Speedway Grand Prix Wildcards: Qualification versus Selection debate

Unusually, the permanent wildcards selected for the 2011 Speedway Grand Prix actually look surprisingly sensible choices. This hasn’t always been the case and the performance record of those permanent wildcards selected by the powers that be has often been spotty. Much more significantly, their performances have been historically worse than those riders who qualified for the series on merit! Judged by these selections down the years, merit must be a bad word in BSI/IMG circles (I mention this despite the fig leaf of the FIM supposedly independently ‘choosing’ the permanent wildcards without any influence from the rights holders). Indeed, it only seems like yesterday that Mr Philip Rising of said SGP parish was banging on in the pages of the Speedway Star about the need to put an end the unhealthy practice of riders actually qualifying for the Speedway Grand Series!

Strangely, riders triumphing through skill and their success on the track in a qualification process was heavily pooh-poohed in favour of a discredited alternative – the business-as-usual friends in ‘high’ places, grace and favour system that BSI/IMG operate with such distinction. Such advocacy is, of course, far from disinterested. Indeed, it was claimed, “already questions are being asked about the quality of those who will get through no matter who they are”. Quite where – outside his column or the bars, boardrooms and executive frequent flier lounges frequented by the BSI Speedway SGP cognoscenti – said questions were raised was, predictably, impossible to ascertain?

Seizing upon the happenstance of a lacklustre 2008 Grand Final line up – before a wheel had even turned – unencumbered by evidence, Mr Rising bluntly stated, “Sunday’s field at Zielona Gora includes a number of riders who have already raced in the SGP and who, in all honesty, might be considered past their best.” After the event, things were apparently even more definite, “Would any of these riders actually enhance the 2009 SGP? Or would it be better to inject some fresh new talent into the series, riders like Holder, Jurica Pavlic, Tai Woffinden and the exciting Russian Emil Sajfutdinov?” Subsequent performances (and, after all, hindsight is always perfect) in the SGP make these particular expert suggestions look slightly off the mark. Neither the bookies nor Derren Brown need fear for their livelihoods when faced such wild but influential predictions.

Past performance also indicates that choosing the permanent wildcards for the SGP is not an exact science particularly since the final choices appear to accidentally strongly factor in commercial considerations. Obviously, between permanent wildcard selection and the actual competition, things can change dramatically for any rider. Injury, mechanical difficulty and loss of form can all become factors (or, memorably, in the case of Hans Andersen, having the temerity to have your frank opinions reported in the [Danish] media) affecting subsequent performance.

Mr Rising’s analysis of the utility of the qualification process, sadly, wasn’t completely rigorous nor based on history. Indeed, outside the rarefied but often claustrophobic groupthink monoculture that’s apparently the trademark of the corridors of power at BSI Speedway Towers, results based analysis of the finishing positions of qualifiers and permanent wildcards mustn’t have been properly conducted. For the record* (period 2007-2010), it is as follows:

2007

Challenge Qualifiers

Wieslaw Jagus (11th)

Rune Holta (7th)

Hans Andersen (5th)

Permanent wildcard picks

Chris Harris (9th)

Bjarne Pedersen (12th)

Antonio Lindback (15th)

Scott Nicholls (8th)

2008

Grand Final Qualifiers

Niels-Kristian Iversen (12th)

Lukas Dryml (15th)

Bjarne Pedersen (11th)

Permanent wildcard picks

Fredrik Lindgren (10th)

Chris Harris (13th)

Andreas Jonsson (7th)

Krzysztof Kasprzak (14th)

2009

Grand Final Qualifiers

Kenneth Bjerre (8th)

Grzegorz Walasek (13th)

Sebastian Ulamek (12th)

Permanent wildcard picks

Scott Nicholls (15th)

Fredrik Lindgren (9th)

Chris Harris (14th)

Emil Sajfutdinov (3rd)

2010

Grand Final Qualifiers

Magnus Zetterstrom (13th)

Jarek Hampel (2nd)

Chris Holder (8th)

Permanent wildcard picks

Tai Woffinden (14th)

Chris Harris (6th)

Fredrik Lindgren (11th)

Hans Andersen (12th)

Either there’s little difference between them or, more often (but often not always the case), the Grand Final qualifiers individually and on average out perform the permanent wildcards picked with the support of the BSI/IMG brains trust. If Mr Rising’s complaints and suggestions had been heeded, it’s likely Jarek Hampel wouldn’t have taken part in the 2010 SGP so would have been unable to finish second in the ‘world’ this year.

Equally interestingly, previous recent qualifiers Holta, Holder and Bjerre appear to have settled comfortably into the ‘Top 8 in the world’ without needing the validation of a grace and favour permanent wildcard selection! Surely, this should be food for thought for those who seek to completely neuter the genuine qualification aspect of the SGP selection process? If there is any charade to end, results suggest the abolition of grace and favour permanent wildcard choices in favour of an open to all qualification process would be the better, more sensible proposal. Indeed, this might provide a more credible and transparent system overall – one where form and talent would trump the present heady mix of favouritism, independent expert analysis, unsubstantiated opinion and commercial interest.

* with thanks to Charles McKay

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