Double world champ Greg Hancock was relieved to end his wait for a 2014 FIM Speedway Grand Prix win after completing a glorious hat-trick of Cardiff victories in the Mitas British SGP.
The Californian held firm under immense pressure from home hero Tai Woffinden and Aussie star Darcy Ward to seal a popular win in front of a raucous crowd at the Millennium Stadium and equal three-time world champion Jason Crump’s record haul of three gold medals in the Welsh capital.
Hancock, who also triumphed in 2004 and 2011, lost his World Championship lead to defending champ Woffinden, who is three points clear at the top on 90 going into the series’ month-long break for the Monster Energy FIM Speedway World Cup.
But the 43-year-old was elated to get his hands on a gold medal in what was his sixth final appearance in seven rounds.
He said: “It’s huge. I’ve wanted to win one so badly. When you get to the final, all you want to do is win. I haven’t been taking the points in the heats – going away with 12 points in Prague for second and then 11 for third in Copenhagen is tough.
“I only had 11 going into the final tonight and I was thinking ‘man, I want more points!’
“The win gave me three extra and it feels so much better. I can’t say enough about how unbelievable it is to win in Cardiff in front of these fans. It’s my all-time favourite place.”
Hancock was delighted to join Crump on three Millennium Stadium successes. He said: “That’s cool. I never set out to break records, but it’s fun to have them and sit on them for a while.
“It was even better to have Crumpy hand over the trophy. That felt really, really special.”
Hancock paid tribute to runner-up Woffinden, who dealt with the massive weight of home expectation superbly to top the heat scorechart on 13 points, before heading the American in their semi and finishing second in the final to end his night on a massive 18 points.
The Swedish-based racer admits his rival’s composure will make him a force to be reckoned with as he thrived in Cardiff’s cauldron of noise.
He said: “Tai has been an unbelievable representative for Britain. He’s the world champ and he has such a charisma and personality.
“It was rad to be there and feel the buzz – it kept going all night. It was rad to see how loud they got on the last lap of Tai’s heats. The crowd just got louder and louder. It was speedway at its absolute best.
“He’s the one who puts the pressure on himself. Everybody talks about the pressure, expects you to win and says you’ve got to win, but he doesn’t let that bother him. That’s the key to doing it.”
Hancock left Cardiff with 14 points and was delighted to maintain his ultra-consistent 2014 record.
He knows he will have to keep up the heavy scoring, which has seen him record double figures in all but one SGP round this year, to keep pace with Woffinden and keep their fellow title-chasers at bay.
The Whittier-born man said: “Tai is just one of my biggest rivals. There are a few guys battling for the top. Darcy is one and it’s a shame Chris Holder was missing. He’s another key competitor in Cardiff.
“You’ve got to be on your mark constantly. I’ve got my eyes on Tai too, but all I can do is hang with him. He’s the guy raising the bar all the time. All we can do is try to hang on.
“We all want to win. He knows that. Everyone who’s behind wants to beat him and win the Grand Prix and the World Championship as badly as he does. The guy who wins is the one who wants it bad enough. There are a lot of guys taking points. Niels-Kristian Iversen is banging them in constantly.
“You can only have one bad night. I really feel the winner at the end of all this is going to be the guy who has the best of the bad nights.”
Woffinden paid tribute to a partisan British crowd for roaring him to second place – just over a year after he left the Millennium Stadium in an ambulance, nursing the broken collarbone that nearly wrecked his title dream.
He said: “I knew it was going to be loud from the start, being a British rider coming to a British Grand Prix. It was hectic when they called my name last year and I was the underdog.
“What a great audience today. They put on a good show for the people watching on TV, hopefully making them want to get a ticket for next year. It’s a wicked venue and it was a pleasure to be a part of it.
“I was in the wrong spot at the wrong time last year and I broke my collarbone. This year was a lot better. The old dog pipped me to the line. But Greg has a lot of experience and we had a Monster one-two-three – we can’t ask for anything more than that.
“The top eight for the rest of the season is going to be interesting. It’s pretty bunched up. It’s going to produce some interesting racing throughout the season.”
Ward bagged 15 points to edge Iversen out of third place in the World Championship on his Cardiff debut and move on to 75 points.
The Queenslander said: “It was really good. I’ve been here many times to watch and I was very thankful to be a part of it. I’ll take third any day – that’s very good.
“From my point of view, it was good to get some points, but it was hard to see Greg and Tai up taking so many at the front. They’re making my life hard trying to catch them.
“I need to peg back some points gradually, but they keep doing what I’m doing, so it’s hard.”
Tickets for the 2015 British FIM Speedway Grand Prix go on sale this Monday. The date will be released at 1pm, but fans who subscribe to the SGP newsletter on www.speedwaygp.com will get the chance to secure their seats an hour earlier at 12pm.
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS: 1 Tai Woffinden 90, 2 Greg Hancock 87, 3 Darcy Ward 75, 4 Niels-Kristian Iversen 74, 5 Nicki Pedersen 68, 6 Matej Zagar 66, 7 Jaroslaw Hampel 59, 8 Krzysztof Kasprzak 59, 9 Fredrik Lindgren 57, 10 Chris Holder 55, 11 Martin Smolinski 53, 12 Andreas Jonsson 49, 13 Troy Batchelor 49, 14 Kenneth Bjerre 39, 15 Chris Harris 36, 16 Michael Jepsen Jensen 17, 17 Peter Kildemand 15, 18 Peter Ljung 7, 19 Adrian Miedzinski 5, 20 Joonas Kylmakorpi 5, 21 Kauko Nieminen 4, 22 Jason Bunyan 2, 23 Vaclav Milik 2, 24 Craig Cook 2.
MITAS BRITISH SGP SCORES: 1 Greg Hancock 14, 2 Tai Woffinden 18, 3 Darcy Ward 15, 4 Krzysztof Kasprzak 10, 5 Niels-Kristian Iversen 12, 6 Fredrik Lindgren 10, 7 Michael Jepsen Jensen 9, 8 Martin Smolinski 8, 9 Andreas Jonsson 8, 10 Nicki Pedersen 8, 11 Chris Harris 6, 12 Matej Zagar 6, 13 Jaroslaw Hampel 5, 14 Kenneth Bjerre 4, 15 Troy Batchelor 3, 16 Craig Cook 2, 17 Ben Barker DNR, 18 Jason Garrity DNR.