Rob Smith experienced a vexing start to his 2018 MINI Challenge title bid at Oulton Park on Easter Monday with handling balance issues leaving the MINI UK VIP Customer Team driver on the back-foot throughout the first event of the season.
Relishing the start of the new season on home ground, Smith had his sights set on mounting a podium challenge at the very least but problems through testing, qualifying and in round one itself meant he ultimately had to settle for an uncharacteristic 15th place result in race one.
With the team having made changes to his MINI JCW ahead of round two later in the day, which it was hoped would make all the difference to the handling, worsening rain over the parkland track resulted in officials abandoning the meeting before the second contest could take place.
“Race two was hopefully going to give us the answers we wanted with the chassis set-up, but it obviously didn’t happen”, commented Smith, “Every round counts this year, there aren’t any drop scores, so we need to get the car back to where it should be.
We’ll be working hard between now and Rockingham to make sure we can start delivering the results we know we’re capable of.”
Qualifying on Saturday, 31st March, was far from a straightforward affair with much of the first half interrupted by a Safety Car period, ultimately leading to a red flag session stoppage.
With just eight minutes remaining when qualifying resumed, Smith wasn’t able to challenge for a place near the front of the grid due to the balance issues with his MINI and so he ended the session 11th fastest. Round one on Easter Monday took place on a very wet track and officials opted to begin the encounter from behind the Safety Car, following two initial sighting laps.
Smith, determined to try and make good headway early on, remained just outside the top 10 for the first few laps until an unfortunate moment on the fourth tour dropped him to 15th position.
With his No.37 MINI proving an uncharacteristic handful, Smith wasn’t able to attack as he wanted and had to summon all of his experience to maintain his mid-grid placing which he managed to do to the flag on lap nine – not the start the BMTR Tyre Specialists, CarTyreStore and Spark Motorsport Promotions backed racer wanted to 2018.
“We lost a lot of testing this year due to snow, our best chance to test was on Friday but there were a lot of red flags”, added Smith, “This year we’ve got a choice of soft and stiff springs, but we were struggling to get the soft springs into the operating window and so we lost the session really. For qualifying we just decided to go with what we know, but without any real running it was always going to be an uphill battle. Having said that, I think fifth would have been possible in qualifying without the flags in that session and then, when we saw the first race was going to be wet, I had pretty high hopes. The balance still wasn’t there, though, so it was a handful. The guys at the MINI UK team did an amazing job to try and get to the bottom of it for race two, but we obviously didn’t have chance to try it.”