Multiple MINI Challenge race winner Rob Smith secured his third podium visit in as many race meetings during the sixth event of the season at Brands Hatch Grand Prix Circuit on Sunday, 12th August, as the intriguing battle over second place in the championship further intensified.
Forming part of the support package to the visiting DTM touring car series, one of the globe’s most prestigious and high-profile motor racing categories, rounds 11 and 12 of the MINI season proved successful for Nantwich-based Smith with fifth place in race one and third in the second encounter.
In race two, though, Smith actually took the equivalent points for a second place finish with ‘guest’ driver Alex Morgan prevented from scoring under series regulations. As a result, Smith is well in the mix as part of the tight battle over second place in the driver standings with just a handful of points separating him and rivals Nathan Harrison and Jordan Collard.
MINI mainstay Smith, who is backed by BMTR Tyre Specialists, CarTyreStore and Spark Motorsport Promotions, and his team did have some difficulties finding the right balance with the No.37 MINI for qualifying on Saturday, 11th August, and he was somewhat disappointed with fifth fastest.
Even so, a third row start for the first of Sunday’s two races meant he was certainly in the mix for a potential podium challenge and the double 2018 race winner certainly set out his intentions early by quickly breaking into the top four.
As the race progressed, though, issues with the rear of the car becoming too light at certain corners, specifically the crested Paddock Hill Bend and Sheene Curve, meant Smith couldn’t carry the speed he wanted into the turns and so his challenge to the podium contenders had to take a back seat.
Instead, he focused on trying to repel the attack of Jordan Collard but into the final five minutes of the race Smith was edged back to fifth where he remained to the chequered flag, nonetheless taking a healthy haul of points.
Ahead of race two, the Excelr8 squad – the engineering strength behind the MINI UK VIP Customer Team – cured the issues with the balance on Smith’s car and he made a blistering start from fourth on the grid to rocket into second place on the run into Paddock Hill Bend.
Latching onto the rear bumper of pole position starter Morgan, Smith searched for a way past but as the laps ticked by championship leader Ant Whorton-Eales moved into the picture. With nothing to split the trio, Smith sensed a need to try and unsettle Morgan but as he sized up a potential move into Paddock Hill Bend on lap six, Whorton-Eales managed to steal second after diving to the inside.
“The encouraging thing this weekend is we’ve had to grind out the results a bit, so to take a fifth and a podium has been really satisfying”, said Smith, “We had a couple of little niggles, and the prep is always limited for the GP circuit with no testing beforehand, so we gambled a bit with our set-up and the car was just slightly out of the window we needed in practice and qualifying.
“I made a good start to race one, put together a good first lap, but the balance was a bit out at corners like Paddock and Sheene. I couldn’t carry the speed I wanted, so it was safer and more sensible to bring the car home safely in the top five.”
He added: “For race two we got the car where we wanted it, the team did a great job, and I made a fantastic start – the best I’ve done all year – to move into second by the time we got to Paddock. I could’ve been a bit more forceful perhaps to try and get the lead, but I decided against it and that was the best decision. Finishing third, and taking points for second, is great for our championship.”
There is now only a fortnight to wait until the MINI Challenge is back in action, with the category making a swift return to Brands Hatch – albeit on the shorter Indy Circuit – on 25th/26th August for the penultimate race meeting of 2018.
“Brands Indy has been a happy hunting ground for me for the last few years, we’ve gone well there in MINI and Clios”, commented Smith, “As it’s the only weekend this season with three races, there are going to be lots of opportunities to try and score big – we need to make the most of them.”