Rapid MINI Challenge front-runner Rob Smith claimed his second lights-to-flag victory of the 2017 season at Brands Hatch Grand Prix Circuit on Sunday, 6th August, with an impressive performance during round 13 of the campaign.
Adding to the win he achieved on the Kent venue’s shorter Indy Circuit configuration during the previous event last month, the Evergreen Tyres, GroupTyre and BMTR supported ace was again the driver to beat with searing pace in both qualifying and race trim.
Race one of the weekend was by no means straightforward for the MINI UK VIP Customer Team competitor – the initial start was red flagged, after a multi car incident, and the re-started contest concluded under Safety Car conditions. Making textbook starts at each time of asking, though, Smith bossed proceedings from the front to climb the podium for the sixth time this season.
“They didn’t make it easy for me – I got away by a mile twice but we had the red flag, then the Safety car”, he reflected, “The team have done an amazing job with the car, they did a great job after the problems we had at Rockingham to get us turned around to where we’ve been for the last few rounds and where we are now.
“When we were on the Indy Circuit last month we struggled with race pace a little bit so we worked on that on Friday in testing and got the car exactly how we wanted. It’s fantastic to get another win, especially at Brands.”
Going into the Brands Hatch GP weekend confident in his ability to challenge for pole position on the Kent venue’s full configuration, Smith didn’t disappoint with a fantastic lap of 1m50.245 seconds (79.45mph) in a very tricky rain-affected qualifying session on Saturday afternoon.
Making a fantastic start to round 13 from pole, he set about controlling the race from the front but midway through the opening lap red flags were shown as a result of a five-car collision at Surtees. Undoing the Evergreen Tyres racer’s brilliant launch he had it all to do again but, at the second time of asking, Smith once more made the most of pole position.
With the race distance shortened to just 10 minutes as a result of the delay, the action was set to be frenetic but Smith focused on the road ahead as he set his sights on putting some distance between himself and the chasing pack.
Into lap two, Smith held an advantage of 0.9 seconds from Lawrence Davey and the next time across the line he had increased his lead to 1.2 seconds. As a result of two cars crashing out at Paddock Hill Bend, though, the race was neutralised and the Safety Car deployed to again erode Smith’s lead.
With the clock ticking down during the recovery of the stricken MINIs, the Safety Car headed the field over the line to the chequered flag with Smith taking a richly deserved second victory of the 2017 season.
Drawing a top four start on the partially reversed grid for round 14, meaning a double podium was certainly on the cards at the very least, Smith’s involvement only lasted until the beginning of lap two as a result of unfortunate contact.
Edged back to fifth place initially, he stayed with the lead quartet and into the final corner at the end of the opening lap Smith got alongside the two cars immediately ahead. Unfortunately, though, contact speared the No.37 MINI into the pit wall and although he recovered, the damage to his car then pitched him off the track and into retirement on lap two.
There are just two weeks to wait until the next event on the MINI Challenge calendar, a standalone one-day race meeting at Oulton Park in Cheshire – Smith’s home track – on Saturday, 19th August.
Rob Smith made a very welcome, and long overdue, return to the top step of the MINI Challenge podium at Brands Hatch Indy Circuit over the weekend, 8th/9th July, with a sensational lights-to-flag performance in the first of the event’s three races at the Kent venue.
Forming part of the annual MINI Festival at Brands Hatch, the fifth event of the MINI Challenge season started superbly for the Crewe-based driver with pole position in qualifying and he went on to soak up every last bit of pressure in a tightly contested round 10 to claim a superb victory.
Justifiably ecstatic to secure his maiden 2017 victory, and first win since the 2015 season, the Evergreen Tyres, GroupTyre and BMTR-backed racer said he’s thrilled to have finally got the monkey off his back and return to the top step of the podium – his fifth rostrum finish of the year.
“I got a mega start, pulled quite a gap on Brett [Smith] and thought job done!”, said Rob after the race, “Obviously not, though, as there was huge pressure for almost the entire race, I think we underestimated how the temperatures had gone up. The monkey on my back was getting bigger and bigger, so it's fantastic to get my first win of the year – the first since 2015.”
Smith’s weekend began brilliantly with pole position for the first of the event’s three races, a lap of 52.174 seconds (83.34mph) securing the top spot for the MINI UK VIP Customer Team driver in a session which was interrupted by two separate red flag stoppages.
While the pole slot at Brands Hatch isn’t necessarily always the best place to begin a race at Brands Hatch due to an incline on the grid, Smith made a terrific start and opened a gap of 0.6 seconds on the first lap over namesake Brett Smith.
Thereafter, though, Rob had to soak up immense pressure. With never more than half a second between them throughout the 23-lap encounter, the gap was more often than not just a couple of tenths of a second. Driving faultlessly and never putting a wheel wrong, Smith had an answer to every bit of pressure his rival applied to convert his second pole position of the year into victory.
Starting round 11 from pole position, by way of his opening race victory, Smith made a fantastic start and an excellent opening lap enabled him to build a huge lead of 1.6 seconds. Maintaining a similar advantage into lap three, the pursuing Brett Smith did begin to reduce the gap before the Safety Car was deployed on lap seven.
Rob had it all to do again at the re-start and the action got back underway on lap 10. No sooner had racing resumed, though, the Safety Car was required again as a result of another car off at Paddock Hill Bend – the scene of the initial incident.
With less than five minutes on the clock, race two got back underway on lap 15 and the two Smiths were separated by just 0.2 seconds over the line. As during race one on Saturday, Rob had to soak up immense pressure but he didn’t put a wheel wrong.
Holding his line into Paddock Hill Bend on lap 18, and with everything seemingly in control, contact to the rear of his Evergreen Tyres-liveried MINI from Brett Smith pitched the leader off the circuit and into the barriers resulting in an immediate red flag stoppage and robbing him of a potential win.
“Brett did get a better run out of Clearways but I held the line and sat on the apex at Paddock, keeping it tight – I thought it was pretty clear there wasn’t a chance to pass”, said Rob, “Then I got hit up the back and with the car so loaded at that corner, it just spat me off into the barriers. It was a real missed opportunity as, after Saturday’s win, we were third on drop scores and close to second.”
As a result of the enforced non-finish, Rob had to line-up for round 12 a long way down the order in 21st position. With overtaking at the Indy Circuit always at a premium, his task was far from enviable to try and undo as much damage as possible in championship terms.
Putting together a stunning opening lap, Smith carved his way through into the top 12 before the Safety Car was set to be deployed in time for the start of lap two. Racing resumed quicker than expected and Smith rapidly climbed into the top 10 before trading ninth position. Back into 10th into the final lap, a late puncture for Neil Newstead enabled Smith to re-take ninth before the finish.
“The team were incredible after race two, they got the car repaired from the bulkhead forward in only 45 minutes and prepared to a good standard – I don’t know many other teams that could have done that”, Smith added, “Taking ninth from 21st on the grid was a good result, especially on the Indy Circuit. Our championship has taken a big hit, but there are still six races to go.”
Brands Hatch will also be the venue for the sixth event of the MINI Challenge season four weeks from now, over the weekend 5th/6th August, albeit on the full length Grand Prix Circuit when the series rejoins the support package to the British GT Championship.