Great Britain’s journey to become speedway world champions after 32 years wait

Six years ago, the outspoken Tai Woffinden laid bare his frustration as Great Britain crashed out of the Speedway World Cup.

The Brit was en route to his second individual world championship, but a perfect performance in Vojens was not enough to carry his nation even close to a team medal.

A year later, in Manchester, Woffinden inspired Great Britain to their first medal in over a decade with a silver behind Poland.

But his message remained the same – something had to change.

In the aftermath, Woffinden followed through on his threat to quit the national team and did not return until 2018.

Last weekend, he received a FaceTime as Great Britain won the Speedway of Nations, becoming world champions for the first time since 1989 and ending 32 years of hurt.

“I had some tears in my eyes when the boys won,” Woffinden says.

Tai Woffinden watched on as his Great Britain vision came to fruition last weekend


Andrew Surma/Sipa USA)

Woffinden is a three-time individual world champion but glory with Great Britain was missing from his CV


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“It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time and I’ve put a lot of effort into being public about things that needed changing to make things happen.

“Seeing the boys win that gold medal, it was emotional. It’s everything I was working towards – it was the one thing I hadn’t won yet in the sport.

“Back in 2015 when I was talking on TV and saying I’d hang up my GB race suit and that things needed to change, a lot of people were giving me a lot of s*** for it.

“They thought I was arrogant and cocky, but I’d like to find those comments on social media and ask them what they thought now about that.”

Woffinden should have been stood on the podium at the National Speedway Stadium.

But just 24 hours earlier, he suffered a high-speed crash at around 70mph which left him with fractures to his right tibia and femur as well as a bone bruise as a result of the impact.

Somehow, he was able to walk away from the crash but it cruelly ruled him out of action for day two of the competition.

Woffinden cruelly missed Great Britain’s moment of glory after a high-speed horror crash on day one

Despite his on-track absence, it is hard to understate Woffinden’s role in a remarkable turnaround for a team that once dominated the shale sport during a golden era of the 1970s.

His self-imposed Great Britain exile came to an end in 2018 as a new era dawned on the national team under the guidance of Rob Painter and Vicky Blackwall.

“It all started back at Vojens in 2015,” Woffinden recalls. “I got 21 points and I remember doing an interview saying unless there’s change and it’s going to be more professional, I’d hang the Kevlar’s up for GB.

“Not long after that conversation I had some phone calls with Rob, and then things started to happen, started to move and obviously ATPI got involved to build the youth development programme.

“It’s been a great change. There’s not really one specific thing, because there was so much that needed to be changed.

“The whole package now is just much more professional, there’s far more input from different people but without it being too many chefs in the kitchen.

“It’s perfect – each person has their own job, they know what they need to do and as long as they just keep doing it we’ll be in a good place.”

Painter and Blackwell’s radical move to take over the Great Britain Speedway Team franchise, was, in part, inspired by Woffinden but snowballed after a trip to the 2017 World Games.

Speedway was invited to take part in the competition, a multi-sport games comprising of sports not in the Olympics, as a guest event at the revamped stadium in Wroclaw.

Despite seeing the Brits left behind without their star man, Painter and Blackwell were convinced by the potential of the national team and made their move.

“It was almost like speedway had been dropped into the Olympics,” Painter recalls. “You had a situation where there were all the national teams of various disciplines in the athlete’s village, and it was the closest speedway will ever get to that sort of environment.

“That really caught our imagination – we felt that the national team of British speedway and the history it’s got could be used to inspire the next generation of riders and also capture everyone’s imagination around the UK.

“After that trip, Vicky and I got together and created a proposal on the basis of that. We wanted to professionalise the national team and strive for success, but also do it in a way to really try and get the support of the nation and encourage people to come along or take up the sport.”

The first step was to get Woffinden back on board, and Britain’s most decorated individual rider was happy to not only buy into the new approach but take on a leading role.

“He’s so very important,” Painter says. “Tai is the most successful British rider of all-time, and to achieve that you have to be an elite-level professional.

“It was very clear things weren’t being handled correctly before we were involved and Tai made that quite obvious. He was very outspoken about that.

Woffinden has led from the front both on and off the track since ending his international exile


Ian Charles/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“Immediately we’ve got very similar opinions on how things need to be done. What’s great is that Tai is a multiple individual world champion, and we’ve been able to bring through a newer generation of rider with that same mindset.

“You can’t expect to stand on the top step in elite level sport unless you’re doing everything correctly, and that’s what we saw.”

