20/7/2016 0 Comments
Evergreen Tyres-backed MINI Challenge racer Rob Smith made a richly deserved return to the podium in front of a huge Brands Hatch Indy Circuit crowd on Sunday, 17th July, with a highly competitive third place finish in round 12 – before adding an improved runner-up spot in round 13.
Delivering excellent competitiveness throughout the fifth weekend of the season, the MINI UK VIP Customer Team driver only just missed out on silverware in round 11 on Saturday, 16th July, by a mere 0.6 seconds after a last-lap challenge by reigning champion Charlie Butler-Henderson.
Hitting back in style in the second contest, Rob produced an excellent start from fourth on the grid to move into third place, leaping ahead of Butler-Henderson, and went on to secure a fantastic rostrum result just a fraction away from the runner-up spot.
In race three later on Sunday afternoon, an encounter which was initially red flagged due to an incident in the pack on lap two, the Telford driver claimed his second podium of the day and third of the season with another fantastically competitive top three finish. Post-race, though, a time penalty for Butler-Henderson elevated Rob into second position and his best result of the year so far.
“It’s been a long wait!”, said the Evergreen Tyres, GroupTyre Ltd and BMTR-backed racer, who entertained VIP guests from GroupTyre Wholesale at Brands, “It’s all been spot on to be honest and it’s good who we’ve beaten – we finished ahead of a lot of the guys above me in the championship so that should bring us back into contention for a possible top three at the end of the year.
“The car has been fantastic this weekend, since we got the problems sorted at Rockingham we’ve been able to work on proper changes to the set-up instead of working around the issues we’d been having up to then. We found some massive improvements, found some time on the new tyres in qualifying and how to look after them a bit better too. We aim to continue this momentum now.”
Qualifying on Saturday morning was a fantastically close and entertaining session with Rob squarely in the fight for pole position. Topping the times early on and setting the pace at the halfway point, the MINI UK VIP Customer team driver ultimately ended the run with the third fastest time – just 0.041 seconds shy of pole.
Round 11 was just as keenly contested, with Rob only just missing out on the fastest lap of the contest and coming within a lap of taking his first podium since the previous visit to Brands Hatch back in May. Holding onto third place on the run to Paddock Hill Bend at the start, the Telford racer piled on the pressure to second placed David Grady and into lap three only 0.2 seconds separated the pair.
With absolutely nothing between the lead quartet the slightest error would prove crucial, but the top four drivers continued to circulate nose-to-tail for pretty much the entire 21 lap duration. On lap 11, Rob posted the fastest lap of the race with a time of 53.002 seconds and continued to focus on challenging Grady while, at the same time, soaking up huge pressure from Butler-Henderson.
Looking all set to secure his second trip to the rostrum of 2016, the Bentley Cars Body and Trim Engineer then fell victim to a late move from Butler-Henderson at Paddock on the final lap. Ending the race somewhat frustrated with fourth place, he took the flag just 0.6 seconds shy of the podium and missed fastest lap by a mere 0.047 seconds.
Starting race two on Sunday afternoon from fourth on the grid, Rob made a great start to leapfrog team-mate Butler-Henderson and in a repeat of Saturday’s contest the lead quartet circulated with absolutely nothing between them.
Very evenly matched in terms of pace, the top four ran nose-to-tail for the duration once again with Rob piling on pressure to second placed Brett Smith while, at the same time, ensuring he kept the door closed to any potential attack from behind.
Just 0.2 seconds shy of namesake Smith into lap nine, Rob searched for a way past but the order remained set to the finish on lap 23. At the chequered flag Rob was just two tenths of a second behind the top two to double his podium tally for the season and secure a richly deserved return to the MINI Challenge rostrum. His best lap was only 0.2 seconds shy of the fastest of the race.
Beginning race three from third on the grid, Rob held position off the line and then moved into second before the end of the lap before closing to within 0.1 seconds of race leader Luke Caudle. Frustratingly, though, red flags were shown on the second tour as a result of a collision.
Racing re-started over a shortened duration of 15 minutes and, from third on the grid, Rob made an excellent start to hold the place into Paddock Hill Bend. Just 0.2 seconds behind Butler-Henderson into lap two, he stayed close behind the sister MINI UK VIP Customer Team car and on lap eight posted the fastest lap of the race – 52.900 seconds – before it was bettered by a mere thousandth.
Only 0.4 seconds adrift of the top two at that point, Rob continued to lap with identical pace to the pair ahead but with the order remaining set to the finish on lap 17 he took the chequered flag in third, before being promoted into second place post-race.
Oulton Park International Circuit in Cheshire will host the second of the back-to-back MINI Festivals next month, with the MINI Challenge races all taking place on one day – Saturday, 20th August.