Nantwich-based MINI Challenge racer Rob Smith got his 2018 season moving in the right direction at Rockingham International Super Sportscar Circuit on Sunday, 29th April, with a pair of top five finishes during the second race meeting of the campaign.
Smith, who drives for the MINI UK VIP Customer Team, endured a very difficult start to his year at Oulton Park over Easter weekend – issues subsequently pinned down to damper problems with his No.37 MINI – but he bounced back well at Rockingham with a strong showing.
Finishing in fifth place during round three on Sunday morning, having qualified eighth in a wet session on Saturday, 28th April, 25-year-old Smith went on to run as high as second in round four until the contest was red flagged. In the re-started encounter, he again secured a top five result to move up into fifth in the championship.
“Race one was good”, said Smith, “Last year at Rockingham we had some issues with making the tyres last, but we didn’t have those problems this time so we obviously got to the bottom of it. I’m actually pretty happy with two top fives at a circuit that’s always been a bit of a bogey track for me. Good solid points were needed after Oulton, this is a solid foundation to build on now.
“Our pace was good this weekend, my racecraft was sharp and I pulled off three good late braking moves into Deene, from a long way back, in race one which I was pleased with. In the second race, I got up to second which was great but then we obviously had the red flag. We did have a slight issue with the car, but we were still able to bring it home in the re-started race in fifth again.”
Having identified problematic front dampers as the reason for mysterious balance issues during the season-opener at Oulton, Smith headed to Rockingham aiming for a big improvement but he did have to settle for the eighth fastest time in a damp qualifying session.
Race one of the weekend fell under Safety Car conditions before the end of the opening lap as a result of a car stranded in the gravel at the Tarzan hairpin. Concluding the first tour in eighth place, when the action resumed on lap four Smith set about making progress while having to keep an eye on his mirrors, but he had to bide his time for a few laps.
Patiently circulating in a tight pack of cars around the top six, Smith made his move on lap eight at Deene to pass Lawrence Davey for seventh and on lap 10 he moved ahead of James Gornall for sixth at the same turn. Pushing to the finish on lap 13, on the final tour he was able to grab fifth from Ollie Pidgley, again at the Deene Hairpin, to cap a strong drive.
Lining up fourth on the grid for race two, BMTR Tyre Specialists, CarTyreStore and Spark Motorsport Promotions-supported Smith moved up into second behind former British Touring Car Championship driver Ant Whorton-Eales before the Safety Car was deployed – due to a multi-car incident at Turn One of the Oval banking – and the race was then subsequently red flagged on lap three.
At the re-start, Smith lined up second on the grid and maintained position until lap two when he was edged back to third by a late-braking Jordan Collard at Tarzan. Determined to maintain his podium placing, Smith battled hard but was ultimately edged back to fifth before the finish on lap seven.
“We do need some more development time with the car so hopefully we can get a day somewhere just to iron a few things out”, he reflected, “This weekend has still been a really big improvement on Oulton though, we’re moving in the right direction now.”
There is now a break of four weeks in the MINI Challenge calendar with rounds five and six of the season set to take place at Snetterton 300 Circuit in Norfolk on 26th/27th May.