Alfa Romeo racer Rob Austin did his best to maximise points scoring opportunities during a challenging Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship outing at Donington Park over the weekend, 28th/29th April, to conclude the second event of the season still inside the series top 10.
After a dream start to DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing’s first season with its brand new Alfa Romeo Giulietta at Brands Hatch three weeks ago, where Austin took a podium finish in round three, this weekend’s outing in the East Midlands didn’t go entirely to plan for the Swindon squad.
Despite a tough qualifying session, though, Evesham driver Austin battled through from 20th on the grid into the top 15 in race one and then overcame contact in the second encounter to recover from the tail of the field into 21st position. From there, Austin gained no fewer than 10 places in race three to post an event best of 11th position.
“It’s been a tough weekend but at least we also have lots of positives to take away as well”, said Austin, “We are not where we want to be with the car at all yet but the potential is clear and I have no doubt that once we get on top of it, this car will be a regular race winner.”
Austin began the weekend with 48kg of ‘success’ ballast in the Alfa Romeo, as a result of his top four championship placing after Brands Hatch, which he had to carry during qualifying and the first race at Donington.
After two wet practice sessions on Saturday, qualifying took place on a wet-but-drying track and Austin had to settle for the 20th best time from the 32 car entry which meant race one, his 200th start in the BTCC, would certainly be a challenging prospect.
Making a good launch, Austin climbed into 18th place on the run into Redgate and then gained two more positions over the course of a busy opening lap. Moving up into the top 15 on lap two, he then passed Rob Collard’s BMW for 14th spot out of the Old Hairpin the next time around.
Climbing into 13th position on lap four, a spin for Colin Turkington at Craner Curves – after contact from a rival – elevated Austin’s Giulietta into the top 12 where he remained past mid-distance. Into the final third of the race, though, the Alfa was shuffled back to 15th spot where it remained to the flag on lap 16, little more than a second shy of the top 12 to secure a hard-earned point.
Set to begin round five mid-grid, Austin actually started in 13th due to an issue for Turkington’s BMW before the start. Maintaining position through Redgate and down to the Old Hairpin, at the end of the lap he was pitched into a spin at the chicane while sandwiched by two rivals.
Dropping to 30th place, Austin faced a tall order to recover any lost ground but an impressive drive saw him climb into 25th spot by lap six and then, over the course of the next six laps, he continued to make strong progress before finishing in 21st place. Notably, Austin’s best lap time of 1m10.770 seconds was just 0.3 seconds shy of race winning pace.
Having chosen, after qualifying, to run the hard compound Dunlop tyres for the third and final race of the weekend, Austin made a clean start to the contest and avoided some drama ahead at the Old Hairpin to climb into the top 15 before the Safety Car appeared.
Spending several laps under caution, when the action resumed on lap seven the Alfa held an elevated 13th place and although losing a spot to Matt Neal, and then receiving contact at Coppice on lap 11 from Tom Boardman’s MG, Austin moved back into 13th due to problems for Jack Goff.
Moving closer to the top 10, climbing into 11th on lap 12, the Worcestershire driver was then edged back a position but with little more than a couple of laps to run he regained 11th to cap a particularly strong drive on the less favoured tyre choice – especially in unseasonably cold conditions.
“With a bit more time to analyse the data after qualifying we are confident we know where we went wrong but, as we keep saying, this is a brand new car so we’re constantly learning with every lap”, Austin said, “You’re not going to get it right every time when you’re still learning, but it’s important we understand what the problem was.
“In race one I had a really good start and made good progress, but as everyone else got up to pace and I was already maxed out it was clear we didn’t have the pace we needed to stay in that position. We made some significant changes for race two and we were still set for a really good points haul, right up until I was turned around at the chicane.
“The changes worked really well so the car was quick in that race and a top 10 would have been comfortably achievable, maybe even the top six but it just wasn’t to be. We’ve taken some positives from race three too, we were generally the quickest runner of the 14 cars on the hard tyre and to come from 21st to 11th with those tyres on, I think we have to be happy with that.”
There is a now a three week break from BTCC action with rounds seven, eight and nine of the season taking place on Sunday, 20th May, at ultra-fast Thruxton in Hampshire – DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing’s home event.
2018 BTCC Driver Standings (after Rd6)
9th Rob Austin, 32pts
2018 BTCC Independents Driver Standings (after Rd6)
6th Rob Austin, 46pts