After an enthralling BSCDA British Championship at Hednesford, NEIL RANDON takes a closer look at how the race encapsulated the unique appeal of BriSCA F1 stock car racing in a dramatic few seconds.
The basis of any compelling TV drama, like Game of Thrones, is a story surrounding heroes and villains. And no matter how courageous and popular a heroic figure becomes, viewers know there will be no guarantee of a happy ending.
BriSCA F1, it turns outs, is Game of Thrones on four wheels. And the script behind the BSCDA British Championship at Hednesford last Sunday afternoon was befitting of any screen drama.
As a backdrop there was Hednesford Raceway, a natural amphitheatre and perfect arena for watching gladiatorial combat of this nature. Ideal for spectator viewing, the facilities are excellent, the pit area easily accessible – and the track is fast.
And on the day there was an excellent supporting cast. The National Ministox and V8 Hotstox were excellent value – particularly the Hotstox, which put on a great show of hard-hitting action.
But, inevitably, at the top of the bill it was the BriSCA F1s that stole the show.
In a leading role we had a hero, Mat Newson, the underdog who, having stared death in the face after a life-threatening illness in February, made the comeback of the year two months later, winning two finals at Belle Vue and Birmingham.
At Hednesford, Newson fended off his rivals throughout the afternoon. After two heat victories, the Norfolk star started from pole position for the championship race. He pulled away from the pack after the drop of the green flag, and even after two restarts, was on the verge of a first major title.
We also had a hero, turned villain, in Lee Fairhurst.
Fairhurst’s was the drive of the race, having surged through the pack, slaying such imposing rivals as Nigel Green, Frankie Wainman Jnr and Tom Harris in his path and into a brilliant second place. Fairhurst was back to the form that had won him two previous British titles. He was on a mission, but a glory drive without the ultimate prize at the end looked the likely outcome.
And finally we had a villain, turned hero, in ‘The Hitman’ Tom Harris. He can be ruthless when needed – and even when it isn’t. The reigning European champion is a driver who splits opinion. There are no grey areas.
Harris currently rules the sport with an iron fist, with four successive heat and final victories on shale and he leads the National Points title race as a result.
At Hednesford Harris lurked in the background. He came close to winning two of his heats, chasing home Newson in both.
In the title race, he started on the outside of the front row of the grid alongside Newson, but as the flag dropped he looked vulnerable, moving to the outside and dropped back down the field.
But by halfway, Harris had found his pace and fought back to chase the two leaders. He grew stronger the longer the race went on. Lying in third place in the closing stages, he waited in the wings hoping to seize an opportunity.
As the race drew to a conclusion, the top three – all driving to the limit and all at similar pace – looked likely to finish in that order.
But this is BriSCA F1 – and remember, no-one is safe. A happy ending? Yes, but who for?
Newson accelerated down to the back straight towards the final bend having driven beautifully all day, in a car not regarded as one of the sport’s leading Tarmac cars.
And on the fastest and longest Tarmac short oval on the BriSCA F1 calendar, up against the best drivers and quality kit on the raceways, that was no mean feat.
As he turned into the final bend, the starter was already unfolding the chequered flag ready to wave it frantically front of the leader as he swept past.
But while victory was within touching distance, Newson knew his work wasn’t done just yet. Aware Fairhurst was possibly within striking range for a last-bend dive, he took a tighter line than usual into the bend, over the rumble strips, anticipating an attack from behind.
He anticipated well. The attack came.
As Newson hugged the inside line, Fairhurst launched his salvo. It was always going to be a long-shot from so far back, but any top driver worth his salt had to give it a go.
If Newson had arrived at the corner just one second later, before he had begun to turn in, Fairhurst’s challenge would have had more than an odds-against chance of succeeding.
But forced to accelerate harder than he would have wanted, Fairhurst also had to turn into the corner at the point of impact. He succeeded in moving Newson aside, but immediately the back end of Fairhurst’s car snapped out of shape and he spun backwards into the Armco.
Unluckily for Newson, at the same time Fairhurst was out of control, the front end of his car clipped that of the rear of backmarker Karl Hawkins’, and in synchronised formation with Fairhurst, he too spun backwards into the fence.
In a matter of a couple of seconds, both drivers’ hopes of British Championship glory were over.
Someone had to pick up the pieces, and it was Harris, who was in the right place at the right time. For once ‘The Hitman’ didn’t have to revert to his nickname. As Newson and Fairhurst floundered, Harris powered past, and lighting his rear tyres as he crossed the line, he gratefully took what three seconds earlier looked an unexpected victory.
