Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Motorsport: Wizard of Oz king of speed freaks

Youngest GP champ hailed as stand-out in world of 130km/h plus races on bikes with no brakes

Chris Holder says he's gunning for glory this year. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Chris Holder says he's gunning for glory this year. Photo / Brett Phibbs

If you are looking for unlikely world champions, Chris Holder would be near the top of the list.

The Australian, who headlines the field in tomorrow's World Speedway Grand Prix at Western Springs, enjoyed a dominant 2012 on the tracks of Europe to claim the crown.

But for a long period he never had ambitions of racing outside his own country and at one stage was ready to settle down in a normal "nine to five" job.

"When I left school I was an apprentice motorbike mechanic," Holder told the Herald. "I had done a bit of racing at home and enjoyed it but I had no intentions of going abroad and didn't know much about it. I just loved racing. If I wasn't here I'd probably be a spectator which would have been good but obviously it is much better being on this side of the fence."

The turning point for Holder came aged 18, when he won the 2005 Australian under-21 championship.

"That win opened the door to the World Junior Championships, which we didn't even know existed," laughs Holder. "I got a chance to go to Europe. As soon as I saw how huge it was, I thought this is where I want to be and what I want to do."

He soon picked up a ride with a British professional team and has since raced for Polish and Swedish teams as well competing in the World Championship Grand Prix.

He is the youngest champion since the advent of the Speedway Grand Prix in 1995 (many recent winners have peaked in their 30s) and in a sport dominated by Europeans, the Sydneysider has made it.

"From the first time I saw him he looked very good," says Ole Olsen, who was a triple world champion in the 1970s and is the International Motorcycling Federation (FIM) speedway director of sports. "He was always a fast rider and someone who would fight hard in every race."

Olsen says Holder has emerged relatively quickly, from being just another rider on the professional circuit to a bona fide star.

"He's a clever rider who has learned to handle pressure," says Olsen. "He's naturally aggressive - they all are - but he has learned to use that in the right way. These guys have to be tough and hard but they are also artists on bikes."

The element of speedway grand prix that is hardest to grasp is the fact that tomorrow night Holder and his mates will reach speeds of up to 130km/h on bikes that have no brakes. Just a throttle, a clutch and a fixed gear, on a piece of machinery that weighs around 75kg.

"The no brakes thing throws everyone out," says Holder. "Outsiders think we are crazy but from our point of view we want to be going faster. Most of the guys in the sport are quite extreme people and like to do crazy stuff."

As Holder explains, to slow down, you have to speed up. "Before you take a corner, you need to hit the throttle," says Holder. "You need to be going a certain speed to slide properly around a corner. The first few times to commit to going around a corner - when the only way to get around it is to turn the throttle on - it is a bit of an eye opener for the motocross guys and Moto GP guys when they have a go on our bikes. Usually it freaks them out a little."

During the year, Holder races for the Torun team in Poland's Speedway Ekstraliga league, which attracts crowds of 15,000-20,000 for races every Sunday.

Holder, nicknamed Noddy after the lead singer of 1970s rock band Slade, finished a disappointing 12th (of 16) last year. He puts his sub-par performance down to his son Max being born at 2am on race morning.

"I felt fine but when it came down to the racing side of things every-one was more on than me," says Holder. "But there won't be any surprises like that this time. I have something to prove."

Chris Rattue looks at the riders who might be on the rise or wane

Rising ...

Chris Holder (Australia)
The youngest GP world champion is an obvious choice as a still rising star. Holder was known to hang off his bike in younger days, which is great for photographers but not for speed. He's settled down in all respects including off the track after the birth of first child Max. Indeed, Holder's partner gave birth in England on the weekend of the Auckland GP last year, a distraction that contributed to Holder's poor meeting.

The field will be gunning for the new champ, but the laid back Sydneysider will relish that and is desperate for redemption in Auckland.

