Saloon car racer Rob Smith delivered an impressively strong account of himself on his debut in the high-profile Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship over the weekend.
Smith gained a double helping of Independents Trophy points during the 2019 curtain-raiser at Brands Hatch.
Telford’s Smith, driving for Excelr8 Motorsport, didn’t have the smoothest of starts to raceday with retirement from round one on Sunday morning, but the 26-year-old hit back very well in rounds two and three in his red, white and blue MG6 – with the weekend finale the true highlight.
Able to battle through from 27th on the grid into 24th place in race two, 14th in the Independents Trophy, during the third encounter Smith really got to grips with the cut and thrust of the BTCC to carve his way through from 24th at the start to 17th at the conclusion – 11th in the Independents.
Notably in the final encounter, the only dry race of the weekend, Smith’s quickest lap time of 49.323 seconds was only 0.3 seconds shy of outright podium pace in his Draper Tools, Lane Roofing, BMTR, Genco Logistics, CAM Systems, Evolution Fire and Security, Third Millennium, Rocket Graphics, Credo Asset Finance and Integro Insurance Brokers-backed car.
“We made some amazing progression on our first weekend in the BTCC”, said Smith, “Going from race one, which I feel was probably the worst of my career, to then gaining a lot of places in race three and being faster than the guy who was quickest at the Media Day test, I’m happy with that.
“From coming into the weekend feeling a step behind with the car, now I feel totally happy with it and we can start to make optimal changes to set-up rather than changes to make me feel more comfortable. The team did a fantastic job, the car is good and the set-up has been fantastic.”
He added: “Racing with the likes of [Dan] Cammish, [Tom] Ingram, [Rob] Collard and [Sam] Tordoff, I haven’t seen anything we need to do in terms of racecraft and I felt very comfortable. I’m definitely happy with our performance and pace from race three relative to those guys, the only thing we need to work on is the starts – but that’s something we can sort out very quickly.”
MG6 racer buoyed after first weekend in Britain’s biggest championship
Smith made a strong and consistent start to life in the BTCC during the two free practice sessions on Saturday at the 1.2-mile Indy Circuit, posting the 25th fastest time in the opening run, just over 0.6 seconds shy of the top 10, and 16th in the Independents Trophy. In session two, he was an improved 13th in class and 23rd overall to prepare well for his first ever qualifying run in touring cars.
Rain arrived at Brands Hatch for the grid-determining session later in the day, a new experience for Smith at the wheel of his MG6, and in a session impacted by three red flag stoppages he emerged with 25th on the grid overall, 15th in the Independents, for his BTCC race debut.
Fog throughout Sunday morning resulted in very tricky damp conditions for the first touring car race of Smith’s career. With the track expected to dry sufficiently for slick tyres to be the preferred option, the Shropshire racer and his Excelr8 team chose to go with dry-weather rubber but hopes were compromised immediately on the start line.
Although the dash read-out stated the car was in first gear, a glitch meant the MG6 was actually in neutral and so Smith was unable to get away from the grid. Getting underway at the back, he did start to make progress – with a good pass on former F1 driver Mark Blundell at Paddock Hill Bend worthy of note – but an unfortunate spin midway through undid the hard work.
Resulting in some serious ‘flat spots’ on his tyres, Smith soon opted to retire from his maiden BTCC race and turned his focus instead to making amends in race two where he improved from 27th at the start to 24th at the conclusion, having been as high as 23rd mid-race.
Round three was where he targeted the biggest gains, on the soft ‘option’ tyres, and he certainly didn’t disappoint with a terrific performance. Although slipping back a couple of places to 26th on lap one, Smith swiftly regained the lost ground and by lap six he was into 22nd place.
Running very strong pace, easily competitive enough for the outright points-paying top 15, he swarmed all over the back of the Volkswagen CC of Michael Crees and made his move on lap 11 while also profiting from an incident further ahead to break into the overall top 20 for the first time.
Within a couple of laps he was right on the tail of Sam Tordoff’s Honda Civic Type R and both drivers then gained two places each. Holding 18th spot with just 10 laps to go, Smith continued to lap strongly and with only two tours remaining he had climbed into 17th. Pressuring Tordoff to the finish, on the sprint to the chequered flag on lap 23 Smith was just 0.1 seconds shy of the Honda.
All attention now turns to rounds four, five and six of the BTCC season which will take place on Sunday, 28th April, at Donington Park National Circuit in Leicestershire. Before then, though, the BTCC competitors will head to ultra-fast Thruxton Circuit in Hampshire on Wednesday, 17th April, for official testing.
2019 Kwik Fit BTCC Independents Trophy Standings: 14th Rob Smith, 7pts