Rapid MINI Challenge racer Rob Smith took his long awaited first victory of the 2018 season at Silverstone Grand Prix Circuit on Sunday, 10th June, and the MINI UK VIP Customer Team driver is now hopeful the success will mark a true watershed moment for his championship bid.
After a season impacted by misfortune thus far, his best finish prior to Silverstone being fourth place, the 25-year-old Nantwich driver put together a fantastic opening to round eight to move into the lead midway around the first lap.
With the Safety Car required at the start of the second tour, and remaining on track for quite some time, the action only resumed with enough time for a late sprint to the flag where Smith made a faultless re-start and claimed the victory by half a second from Ant Whorton-Eales.
“This has been a long time coming!”, said an ecstatic Smith immediately after round eight, “We’ve always known the pace has been there from the start of the year, but we had damper problems at the first two events and then obviously some contact at Snetterton – it all hampered our progress.
“This weekend we’re back where we should be. If I’d strung it together in qualifying we would have been on the front row of the grid for race one and with the pace to fight for the win on Saturday as well. It’s a shame we didn’t have more laps in race two, but a win’s a win! It’s fantastic to be back on the top step of the podium, hopefully this can be the real start of our championship.”
Determined to mount a bid for his first podium finish of the season at Silverstone, Smith made a good start in trying to realise his aim by securing a second row start for the opening encounter of the weekend with the fourth fastest time in qualifying, just 0.2 seconds shy of the top two.
At the start of round seven on Saturday, the BMTR Tyre Specialists, CarTyreStore and Spark Motorsport Promotions supported racer was edged back to fifth by David Robinson before the Safety Car was deployed due to a couple of cars encountering dramas.
When the action resumed at the beginning of lap four, Smith made a good re-start and he was soon able to get ahead of Robinson to reclaim fourth. With absolutely nothing to split the podium contenders, just 0.3 seconds separating Smith from the actual race lead by the end of the fifth tour, the MINI UK VIP Customer Team driver couldn’t quite find the breakthrough he needed.
Producing a quickest lap time faster than those managed by Nathan Harrison and Whorton-Eales ahead, in third and second respectively, Smith pushed hard to the chequered flag on lap eight where he was a mere 0.3 seconds shy of his elusive first 2018 podium.
He was due to line-up fifth on the grid for round eight on Sunday morning but the start was delayed when Jac Maybin hit the rear of Ollie Pidgley’s car on the warm-up lap. When the action finally got underway, Smith started an elevated third with Maybin and Pidgley out of the equation but he was edged back to fourth into Copse – although he soon responded in style.
Holding fourth into the Maggots and Becketts curves, when a couple of rivals ahead got out of shape he threaded his way through into second place on the exit and after pressuring for the lead into Stowe he duly moved into first place on the run into the left-hander at Vale.
As a result of the opening lap chaos, the Safety Car was deployed in time for the start of lap two and the encounter got back underway with only enough time left on the clock for one racing lap. Making a good re-start, Smith headed former British Touring Car Championship racer Whorton-Eales by 0.5 seconds and went on to take his first win of the year by the same margin.
There is now a break of just over a month for the MINI Challenge competitors with rounds nine and 10 of the season taking place on Saturday, 21st July, at Oulton Park – the second visit of the year to Smith’s ‘home’ track in rural Cheshire for the annual North West ‘MINI Festival’.