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.