Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship team DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing experienced a bittersweet visit to Oulton Park Island Circuit over the weekend, 9th/10th June, where consistent points finishes in rounds 10 and 11 were tempered by a frustrating retirement in round 12.
Having started the weekend superbly by setting the pace in opening free practice, driver Rob Austin more than confirmed the excellent potential of the squad’s Alfa Romeo Giulietta and, after drawing pole position for the final race, a podium bid was certainly on the cards.
Although losing out at the start to the rear-wheel drive BMW of Rob Collard, Evesham driver Austin shadowed his rival during the first half of the race and maintained second as the chequered flag neared. With only three laps to go, though, the Alfa dramatically slowed due to a broken diff.
Bitterly disappointed to have had a season-best result stolen from his grasp, Austin still departed the Cheshire track with a huge amount of positivity after finishing in the top 10 in race one, taking an improved seventh place in the second encounter and, of course, running at the front in race three.
“Although I’m still licking my wounds, there is a lot more to come from our Alfa which is very exciting”, said the BTCC fan favourite, “At the end of the day we have the newest car on the grid, it’s done the least miles and we don’t have multiple engineers and another driver to share data with, so the progress we’re making is impressive.
“There are still a huge amount of positives to take away from Oulton, we were fast this weekend and really feel we have turned another corner with the car and the set-up and I see no reason why we can’t continue this form. Race three was disappointing, the driveshaft is a control component we have to use and unfortunately the diff failed, but I can’t think of another mechanical failure we’ve had.”
Austin added: “There’s nobody to blame, the team worked brilliantly all weekend and everyone did a fantastic job. To have been so competitive in the final race, keeping up with Rob [Collard] who was on soft tyres in one of the quickest cars, and pulling away from Andy Jordan in another BMW was good going. It shows we had fantastic pace and that’s what we take forward.”
Austin and DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing couldn’t have made a better start to the weekend in the opening free practice on Saturday morning, delivering the fastest lap with a time of 1m26.300 seconds (92.85mph) – the first time the Alfa Romeo Giulietta has headed a BTCC session. In second practice, Austin was once again right at the sharp end and he concluded the run third quickest.
With high hopes for qualifying later in the afternoon, the Worcestershire racer was ultimately mildly disappointed to end the session 11th fastest with a time of 1m26.312 seconds (92.84mph), only 0.3 seconds shy of the front row of the grid to again underline the competitiveness of the championship.
Choosing to run the soft compound ‘option’ tyre for race one of the weekend, Austin made a good start to break into the top 10 on the run into Old Hall but was then held out on the outside line through Cascades which dropped him to 12th. Fighting back quickly, Austin moved into 11th through Knickerbrook and closed right up to the rear of Collard’s BMW.
With nothing to separate Matt Neal’s fifth placed Honda Civic from the half dozen cars behind, the train ran line astern lap after lap and into the fifth tour Austin was as close as he’d been to Collard with just 0.3 seconds splitting them.
On lap nine, Collard managed to get ahead of Brett Smith’s Honda and Austin was determined to follow the BMW through. Showing huge commitment out of the chicane, after getting the nose of the Alfa Romeo alongside Smith’s car on the run up Clay Hill, Austin boldly made the move stick into Druids to break into the top 10 and he immediately pulled away.
Into lap 14, the penultimate tour, Austin was within just a couple of tenths of a second of Collard who was tight behind the Honda of Jack Goff but the positions remained the same to the flag with Austin just 0.3 seconds shy of Collard at the finish.
Beginning round 11 from the fifth row of the grid in ninth place, with race one winner Matt Simpson not taking the start due to engine problems, Austin made another great launch from the line and swarmed all over Goff’s car at Old Hall but couldn’t quite find the space he needed.
Continuing to hold ninth over the next few laps, running right in the wheeltracks of the Honda, by lap six there was literally nothing to separate fifth place down to 13th position as the train lapped within the same tenth of a second.
Into lap eight Austin now had Collard in his sights, with Goff having passed the BMW, but on lap 11 when Collard hit back against the Honda at Old Hall, Austin managed to also get past Goff on the run down the Avenue to take eighth position. Further around the lap, retirement for Sam Tordoff’s Ford Focus then promoted Austin into seventh where he stayed to the flag on lap 15.
The grid draw after race two delivered the round 12 pole position for Austin and despite a decent start for the Alfa, with 27kg of ballast onboard, the rear-wheel drive BMW of Collard managed to get the lead from second on the grid. Drama further behind though, with several cars tangling, resulted in the deployment of the Safety Car and then, unsurprisingly, red flags.
Around 20 minutes later the race re-started and Austin did make a good initial launch from pole, but the rear-wheel drive BMW was again just that bit too rapid and so Collard moved through. Sticking with his rival, Austin was just 0.5 seconds shy into lap two and showing impressive competitiveness.
Staying well within touch of the race leader, while also pulling a good gap over Andrew Jordan in third, Austin lapped very strongly but as the race passed mid-distance Collard did begin to edge a little further away. Still holding a comfortable second, all looked good for Austin to wrap-up a well deserved season-best finish but then, on lap nine, the diff failure led to retirement.
Croft Circuit in North Yorkshire will host the fifth race meeting of the BTCC season, the conclusion of the first half of the 2018 championship, just two weeks from now on 23rd/24th June.
2018 BTCC Driver Standings (after Rd12)
17th Rob Austin, 50pts
2018 BTCC Independents Driver Standings (after Rd12)
6th Rob Austin, 94pts