MINI UK VIP Customer Team driver Rob Smith produced one of the drives of his career in round 15 of the MINI Challenge season at a rain-hit Oulton Park International Circuit on Saturday, 20th August, after scything through the order from a pitlane start to claim his fourth podium of 2016.
Setting the pace from the outset at his local track, the 24-year-old Nantwich based driver – who is originally from Telford – lapped quickest on the wet test day prior to the weekend’s action and went on to secure his first outright pole of the year in a drying qualifying session on Saturday morning.
Although the opening contest, round 14, delivered immense disappointment when a challenge for race victory ended at Cascades on the opening lap following the lightest of tangles with David Grady, Rob hit back in style in round 15 later in the day with an inspired tyre call as the weather again played a key role.
As a result of his richly deserved top three finish, and with several of his main rivals encountering their own misfortune during the penultimate event of the season, the Evergreen Tyres, GroupTyre Ltd, BMTR and Oak Tyres supported driver has closed up on the championship top six.
“Third was an amazing result from the pitlane”, reflected Rob, “Henry [Neal], Brett [Smith] and I all decided to go for wets before the start but they were a bit further up the queue in the pits so were able to get through the traffic before I could. The team did an amazing job though to turn the car around, I definitely thought we had a chance of a win if I’d been able to catch them sooner.”
Qualifying ended with Rob taking pole position for the first race by a mere eight thousandths of a second with a time of 1m58.732 seconds, a decision to switch from full wets to slick tyres on the front of his MINI working well. In truth, he could easily have been a second clear of the competition having lost a huge chunk of time on some oil on his fastest lap at the end of the session.
Determined to make the most of his grid-topping starting slot, on the opening lap of race one Rob and David Grady ran side by side into the second corner, Cascades, but a combination of the lightest of touches, and a track slippery from a brief rain shower prior to the start, resulted in Rob being spun out into the gravel and retirement.
Understandably disappointed to see his superb qualifying effort come to nothing, for race two Rob faced an immense challenge to try and climb through the order from 24th on the 27 car grid – the starting order set by the result of the opening contest.
Prior to the start, Rob was one of a number of drivers who decided to forego their grid placing for a pitlane start after switching from slicks to wet-weather tyres as another downpour arrived at Oulton Park. When the race got underway, it immediately became obvious the wets were the tyre of choice as Rob rocketed through to the cusp of the top 10 on lap one alone.
Inside a lap and a half, Rob – with namesake Brett Smith and Neal ahead of him – had remarkably worked his way into third position and he stayed there throughout the seven lap duration to claim a memorable result. He only just missed out on the fastest lap too, his best time of 2m03.180 seconds little more than 0.1 seconds shy of the quickest.
“Race one was just a racing incident”, explained Rob, “On a normal day nothing would’ve happened. It spotted with rain on the grid just before the start and made the track a little bit greasy, so it was difficult to get heat into the tyres. David [Grady] and I had a little rub of the wheels and it put me offline onto the grass, and then into the gravel – game over.
“The second race was like one of those you hear about or read about where someone’s taken a chance on a tyre gamble and it’s paid off, a bit of a hero or zero. It was a fantastic race for us and great to be back on the podium. Even though we had the DNF in race one, lots of the others had some bad results so it’s closed things up in the championship and it’s all still to fight for.”
There is now a lengthy 10 week break in the racing calendar for Rob with the championship finale taking place over the weekend 29th/30th October at Snetterton 300 Circuit in Norfolk.