object to the lack of a "proper" qualifying system. Speedway is much bigger geographically now than 40 years ago. There are more countries involved and the qualifying rounds would not be equal. Poland for example would be more competitive than the British rounds. There is an enormous amount of talent in Denmark, many of whom would knock each other out in the preliminary rounds. Undoubtedly some riders would get a much easier qulifying route than others and this would demean the eventual Final.

    I do agree that there should be more fairness about qualifying for the GP's. It is, for example appalling that a rider like Tai Woffinden should be gifted a place in the GP's next year just because he has a Britsh passport and a huge publicity machine despite fact he went out in the preliminary stages of qualifying, failing to even reach the GP Challenge at Coventry, let alone reach the top three. Nevertheless the powers that be have decided they want two British riders in so thats the end of it. Failure to qualify by the proper route becomes immaterial However it has to be accepted that there has to be a certain mount of seeding to the GP's and it is no longer realistically or logistically possible to go back to the single meeting World Final. Those old style finals were great in their time but their time is now gone."

  • Ian Muir Martin:

    "I would like to wholeheartedly agree over the one off World Final issue. How can someone who is SELECTED for a Grand?? Prix after winning the Grand Prix series be classed as World Champion - it beggars belief. MOST Speedway Riders have NO CHANCE of getting to be World Champion under this system. Who knows - someone MAY have won it outside of the select few. I have been to Cardiff and there is no doubt that the British GP is a great spectacle and occasion - BUT - so was the 'one off' World Final. Suffice to say that Jack Young as a Second Division Rider and Jerzy Szczakiel - a REAL surprise in Poland 1973 would AGAIN have NO CHANCE of winning the ultimate Title. They would not even be in it. At least in the old days any Speedway Rider who was riding Club Speedway was in with a theoretical chance of being World Champion - there was always a chance of an upset. I believe that eventually the SGP will split from British League Speedway and when that day comes, once again, we could hold Qualifying Rounds and end up with a TRUE World Champion - NOT a manufactured one."

  • Paul Houghton:

    "I've just read comments about the grand prixs, I used to go to a majority of the foreign ones and the British of course, but now I don't bother! It's overpriced and the amount of 'the tracks slick or the racing and passing was pitiful' comments just doesn't pull the strings anymore. You're seeing the same old riders meeting in meeting out except the wild cards and it's becoming repetitive. If we get any more Polish tracks as venues isn't that turning it into the Polish instead of the world championship? It's a shame that the fans who keep certain officials in an accustomed lifestyle dont get a greater say in things, instead we have to dance to the tune of the business man who cares about cash but not the sport."

  • Kelvin:

    "I agree with all the points. What I would like to see is a world championship on the same lines as the U21 for all. Then the winner of the GP series would be GP Champion. I know it would possibly mean two champs but who cares at least all riders would have something to aim for without being in the select group."

  • Ken Nicholson:

    "I think this sums up the GP series nicely. My main criticism is that it is very much more a money game than a one-off final. Any serious contender needs to have a large back-up team and ample resources/ sponsorship to support them over umpteen rounds in s everal different countries. Unfortunately, it is only the select few that fit the bill and so it is always going to be a case of the same old faces. While the powers to be (including Sky) have sold us the virtues of the GP Series, most people I know pine for the old format of a one-off final."

  • J Potter:

    "Remember the old days where every rider had 3 qualify rounds / semi finals then British final? It gave all a chance. IMO too many needless meetings spring trophy, premier trophy and elite shield. Let's have league, k o cup between all clubs Premier and Elite and a real world championship qualifying round."

  • Giffy:

    "I thought the response by Geoff Langley on this article was excellent however there are a couple more points that he could have touched on. The present GP system does allow fans in many parts of Europe to see some of the best riders in the world each year, under the old one off night this would not be the case. It also must generate a lot more money for the fortunate riders who have qualified, kissed the right backsides, or just got lucky.It might be worth mentioning that back around 1970 that Kings Lynn rider Howard Cole had a superb season capped off with a deserved place at a Wembley Final. I don't think he scored many, if any, points and all he got out of being one of the top sixteen riders in the world was his start money and travel money which didn't even cover the cost of the tyres he used! The old way was brilliant for the fans but it was not as rewarding for the riders as it should have been. I guess the bottom line is that there are just too many ways to look at this topic but until we come up with a system that allows every licenced rider in the world an even chance couldn't we just call it a Grand Prix Championship? "

  • Anonymous:

    "Is not the real point about the one off World Final that it was the focal point of the speedway year. All the arguments that a one off does not allow for the exceptions do not overide this. I also remember a comment on the commentary to the 1981 World Final DVD about Dave Jessup's machine failure to the effect that riders should have everything perfect for such a night, and, is anyone saying Bruce Penhall was not the "real" champion that year? Would Bruce or anyone else have been held in such high esteem if they won on the basis of GP points? The fact is that GP champion has the same status as the old one off champions and whilst that holds good there is little point in saying it should not be so. In our sport as in anything it is perception more than fact that is the final judgement."

  • Bill Elliot:

    "I agree entirely with the comment by "Anonymous" that perception is everything when it comes to the World Championship-trouble is, I genuinely feel the perception these days is that it is not a true World Championship because in essence not everybody is given the same opportunity to reach that status-as I think I suggested in my original article, it is perceived these days as an event run by a few people for effectively an elite group of riders, give or take a small number of qualifying rounds of sorts raced here and there, in which event while it certainly deserves some sort of an Elite status, by effectively excluding most of the practitioners of the sport it somehow is much less of a "World" event. I'm not arguing about the inclusion of the likes of Tai Woffinden, a very gifted rider and world class performer of the future, but if you were to look at the criteria for his inclusion I suspect you might find they were not quite the same as those by which other riders in the UK and abroad were effectively excluded from the chance to ride. "

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