Rob Smith made a richly deserved return to the MINI Challenge podium during the last of the weekend’s ‘triple-header’ races at Snetterton 300 Circuit on Sunday, 28th May, with a terrific drive from ninth on the grid into the top three – a performance he described as ‘the best of my life.’
Starting out the third event of the season with a sensational display in a storm-hit qualifying session on Saturday, taking his first pole position of the year by a remarkable 2.1 seconds, the Crewe based driver frustratingly lost out on a potential win in race one due to alternator failure.
Bouncing back with a supreme drive through the order from the back of the grid in race two to secure ninth place, from 27th at the start, the MINI UK VIP Customer Team racer shone again in the third encounter with a fantastic run to the podium in third place.
“Race three was the best of my life”, said the Evergreen Tyres, GroupTyre and BMTR supported driver, “I was on a mission, there was never a chance I wasn’t going to finish on the podium! After qualifying I really thought this was where we would get our championship back on track, obviously race one was a disappointment but the rest of the weekend went fantastically well.
“I think we turned heads with the performances in races two and three, I’ve been saying we have the fastest package out there and when there aren’t any problems we’ve proven it. It’s great to end the weekend on such a high and I’m really looking forward to Silverstone now.”
After preparing well in pre-event testing, Smith headed into qualifying confident of a strong performance and he duly delivered with a truly sensational showing in a storm-hit session which was red flagged on two occasions.
Heavy rain, thunder and lightning arrived at Snetterton just in time for the start of qualifying and the run was quickly halted due to the worsening weather. Resuming after the rain had abated, but still on an extremely wet track surface, Smith mastered the grip levels to post a best lap of 2m25.833 seconds (73.28mph) – 2.1 seconds quicker than anyone – before the red flags were shown again.
Relishing the chance of starting on pole position for the first time this season, Smith made a great launch at the beginning of the dry fifth round on Saturday evening to lead through Riches and towards the infield.
Fending off namesake Jeff Smith during the latter part of the lap, the multiple MINI race winner kept his rival at bay but on the third tour realistic hopes of victory were dashed when his MINI F56 slowed dramatically as a result of alternator failure, coasting to a halt at the Bomb Hole.
Going on to start round six from a lowly 27th on the grid as a result, the encounter was swiftly red flagged due to a two-car tangle off the startline. When the race was re-started, Smith gained several places and went on to end the opening lap in an elevated 19th position.
Taking two more spots on the second tour, by the end of lap four he was into the top 12 and swarming all over the back of team-mate Charlie Butler-Henderson’s car. Breaking into the top 10 on lap five, Smith then set his sights on pressuring George Sutton for ninth but the pair moved up one place each anyway as a result of Reece Barr heading to the pits.
Try as he might to pass Sutton on the eighth and final lap, Smith had to settle for a nonetheless outstanding ninth place – a gain of 18 positions on his starting slot. In terms of pace, his quickest lap was only 0.2 seconds shy of the fastest despite having to carve his way through the order.
Lining-up on the fifth row for round seven, he moved up into seventh place by the time the field headed through Agostini and then grabbed sixth. Running close behind Jeff Smith, both moved up a place when race leader Max Bladon had a spin at the hairpin on the second tour and on lap three Rob managed to get past his namesake for fourth after some terrific side-by-side action.
An excursion for Freddie Lee at Riches on lap four elevated Rob into third and he then spent the remainder of the 10-lap contest glued to the back of Mark Wakefield’s MINI. Pressuring lap after lap, Smith had to be mindful of the temperature of his engine rising a little too high, running so close behind his rival.
Mounting a grandstand push on the last lap, Rob ran side-by-side with Wakefield for several corners and although briefly dropping to fifth, after a tussle with Jeff Smith, he produced a superb out-braking manoeuvre at the Esses to successfully cap a breath-taking final couple of miles with third place.
Next on the calendar for the MINI Challenge competitors is a visit to Silverstone Grand Prix Circuit in Northamptonshire a fortnight from now, over the weekend 10th/11th June.