When Woffinden glanced at his phone after seeing his team-mates collect their gold medals last weekend, it was Simon Stead’s name that flashed up.

Stead made numerous appearances for Great Britain as a rider, completing his own incredible comeback from serious injuries to join Woffinden in the team for the 2014 World Cup final.

On that occasion, the Brits were outclassed.

Nowadays, Stead is on the other side of the fence as joint-team manager alongside close childhood friend and another former rider, Olly Allen.

Given his experiences, he appreciates more than most the magnitude of what was achieved at the National Speedway Stadium.

“It’s a long time coming, 32 years, and I think what that goes to show is just how difficult it really is to achieve,” Stead says.

“It’s an exclusive club who have been a world champion with Great Britain, and you really have to put that down to a lot of hard work from a lot of people.

Can Great Britain defend their Speedway of Nations title next year? Have your say in the comments below!

Simon Stead (top right) was joint team manager and understands the magnitude of their achievement


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“It’s a process and something that I’m very proud to be a part of. Everyone from the riders, mechanics, management and backroom team, everyone has played their part.

“It is incredibly tough to win at that level. It’s the next level and it’s one of those things where you’re constantly striving to be better as a group and as an infrastructure.

“It’s a process we’ve had to go through to get here, and we’ve been lucky to have Tai Woffinden, a multi-world champion, able to give us some guidance and show how we could achieve that next level.

“It’s been a long process, but without that guidance and knowledge of how to get there, we wouldn’t have been able to put the right things together.”

For the likes of Stead, it is hard not to wonder what could have been had their generation had access to the same support systems as today’s youngsters.

“It’s completely different,” Stead says. “The franchise itself is a professional sporting outfit now, and the GB Speedway Team is something that’s incredibly well-organised from top to bottom.

“We have an incredible backroom infrastructure from nutritionists to psychologists and growing up we could’ve only dreamed of having the sort of people involved that we have now.

“It just shows how far we’ve come, not just in the last couple of years but certainly the change in the last five to 10 years has been absolutely incredible.

Dan Bewley (left) and Robert Lambert (right) emerged as Great Britain’s heroes in Woffinden’s absence


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“I think what we’ve done over the course of this weekend is show that we now have some strength in depth.

“Our Under-21 riders that are coming through are on a par, if not better, than anybody else and we’ve got senior members of the team who are on the world stage week in, week out.

“That strength in depth is something that we’ve been missing before, in years gone by, so all in all, the future’s bright.”

The conveyor belt of talent in the Great Britain side is now clear to see.

Once Woffinden crashed out, 23-year-old Robert Lambert, the 2020 European champion and a regular in the Grand Prix series, stepped up to fill the void.

Dan Bewley, 22, moved into the role he had left vacant.

Tom Brennan, 20, was unbeaten in his two rides as the Under-21 reserve rider required under the rules of the competition.

“We can’t forget Tom,” Woffinden points out. “He had two races that he went out and got the points, that’s massive.”

The trio are the three most recent British Under-21 champions and have all kicked-on to bigger and better things with the support of the Great Britain setup.

Bewley (left, 22), Lambert (middle, 23) and Brennan (right, 20) represent a bright future for Great Britain


Ian Charles/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“A big focus for us is on the Great Britain Academy,” Painter explains. “So we actively seek out the best young riders and drop them into that professional environment.

“We give them as much track time as possible, and unfortunately that can be limited in speedway, and we give them coaching from riders such as Jason Crump, Scott Nicholls, Rory Schlein and our team managers, Olly Allen and Simon Stead.

“The idea is to fast-track the best riders we’ve got in that country, and we’re starting to see that now.

“It’s nice to see that programme starting to fulfil it’s potential, and there is a lot of potential – that’s the key.

“This must be the beginning – there needs to be a winning mentality, a very professional mentality from a young age and we do feel it’s sustainable.

“Obviously you can’t win every single world championship, but that’s always the aspiration, competing for gold medals year in, year out.”

Brennan’s involvement in the Speedway of Nations triumph was particularly rewarding.

He was amongst the first crop of youngsters involved in the revamped academy setup and recognises the part it has played in his development.

“You can’t buy experience, so to have these people by my side from a very young age has been great,” Brennan says.

“Obviously I’ve had help from Jason Crump, Simon Stead, especially, and Olly Allen then all the stuff behind the scenes put in place by Rob and Vicky.

Young gun Tom Brennan was unbeaten from his two rides as the Under-21 reserve


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“You look at what Team GB is doing now, and the setup, what they’re working towards, what they’ve come from to where they are now, it’s a great success.

