Telford’s Rob Smith wrapped-up his first full season in the Power Maxed MINI Challenge seventh in the driver standings during a mixed final event of the season at Snetterton, where clear podium pace unfortunately went unrewarded at the East Anglian venue.
Well on course to make a welcome rostrum return in a fog-affected penultimate race of the campaign on Sunday, 1st November, the 23-year-old produced a superb performance from eighth on the grid to slice his way into the top three but contact from a rival a couple of laps from the finish resulted in an extremely disappointing retirement.
He did, though, finish seventh - fourth of the drivers eligible to score - in race one on Saturday, 31st October, and concluded the season with ninth place - seventh of the points scorers - in the final contest on Sunday after a terrific climb through from 17th on the grid in his patched-up MINI F56.
Saturday morning’s qualifying took place on a damp track, from which Rob had to settle for an uncharacteristic 13th on the grid for race one when a gamble of running wet-weather tyres on the rear of his Excelr8 Motorsport machine didn’t work out due to the track drying more than expected.
Determined to make early headway in race one, the Evergreen Tyres, BMTR, Grouptyre and We Sell Tyres (Wholesale) supported racer put together a good start and strong opening lap to climb into the top 10. Remaining there for several laps, he ran in the thick of a very evenly matched six car train which was nose-to-tail behind the lead quintet.
On lap seven Rob made the breakthrough to move into ninth and on the very next tour an incident ahead enabled him to leap into seventh place. Reeling in Jeff Smith over the final couple of laps, at the chequered flag Rob was just 0.2 seconds shy of the top six after posting his best lap of the race on the final tour – a time of 2m07.358 seconds which was a fraction outside podium pace.
“We were one session behind everyone else really after testing on Friday, then we took a gamble in qualifying with wets on the back – it worked perfectly for the first few laps but then the track dried more and more”, reflected Rob, “So race one was always going to be tougher than we wanted but the result wasn’t bad and our pace was good.”
Thick fog on Sunday morning delayed the timetable significantly and the second MINI race of the weekend got underway more than three and a half hours later than scheduled, although there was still patchy fog present when racing got underway.
From eighth on the grid Rob made a good start and rocketed into the top four on the first lap, just 0.6 seconds splitting the lead quartet at the conclusion of the opening tour. Moving into third place on lap two, at the expense of eventual champion Charlie Butler-Henderson, the Shropshire driver then posted the fastest lap of the race at that point.
With little to separate the top half dozen as the race entered its latter stages, Rob maintained third but on the penultimate tour he was edged back to fourth by Lawrence Davey and, as a result, came under attack from Butler-Henderson into the final lap. Then, dramatically, an ambitious attempted pass by Ryan Rhode only resulted in contact with Rob’s car and triggered a frustrating non-finish.
With only 20 minutes of possible repair time between Sunday’s races, the Excelr8 squad did a sterling job to get Rob’s damaged MINI into the best shape they could before the final contest and despite a less than ideal set-up he managed to impressively scythe his way through into the top 10 on the first lap from 17th on the grid.
Although edged back to 11th on lap two, he battled back into 10th position the next time around and managed to remain there until the closing stages when he was able to climb into ninth, capping an excellent performance with an ill-handling, and pretty battered, car.
“My aim was to try and get back into the championship top five this weekend, it didn’t work out in the end – the story of our season really – but we definitely had good pace again”, Rob added, “With the delays to the timetable on Sunday, by the time my car was recovered after the race two contact the team only had about 20 minutes to make repairs, try and sort out the bent door and suspension.
“We only had half a set-up really for the last race, but the team did a mega job in the time available and I did everything I could with it. Out of 19 races this year we had six podiums, six DNFs through mechanicals or being taken out, and of the other seven we had to start four at the back! We had the pace to fight for the championship this year, hopefully we’ll be back next season for another crack.”