MINI UK VIP Customer Team driver Rob Smith got his 2016 championship bid in the MINI Challenge off to a strong start at Donington Park National Circuit over the weekend, 23rd/24th April, despite a less-than-straightforward season curtain-raiser at the Leicestershire venue.
Hitting back impressively from problematic pre-event testing, the 23-year-old from Telford only just missed out on a front row starting slot for the first race by a mere 0.1 seconds in qualifying thanks to an impressively rapid showing at the wheel of his MINI F56.
Going on to finish fourth in the re-started opening contest, having led the original portion of the encounter, the Evergreen Tyres, GroupTyre UK and BMTR-backed driver then had to settle for a more frustrating ninth place in round two due to unidentified straight-line speed issues.
Rob’s starts in both contests were sensational and his impressive pace on cold tyres enabled him to charge towards the front in each encounter. Unfortunately, though, he then had a struggle with straight line speed and faced a tall order to try and keep fellow competitors at bay when their tyres were up to temperature.
“We had lots of problems on Thursday and Friday, just little things, but we solved them by Friday night and with qualifying being my first time driving the car when it was right I was pretty happy with P6 and just a tenth off the front row”, said Rob, “Race one was frustrating, I went from sixth to the lead before it was red flagged and at the re-start I was lucky to stay fourth as the car had no pace.
“We looked at the data to try and work out what the problem was, we put it down to me probably over-driving, but in race two it was even worse. We’re going to get everything on the car looked at, get the engine out, check the ECU, and try and find what the problem is. All things considered, I’m pretty happy with the end result as it could have been much worse.”
Although encountering a variety of problems in testing, badly hampering Rob’s preparation, he was still able to deliver an extremely competitive showing in qualifying on Saturday which was incredibly close between the lead contenders.
Lapping with a best effort of 1m16.324 seconds (93.34mph) around the 1.98-mile National Circuit, the MINI UK VIP racer secured sixth on the grid for the opening round of the season and aimed to mount a podium challenge. Making an incredible start, Rob rocketed into the lead of the race but within half a lap the action was stopped due to a multi-car collision in the pack.
At the second time of asking, with the race limited to 12 minutes, he again made excellent early progress to move into the top four and although edged back to fifth on lap two, he quickly moved back into fourth place.
Tantalisingly close to the podium, Rob pressed on to try and break into the coveted top three but he soon started to notice issues with straight-line speed as he became a sitting duck for the cars behind. Working hard to hold on to his place, Rob impressively did so regardless of huge pressure.
Lining-up fourth on the grid for round two on Sunday morning, Rob leapt into the top two after another excellent start but, once again, the action was quickly halted due to an incident at McLeans involving half a dozen cars.
Due to the length of time it took to clear away the debris, the second encounter wasn’t re-started at that point and instead rescheduled to later in the afternoon – meaning round three was eventually cancelled due to timetable restrictions.
When race two got back underway, Rob moved into the top three on lap one and tried to stay with the lead duo but soon began to come under serious pressure as he struggled to keep anyone behind on the straights again.
Edged back to fourth on lap three, he produced an incredible effort to keep the MINI of namesake Chris Smith behind for as long as possible before eventually succumbing into the final third of the race. After then being edged wide at Coppice on the final lap, he lost ground to several cars on the drag along the straight into the Esses and took the chequered flag in ninth position.
“I was surprised to stay in fourth as long as I did in race two, I don’t know how I managed to keep Chris Smith behind for as long as I did”, reflected Rob, “It’s disappointing we had the problem but the team did a great job all weekend and we’re confident we’ll be fighting for the podium and back where we should be at Brands.”
Brands Hatch Grand Prix Circuit in Kent will host the next instalment of the MINI Challenge season over the weekend 7th/8th May where the championship will run as part of the support package to the UK round of the Blancpain Sprint Cup.