Hopes of a happy homecoming to his local track went badly awry for Rob Smith during the latest outing of the Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship season at Oulton Park on Sunday, 30th June, after a huge, car-wrecking incident in race two of the weekend – beamed live across the UK on ITV4.
Going into the fifth event of his maiden BTCC season aiming to continue progress with the Excelr8 Motorsport team, Telford racer Smith was certainly in the wars with contact in race one impeding a good early ascent up the order and limiting the MG6 driver to 16th in the Independents Trophy.
Worse was to follow in race two when contact from a rival, at the last corner on the final lap, led to a highly dramatic and extremely heavy impact with the barriers on the outside, the momentum from which almost pitching Smith’s car into a full barrel roll.
Eventually coming to rest back on the circuit with a thud, Smith fortunately emerged safely and unscathed from the car but such was the level of damage to the MG6 it meant any repairs during the short window of time before race three wouldn’t be at all possible.
“Obviously, the incident in race two was big but I wasn’t hurt thankfully – although the same couldn’t be said for the car”, said Smith, “It was a big impact, the shell was badly damaged as well as both subframes and there was no time to repair the car for the last race. Now, we’re focused on being back for the Snetterton tyre test during the summer break which will be very important.”
Starting the weekend happy with the work completed in opening practice on Saturday, 29th June, a change of direction with set-up for session two didn’t reap any rewards and this had a knock-on for qualifying later in the day.
As a result, Smith started round 13 on Sunday afternoon from a lower than expected 28th on the grid and he utilised the soft compound ‘option’ tyres for the opening encounter. Making a good start and gaining a position early on, Smith was edged back to 28th again before the end of the lap before he then set about challenging ex-Formula One and Le Mans racer Mark Blundell a few laps later.
Getting alongside the Audi driver on the outside at Lodge at the end of lap four, Smith looked to be making the move stick but Blundell made contact and the No.37 MG6 was forced out wide over the grass. Dropping to last position as a result, Smith hit back to get ahead of Blundell into Old Hall at the start of lap five for 29th and then moved back into 28th after an excursion for Matt Neal.
Following a Safety Car period, racing resumed on lap 11 and Smith continued to rise up the order in his Draper Tools, Lane Roofing, BMTR, Genco Logistics, CAM Systems, Evolution Fire and Security, Third Millennium, Rocket Graphics, Credo Asset Finance and Integro Insurance Brokers liveried car.
Lapping strongly, setting a best time just half a second shy of outright top 15 pace, the Excelr8 driver ended the encounter in 24th place overall and 16th in the Independents Trophy class and he then focused on making greater improvements in race two.
Starting round 14 from the 12th row of the grid, Smith got away from the line cleanly and gained a number of positions on a hectic first lap with several drivers encountering troubles. Moving through into 18th position and 12th in the Independents as the race fell under Safety Car conditions on lap two, when the action got back underway on the sixth tour he fought hard in the thick of the battle.
On lap eight, though, some tight tussling ended up with Smith being bundled back to 14th in class and 23rd overall. Determined to fight back, he closed up behind Bobby Thompson’s Volkswagen before the Safety Car reappeared on lap 14 when Excelr8 team-mate Sam Osborne crashed out.
Two laps later the race re-started and Smith soon moved up into 13th in the Independents before setting about challenging the VW of Michael Crees. Getting alongside through the final corner on the last lap, the VW moved into the MG6 and Smith was pitched hard into the barriers – weekend over.
Reflecting on a tough visit to Oulton, Smith said: “Qualifying is so crucial here, but we went with a different set-up which didn’t work. In FP1 I was happy with the pace on old tyres, knowing how much time we’d gain on new tyres, but a set-up we ran in FP2 which my team-mate Sam [Osborne] had liked didn’t work for me and it was the same in qualifying.
“We went back to what we knew for raceday and the first race was just unfortunate, contact from [Mark] Blundell lost me a few places but I battled well after that and was fairly happy. We’ve gone a direction with the car which is encouraging, I’m now starting to ask to get a bit more oversteer into it which shows the hard work is done and now we just need to make those final tweaks.”
Snetterton 300 Circuit in Norfolk will kick-off the second half of the BTCC season five weeks from now on 3rd/4th August. Before then, on Tuesday, 16th July, and Wednesday, 17th July, the BTCC competitors will visit Snetterton for a two-day Dunlop tyre test.