Defending champion Martin Haarahiltunen extended his series lead on the opening night of the deciding Final of the 2024 FIM Ice Speedway World Championship, but the Swedish rider was forced to dig deep after he struggled in the Heats before racing to victory in the Grand Final.

The atmosphere in the Thialf Ice Stadium at Heerenveen in the Netherlands was electric as Germany’s Max Niedermaier dominated the Heats with five wins from five starts, although when it really mattered the ice-cool Haarahiltunen produced a potential title-winning performance after almost failing to progress to the main points-paying race of the programme.

Haarahiltunen – bidding to make it three FIM World Championship titles in a row – was put on the back foot from the programme’s opening Heat when with an unfavourable outside gate pick he came home third behind title contender and series newcomer Heikki Huusko and his fellow Finn Aki Ala-Riihimäki.

The oldest rider in action in Heerenveen, sixty-five-year-old Stefan Svensson claimed a tapes-to-flag win in his first Heat, as did veteran Austrian Franz ‘Franky’ Zorn, before Niedermaier clinched a comfortable victory.

After following Niedermaier – who won the Qualifying Round in Örnsköldsvik in Sweden – across the line in his second Heat, Haarahiltunen claimed a vital victory in his third, but six points after three blocks of racing put him in a five-way tie for the fourth and last qualification position for the Grand Final as Niedermaier – who took an incredibly popular home win on the first night at the opening Final in Inzell – led from Ala-Riihimäki and Svensson.

Huusko had won his first two Heats, but a tapes disqualification in his third meant he was tied with Haarahiltunen, European Champion Zorn, Sweden’s Jimmy Olsén and Germany’s Markus Jell with everything resting on the final two blocks of Heats.

Olsén won his fourth Heat from Haarahiltunen and Huusko also picked up a second-placed finish, but Zorn – riding his spare bike – dropped out of contention with a third and Jell’s hopes of making the Grand Final were effectively ended when he failed to score.

Olsén and Haarahiltunen booked their places in the Grand Final with victories in their final Heat races where they joined Niedermaier and fifty-eight-year-old Ala-Riihimäki – winner on the second day in Inzell – whose three Heat wins ensured he made the cut despite being disqualified from his fifth Heat after exceeding track limits when he crossed the inside the red line.

With the track becoming increasingly technical as it rutted up as the racing progressed, wider lines were proving to be the smoothest and the fastest and with first gate pick Niedermaier opted to start just inside Haarahiltunen who was left with the outside choice as lowest-scoring qualifier.

After an initial shuffling of positions on the opening lap it was Ala-Riihimäki who led, but Haarahiltunen timed his run perfectly and after taking the lead he raced to the sixth Grand Final win of his career as Niedermaier pushed through to second to keep his title hopes alive with Olsén claiming the final step on the podium.

With just one afternoon of action remaining, Haarahiltunen has doubled his advantage to four points over Niedermaier with Ala-Riihimäki a further four points adrift in third.

The action from Heerenveen gets under way tomorrow at 13:30 local time and will be streamed LIVE on fim-moto-tv.