Rob Smith ended the all-action 2018 MINI Challenge with a deserved podium finish during the final race of the season at Donington Park Grand Prix Circuit on Sunday, 23rd September, to conclude the championship fourth in the driver standings.
Through a season which has been badly impacted by misfortune on multiple occasions, the Nantwich 26-year-old was pleased to finish the year back on the rostrum and is now striving to secure the commercial support to enable graduation into touring cars for next year.
With round 16 on Sunday morning not going fully to plan for the MINI UK VIP Customer Team driver, after a frustrating qualifying session on Saturday, 22nd September, left him with an uncharacteristic 14th best time, Smith built on a top 10 finish in race one with third in round 17 later in the day.
“It’s been an uphill battle this weekend but to end with a podium, and both MINI UK cars in the top three, is a great way to reward the team for all their hard work”, said the BMTR Tyre Specialists, CarTyreStore and Spark Motorsport Promotions-backed racer, “It has been a tough season with a lot of ups and downs, but we’ve shown what we’re capable of again and how quick we are.”
Qualifying was far from ideal for Smith with understeer issues in the wet session on Saturday 22nd September, meaning 14th on the grid for the first of the weekend’s two encounters was the best he could possibly muster.
As the 28-car field headed towards Redgate at the beginning of the dry first race on Sunday morning, Smith made up plenty of ground while also managing to avoid several chaotic incidents and he went on to conclude the opening lap inside the top 10.
Gaining no fewer than three places on lap two to move up into seventh position and continue his march towards the podium, Smith had a large gap of four seconds to make-up to Sam Weller in sixth position – but he absolutely decimated the advantage held by his rival.
Taking a full two seconds out of Weller on lap three, and then setting fastest lap, the MINI UK VIP Customer Team driver was just 0.6 seconds behind Weller into the fifth tour and he remained glued to the No.11 MINI the next time around.
With the group around fifth place closing up, Smith came under attack from Ben Palmer and a subsequent shake-up on lap six resulted in Rory Cuff falling back but Palmer moving ahead, so Smith ended the tour still in seventh. Another dust-up late in the race, after Cuff had spent some time vigorously defending from Smith, then led to an eventual finish of 10th.
Beginning the final race of the season, round 17, from the fifth row of the grid as per the result from the earlier encounter, Smith made an excellent start and gained three positions on the first lap as he strived to conclude 2018 with some deserved silverware.
Breaking into the top six on lap two, an excursion for George Sutton then elevated Smith into fifth and he set about closing the gap to the quartet ahead. Running right with Palmer into lap five, Smith grabbed fourth shortly after but by that point the lead trio were three seconds up the road.
In a lonely race thereafter, with a huge gap to the cars behind, Smith continued in fourth to the chequered flag on lap 12. With second placed Ant Whorton-Eales receiving a time penalty for a track limits infringement, though, Smith moved up ahead of the 2018 champion into third place.
“We snookered ourselves before we started really this weekend, trying to second guess what the weather would do”, reflected Smith, “We did a last-minute test on Friday when it was dry, rather than in the wet on Thursday, so in the wet qualifying session – where we’d normally be pretty untouchable and the car would be on rails – we had armfuls of understeer.
“I was confident we’d make up ground in race one in the dry, but we were hit by an immovable object with a Dynamics car. It was frustrating, and I picked up a knock as well, so it compromised what we could do. We made some changes to unlock more pace for race two and they worked, if I had been able to get [Ben] Palmer a bit quicker I think we could have been in the fight for the win.”
He added: “We’d love to get onto the BTCC [British Touring Car Championship] grid for next year, that’s the goal as it has been for the last few years. I feel I’m more ready than ever and I’m sure we could be consistent top 10 challengers with the right package…it’s just that small matter of budget!”