First year saloon car racer Rob Smith made a welcome, and long awaited, return to the AirAsia Renault UK Clio Cup top 10 at Rockingham in Northamptonshire on Sunday, 23rd September, after an excellent drive through the order from the tenth row of the grid in round 11 of the season.
Heading into the sixth event of the year determined to secure some of the best results of his maiden campaign in the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship support category, the 20-year-old from Telford made great progress in the first of the weekend’s two races and went on to conclude the meeting within just 28 points of the coveted top 12 in the driver standings.
Unfortunately, qualifying on Saturday continued to be something of an Achilles Heel for Rob and put him on the back foot for rounds 11 and 12 as he posted the 17th fastest time for each of the grids.
In the opening encounter though on Sunday morning, he produced his best performance since round two at Brands Hatch Indy Circuit – where he achieved an eighth place finish – to conclude the 14-lap encounter some seven seconds clear of the chasing pack at the wheel of his Goodride Performance Tyres, Grouptyre and B.A.B Distribution-backed Clio.
Actually lining up 19th due to a two place penalty from the previous event, Rob made a good start and avoided contact during a multi-car tangle at Chapman Curve on lap one to move into 16th place and by the third tour he had gained two more positions. Upping his pace with every lap, the Total Control Racing driver then set his sights on the duelling Simon Belcher and Ronnie Klos and ran close in the wheeltracks of the pair.
On lap nine, the Loughborough University Automotive Materials student passed Jake Giddings for 13th at Yentwood – who had already lost out to Belcher and Klos after a mistake – and the next time around at Deene, Rob tried to pass Klos on the brakes but ran slightly wide on the exit. Continuing to be held up, on lap 13 that all changed when Klos ran off the circuit and into the tyre barriers.
Into the final lap 12th place would have been a great return from a row 10 start but Rob profited from contact between Stefan Hodgetts and Ant Whorton-Eales to grab 10th position. His best lap of 1m31.369 seconds was just 0.7 seconds shy of multiple champion Paul Rivett’s fastest.
“It’s great to be back in the top 10 again, I’m pleased with that”, said Rob, “Everything was much better than in qualifying, the car was a bit twitchy through the quick stuff but the chicane felt much better which is where I had problems on Saturday losing about half a second. We had a hard battle ahead starting 19th but to come through into the top 10 was good and exactly what we needed.”
Officials elected to start round 12 on Sunday afternoon behind the Safety Car following a heavy and persistent dose of rainfall over the course of the previous three hours or so. Grip proved to be at a premium on the slippery Rockingham track surface which caught out several drivers, one such issue leading to the re-appearance of the Safety Car on lap five just two laps after racing proper began.
Running in 15th place at that stage, the Shropshire driver spent the final few laps circulating tight to the rear bumper of team-mate Nicolas Hamilton’s car but with no clear-cut opportunity presenting itself, Rob settled for the position.
Next on the schedule will be the penultimate two races of the season, rounds 13 and 14, which will take place at Silverstone National Circuit in Northamptonshire on 6th/7th October.