Wainman Jnr was next in line and grabbed second place, before Newson regrouped and cruised over the line in third.
The win ended a long wait for British success for Harris. It had become the monkey on his back, but victory gave him the Grand Slam of major BriSCA F1 titles, alongside the World, National Points and European Championships.
“I’ve wanted to win the British so much,” Harris said afterwards. “It’s the only one of the majors I had never won and as a result I put too much pressure on myself. I have been in with a shout in the past – I should have won at Sheffield, but it’s all would’ve, should’ve, could’ve.”
His slow start, it transpired, was all down to brake issues.
“I had no back brakes after the last heat as it began to push and I only had new pads,” said Harris. “I made a mistake – they were new pads and I should have checked them before now. I should have put them in for the third heat and I would have been alright then.
“But luckily Kyle Grey wasn’t racing so I used his pads, but they still weren’t bedded in, so for the first half of the race I was a sitting duck.
“The back brakes weren’t working at all, so I got myself out of the way because I thought if I’m on the front of the train I’m going to go in the fence. So I kept myself to myself, out of the way, and the car just got better and better. Me and Lee passed Nigel and Frank and the car was really going then.
“And respect to both Frank and Nigel – they knew I was faster and they didn’t bother me. They could have done, but they didn’t, and the same token, it would have been the same for me the other way if they had passed me. If you’re not in with a shout, you know don’t you?
“But then I was running out of laps. I knew Lee would go for it at the last corner, but I didn’t expect him to do both of them.
“But, you know, I’ve been in that position many times in the past. It’s just stock car racing isn’t it?
“Mat should have won, but that’s why everybody comes to watch – because you don’t know what’s going to happen until the chequered flag drops.”
While Harris has dominated shale this season, the unveiling of a new and revolutionary new car on Tarmac hasn’t brought as much success has first hoped.
“When you do something different it’s never going to work straight away,” Harris said. “We’re not that lucky. It’s been there or thereabouts but it’s not consistent.
“It’s massively different. I’ve not built a car this different since the silver car in 2010.
“But you have to try to keep moving forwards, don’t you?”
“It’s the first decent race that car has ever won. I’ve only ever won a consolation in it – from a consolation to a British championship! It’s embarrassing really, isn’t it?”
For Fairhurst, second place was never going to be good enough. To win is paramount for any top-line competitor, particularly in a major championship. Finishing second is first loser.
History had remarkably repeated itself.
It was 28 years earlier, when Peter Falding, now the BSCDA chairman, was in hot pursuit of long-time leader Bert Finnikin in the 1991 World Final at the very same venue, and was faced with two options on the last lap. Settle for second, or go for a do-or-die last-bender that could result in victory.
As with all the very best F1 stock car drivers, he didn’t have to think about it for very long. He went for it. But it didn’t end as planned. Falding managed to remove Finnikin from the lead, but took himself out as well, and as Finnikin reversed over the line backwards in plumes of tyre smoke to finish second, Falding found himself baulked by backmarker Richard Platt as he headed for the line.
And it was John Lund, who was back in third place, who appeared out of the chaos to snatch gold from under the leaders’ noses.
“I had to go for it,” said Fairhurst, grim-faced. “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t?
“If you don’t go for those, you might as well stay at home.” Fourth place was his reward.
But for Newson, it was heartbreak. To come so close to a first major title for the second year in a row, having had it snatched away by Stuart Smith Jnr at Belle Vue a year earlier when leading all the way until the last bend, only to be given a repeat dose, was a bitter pill to swallow.
But despite it all, Newson took the huge disappointment with good grace. There were no histrionics, no throwing of dolls out of prams. On the podium receiving his third-place trophy, and as Harris celebrated, Newson took it on the chin. He is a class act.
“I never thought I could get closer than last year, but that was closer,” said Newson. “Lee wasn’t close enough, but I knew he would have a go.
“I went on the rumble strips knowing the hit was going to come,” Newson said. “To be fair, I think I would have rode it, but backmarkers were in the way. Lee hit me into the side of Karl, which hit my front and turned me sideways and he did the same. I just selected first and drove off.
“But I’m sure if Karl hadn’t been there it would have been a big ‘un, but I think I would have rode it because I would have been straight.”
“No one is interested in second. The only thing that makes it even worse is that Lee didn’t win. That just sucked.
“I don’t hold it against Lee at all. If I was in second place I would have done exactly the same.”
As with Game of Thrones, BriSCA F1 can be exhilarating to watch – but cruel, too.
NEIL RANDON 2019