Rob Austin made a welcome, and long-awaited, return to the top six at a rainy Snetterton 300 Circuit on Sunday, 29th July, as the second half of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship got off to a strong start for DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing.
Showcasing impressive pace in the dry during second practice and qualifying on Saturday, 28th July, Austin started race one of the weekend from seventh place and went on to secure a sixth position finish in a rain-affected opening encounter on Sunday morning in the No.11 Alfa Romeo Giulietta.
Although contact from a rival early in race two, round 17, led to a highly frustrating retirement with damage, Austin hit back impressively in the special 60th anniversary ‘Diamond Double’ race – round 18 – to finish in 13th position from 25th on the grid, despite a damaged radiator and limited power.
“I am absolutely convinced we are cursed!”, said the Evesham racer, whose car looked resplendent with a special ‘Alfa Romeo’ chrome red roof designed to celebrate the BTCC’s 60th birthday, “We had a great car again and were actually a little disappointed to only qualify P7 for the first race.
“We were into the unknown with the wet conditions, the car is set up so differently to the last time we ran in the wet and we weren’t sure how it would perform. Matt, our engineer, did a great job and although we didn’t have the pace to hang on to fifth, finishing sixth was a decent result.”
Thunderstorms and heavy rain on Friday night 27th July, resulted in a wet track ahead of the first of the free practice sessions on Saturday morning so it was only session two which delivered anything like a representative picture – Austin lapping sixth fastest, just 0.3 seconds outside the top two.
Qualifying for round 16 started with Austin quickly getting down to business and with 20 minutes of the half-hour period still to go he was third on the times with a best lap of 1m56.096 seconds, which remained his best of the session to secure seventh on the grid for race one.
After a break of just a couple of hours, the standalone qualifying session for the ‘Diamond Double’ race took place but the run didn’t go to plan when the turbo pipe on Austin’s car became detached. After repairs, he had to settle for the 25th best time with just one lap, on cold tyres, to set a time.
Rain returned ahead of Sunday’s action, round 16 beginning on a very wet circuit, and Austin made a good launch from seventh. Although leapfrogged by the rear-wheel drive Subaru of Ashley Sutton, Austin tucked into eighth and then leapt into sixth on the second tour when two rivals hit trouble.
Under some pressure from Adam Morgan as the laps ticked by, Austin kept him at bay with some excellent driving. On lap 10 out of the Esses the Mercedes did nose alongside, but Austin rebuffed the challenge bravely around the outside at the Bomb Hole and stayed sixth to the flag on lap 12.
Thanks to his strong race one showing, Austin lined-up on the third row of the grid for the wet-but-drying round 17 and an awesome launch from sixth place enabled him to rocket into third into Riches, despite having been baulked off the line when searching for a path through the cars ahead.
Edged back to fifth by the time the leaders departed the infield, Austin maintained position but on lap three contact to the Alfa Romeo at the Bomb Hole led to a broken rear tow-link and a bitterly disappointing retirement to the pits.
With a mountain to climb in the round 18 ‘Diamond Double’ race from 25th on the grid Austin certainly gave himself the best opportunity to achieve a big result with another terrific getaway. Scorching into 17th position by the time the pack headed through the infield, he then moved up into the top 15 before the end of the lap on the now almost fully dry track.
Driving superbly, the Alfa racer moved up into 13th place before a one lap Safety Car period and when the action resumed on the fifth tour he swiftly claimed 12th position. By lap eight, rain had started to return and the drivers had to contend with increasingly tricky conditions.
Into lap nine, Austin held an elevated 11th place and ran just 0.2 seconds shy of the rear bumper of Colin Turkington’s BMW. Before long, though, Austin’s challenge took a hit when a stone pierced the Alfa’s radiator and the car began to lose pace with an overheating engine.
On lap 16, the DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing car was also assaulted by Daniel Lloyd’s Honda Civic at the chicane with a hefty whack to the left-hand side. Managing to keep everything pointing in the right direction, Austin eventually finished in 13th spot after another bruising encounter.
“Our curse hit us again in race two”, reflected Austin, “We had a great start and got up to third, although in the damp conditions on slick tyres we struggled to get the tyre temperature up as quickly as some of those around us.
“I had a good, clean race with [Sam] Tordoff but as we battled the car behind got close enough to smash my rear wheel and break my suspension. It’s hard to comprehend how many times this has happened this year with no reprimands handed out by TOCA.
“In the ‘Diamond Double’ race the curse was in full swing again! The first half of the race went well and with a mega start, and clearly a very strong car, I think P6 would have been achievable. Sadly, a car in front kicked up a stone and put a hole in the radiator. From then on, the engine got hotter and hotter and, as a result, we got slower and slower. In the end it was a relief to hang on to P13.”
He added: “I have never experienced a run of bad fortune like this in my 28 years of racing and it’s blowing my mind at the moment, but we clearly have a fast, solid car in the DUO Motorsport with HMS Alfa Romeo and we won’t give up! Our fortune will change, and when it does we are ready!”
There are only two weeks to go until the BTCC is back in action for rounds 19, 20 and 21 of the season, at Rockingham International Super Sportscar Circuit in Northamptonshire, over the weekend 11th/12th August.
2018 BTCC Driver Standings (after Rd18)
16th Rob Austin, 67pts
2018 BTCC Independents Driver Standings (after Rd18)
7th Rob Austin, 133pts