Antonio Lindback (Sweden)

After a nondescript first half to the 2012 season, Lindback stormed home with two wins and two thirds from the final five GPs including victory in the final race in Poland. Born in Brazil and raised by his adoptive parents in Sweden, Lindback's talent looked in danger of going to waste through problems with alcohol.

But after a brief hiatus, he is back on track if 2012 is anything to go by. A rider who just loves to be on the bike but leaves the mechanics to the mechanics. A semifinalist in Auckland last year.

Emil Sayfutdinov (Russia)

After enjoying motocross on the ice in his freezing homeland, the Russian is expected to run hot this year. Much liked off the track, the 23-year-old angered opponents through his early-career riding tactics that caused crashes. He's had to overcome injuries including a badly smashed shoulder but his career is taking promising shape.
Sayfutdinov is not the best of race starters which is a problem but the pocket rocket finished fifth overall in 2012 and made the semifinals in Auckland last year.

Falling?

Greg Hancock (USA)
A bit harsh, considering the 2011 world champion led for much of last year's series and won the Auckland GP. But Holder's title win and Lindback's flying finish suggest the old brigade is on notice. Hancock - who struck rare mechanical hitches last year - is a gentleman on and off the track, a craftsman and master starter. He has a rare ability to think laps ahead, aided by constant study of the opposition. Never missed a GP in 18 seasons, and would love to hang on long enough to compete in a GP Stateside. Says his batteries are recharged ... but the clock is ticking loudly.

Andreas Jonsson (Sweden)
At only 32, Jonsson is hardly over the hill. But he is erratic - no rider has won more GPs without claiming the title. Second in 2011, the predicted breakthrough fell flat last year. Fairly or unfairly, an extremely wealthy background has raised questions over his hunger for titles and he has had to deal with the pressure of following in the tracks of Swedish legend Tony Rickardsson. Jonsson was known for terrific speed down the straight but his disappointing 2012 results have some wondering if his GP finish line might be approaching.

Tomasz Gollob
A phenomenal talent on any two wheels and a speedway magician, particularly on his big home tracks. Took an age to win his only world title which was all part of the Great Gollob Mystery. The tall Pole showed glimpses of what he is capable of in Auckland last year but is another veteran who may be ripe for picking by the young guns. A complex, introverted soul, Gollob can transform into a showman on the track. But we'll take a dangerous punt and suggest the show might be over.

The one to watch ...

... is the controversial 20-year-old Aussie Darcy Ward. The Queenslander has made the wrong headlines because of serious alcohol-related incidents and those in and around the sport fear he may face a tragic future. But the two-times world under-21 champion is pure, instinctive genius on the bike to a point that insiders rate him the finest talent they have seen. At a recent testimonial meet in England, Ward answered an SOS call and dashed from Poland, borrowed a bike, and blitzed the field. The kid has wings. Forms the Turbo Twins with his club mate Holder, but in off-field lifestyles they are going separate ways for now. Ward is scarily good on the track though, and just watch him go after any slow start.

GP series

Where: Western Springs

When: tomorrow, engines start 4pm

The riders
Chris Holder (Australia), Nicki Pedersen (Denmark), Greg Hancock (US), Tomasz Gollob (Poland), Emil Sayfutdinov (Russia), Antonio Lindback (Sweden), Fredrik Lindgren (Sweden), Andreas Jonsson (Sweden), Martin Vaculik (Slovakia), Jaroslaw Hempel (Poland), Krzysztof Kasprzak (Poland), Matej Zagar (Slovenia), Niels Kristian Iversen (Denmark), Tai Woffenden (UK), Darcy Ward (Australia), Jason Bunyan (NZ).

World GP format
15 permanent riders and a wild card race at 12 GP meetings - one in New Zealand and the rest in Europe. The world championship is decided on points (with no grand final). Each GP involves 20 four-rider heats with a 3-2-1-0 points system that also applies for the semifinals and final.

History
This is the 19th season of the GP series format. New Zealand is the 14th country and Western Springs the 33rd venue to host a GP.

- NZ Herald

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