“We’re now building up, and there’s a lot of guys like me who are Under-21 coming through. There’s a whole bunch of riders which is really encouraging.

“For us, it’s great. For British speedway, it’s great as well, and we’re all lucky to have so much support and the things we have in place to try and fulfil our potential..

“It’s one of those things where I think we’re just going to keep building now, and hopefully that name of Poland being the team to beat will get turned back around to being Great Britain there again.”

It hasn’t always been plain sailing, but Great Britain have stuck to their guns and trusted the process in recent years.

They came within a whisker of glory in 2018, the first year under the new setup, but were denied by Russia in the final after finishing top of the standings.

In 2019 and 2020, with Woffinden out injured, they found themselves far away from a medal challenge.

But Robert Lambert, now a Grand Prix regular, continued to gain experience on the world stage whilst Dan Bewley was thrown into the deep end in Lublin last year and returned a far better rider

“I think it’s good to get the young boys at these meetings,” Bewley says. “Even if we’re not riding, just to be part of the atmosphere and see what it’s about.

“If you can experience it second-hand then once you get the call-up, it’s not too big or daunting for you.

Bewley was ready for his late call-up having been gradually exposed to top level action


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“For me, racing in Lublin when Tai was injured last year, it helped me make that step I think and having everyone involved early can only be a good thing.”

Having found life tough in Lublin a year ago, Bewley can now call himself a world champion 12 months down the line.

“It still sounds a bit funny saying it,” he says. “It’s just awesome. It’s one of those things, being a kid you always think about being a world champion, but it’s just a bit surreal when you can finally say it.

“There have been some ups and downs, especially the way it worked out, not riding the first day then getting drafted in because of the injury to Tai.

“The way it’s all happened, it’s a bit unbelievable.Tai had that horrible crash and watching your mate go into the fence like that, you’re just praying he’s alright.

“We didn’t really know if he’d be OK for the Sunday, so I was just staying ready and he came down for breakfast and just said, ‘look, no chance’, he was in too much pain and he’s still suffering now.

“That was it really, 10 o’clock in the morning and having breakfast I got told I was in! Not the most notice, but just about enough.”

Again, Woffinden’s influence is clear as far as Bewley is concerned.

He has taken the young Cumbrian under his wing, helping him land a team spot for Polish side Wroclaw, where the pair became league champions this season.

“He’s been huge,” Bewley says. “Being in the team with him and also behind the scenes with mechanics, bikes and some sponsors – he’s helped me out with everything really.

Dan Bewley has enjoyed a breakthrough year in Poland after being taken under Woffinden’s wing


Ian Charles/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Robert Lambert has also emerged as one of the world’s top riders and is a Grand Prix regular


Ian Charles/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“We had an awesome season in Wroclaw, winning the league together, and now we’ve won this world championship together too, so it’s been a pretty good combination I think.

“To have the help of a multi-world champion has been really good for me.”

To the credit of British speedway’s governing body, the focus on youth development has been supported by a new Rising Stars system in domestic racing.

Lambert, Bewley and Brennan have all progressed through all three tiers of the British league system, which supplements the work of the national team to keep the conveyor belt running.

Whilst Woffinden hopes he will be back to try and win a gold medal on the track with Great Britain in years to come, he ultimately knows the aim is to see him pushed out of the side for fresh blood.

“Obviously I wanted to be there, but I think I said at the start of this year, the aim is to have enough riders in the squad so that I get pushed out of the team,” Woffinden states.

“That’s the ultimate goal, because if we’ve got four or five riders knocking at the door that can do the job, we’ve achieved what we want to achieve.

“For me to be pushed out of my squad as captain is the ultimate goal. Maybe this year I wasn’t pushed out of the squad, I was injured, but we still had Dan come in and do the job with Rob and Tom.

“Hopefully we keep getting these young riders coming through, and eventually it will get to the point where I’m not needed.”

Great Britain will hope to race to more glory in years to come with the setup now in place


Ian Charles/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Whenever that day comes, Woffinden can rest easy in the knowledge he finally has a world team championship gold medal to his name.

The events in Manchester a week ago will no doubt live long in the memory but, as the dust settles, attentions will already turn to sustaining those standards.

“We were on top of the world there,” Bewley concludes. “It was one of those days where it just doesn’t get any better than that and it took a few days to just realise what we’ve done.

“After tasting that, it’s like chocolate cake – once you’ve had one bit you don’t want to stop eating it!”

With the infrastructure now in place, speedway fans in Great Britain can have genuine optimism that Bewley, Woffinden and their team-mates might be eating plenty more cake in the years to come.

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