MINI Challenge title hopeful Rob Smith got his 2017 season off to an extremely impressive start at his ‘home’ circuit, Oulton Park in Cheshire, over Easter weekend with a sensational performance in round two delivering not only a richly deserved podium but also a new lap record.
So remarkable was the 24-year-old’s pace in the second of Easter Monday’s two season-opening contests, his fastest lap time of 1m50.328 seconds (87.84mph) was almost half a second quicker than anything anyone else could manage – earning him the Sunoco Fastest Driver of the Weekend award.
Storming through from seventh on the grid with a blistering start, he climbed into fifth straight away and went on to finish in third place to open his podium account and lay a marker down in the ultra-competitive championship.
“Taking the podium and lap record was the ideal way to end the weekend”, said Smith, “Things didn’t go our way from Saturday onwards really, up to race two, so it’s fantastic to go away with two trophies – one for the Sunoco Fastest Driver. To lap quicker than pole and half a second faster than anyone on a slightly greasy track, I think we sent a bit of a message today.”
Nantwich-based Smith lined-up sixth on the grid for the opening race on Easter Monday, a red flag interrupted qualifying session preventing the Evergreen Tyres, BMTR and GroupTyre-backed racer from showing his true pace at that stage of proceedings.
Although it had rained earlier, the track was pretty much dry in time for the race start but all of the drivers were on wet-weather tyres. Smith made a terrific launch to instantly grab fifth and as he went through the gears on the run into Old Hall, he cut across to the inside to challenge for fourth.
Tucking back in to fifth on the exit, the MINI UK VIP Team driver heavily pressured Max Bladon as he sought a way past to latch on to the podium battle. At the end of lap one, though, Smith came under attack from James Turkington and while managing to maintain position initially he was edged back to sixth into the chicane on lap two.
Slipping to seventh on lap three, largely as a result of a lack of grip, into the second half of the race he picked up his pace and on the final tour Smith posted his quickest lap of all, a time of 2m01.642s which was just 0.2 seconds shy of the fastest of the race.
Starting seventh for the dry second round, Smith instantly took sixth and brilliantly moved into fifth on the outside line through Old Hall. As the field headed through Island Bend he looked to challenge for fourth but had to tuck back in, glued to the rear of namesake Brett Smith.
On lap two at Cascades, the Evergreen-backed racer looked to have made fourth his but his rival was able to move back past. Swarming all over the #39 MINI, into Druids there was nothing between them and then, at Cascades on lap three, the pressure told as Brett slid wide and Rob sliced by.
Having been held up over the first three laps, the MINI UK VIP Team racer had a huge five second deficit to make up to the podium but a time penalty for third-on-the-road Mark Wakefield, resulting from a jumped start, enabled Smith to assume third on corrected times.
Unsure which competitor had been served a penalty, Smith was actually unaware he had done enough to finish on the podium so he reeled off a series of fastest laps, apparently with ease, and ultimately punched in a new lap record of 1m50.328s on the final tour. Capping a magnificent drive, he closed to within less than three seconds of the runner-up spot.
“On Thursday in testing the car was mega quick, but qualifying was so disrupted with red flags and traffic so we just couldn’t get a lap in”, he explained, “For race one everyone turned up with full wets on a track which was pretty much bone dry, plus our car’s ride height was too high after a problem when checking it in scrutineering, so we struggled more than we should.
“In race two I had an awesome start and then got stuck behind Brett for quite a few laps which is what can happen at Oulton, but he made a mistake with a huge tank-slapper and I got past. I got my head down and decided to bang in some qualifying laps, I didn’t know which driver had the penalty so I just pushed as hard as I could. Roll on Rockingham…”
Northamptonshire’s Rockingham ISSC will host the second event of the MINI Challenge season over the weekend 29th/30th April.