DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing driver Rob Austin had to carry yet more misfortune away from the fifth event of the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) season at Croft last Sunday (24 June) when opening lap contact for his Alfa Romeo Giulietta in Race 1 of the weekend impacted the entire event.
Aiming for a serious haul of points after qualifying inside the top 10 at the North Yorkshire track, despite not maximising the potential of his Alfa Romeo Giulietta in the grid-determining session, the Evesham racer was unceremoniously barged into the gravel at the first corner of round 13.
With the team’s weekend largely ruined from that point forward, Austin still put the disappointment behind him to mount an absolutely sensational drive in his repaired car in round 14 where he surged through the order from the very back of the 32-car grid into a fabulous top 15 points-scoring finish.
Incredibly, more misfortune was to follow in Round 15, though, when an overheating engine led to the multiple BTCC racer winner having to retire to the pits midway through the race and bring the first half of the 2018 season to an all-too-early conclusion.
“We were quick in FP1 and FP2 but in qualifying we shot ourselves in the foot a little bit, although to be disappointed with P10 on the grid shows where we’re aiming”, said Austin, “I made a mega start to race one, overtook [Josh] Cook and he slammed into the back of me after trying to go three wide, I was fully past him and he took the ridiculous choice to lunge. That ruined our weekend really.
“I think we were on for a top seven at least in that race, but I wasn’t angry or anything – the feeling while I was standing in the gravel was sheer disappointment for the boys, who work so hard on the car, and our amazing sponsors who are so supportive. Race two was busy, there was a lot going on, and the car had really good pace. Realistically we aimed for the top 20, so the top 15 was fantastic.”
He added: “I’ve never, ever had bad luck like this during a season, it’s insane really. I was driven into at Brands, turned around at Donington, then we had the diff break at Oulton and here at Croft I was fired off at the first corner in race one. What’s most frustrating is we know the potential we have, we turned a corner at Oulton and we know we should be on the podium, not sitting in the gravel.”
Saturday morning’s opening practice session started very well indeed as Austin posted the second fastest time, just 0.074 seconds shy of the outright pace. He then added to that with excellent consistency in session two, setting a top five lap only 0.2 seconds away from the top of the times.
During the all-important qualifying run later in the day, Austin remained in the lead group and produced a time of 1m24.956 seconds (90.04mph) to secure a fifth row start for Race 1 of the weekend, half a second shy of the top four.
As glorious summer skies beamed down over Croft, Race 1 on Sunday afternoon started well for Austin with a good launch from the line. However, heading into the first corner at Clervaux it all unraveled very quickly when Vauxhall racer Josh Cook made contact with the rear of the Alfa and fired Austin off into the gravel with broken right-rear suspension.
Clearly a disastrous start to raceday, particularly with confidence high ahead of round 13, the team got to work swiftly to repair and ready the car for race two just a couple of hours later.
Having to begin race two from the back of the huge 32-car grid as a result, Austin had a real mountain to climb but an outstanding first lap resulted in him gaining no fewer than 10 places to tremendously move up into 22nd position.
Gaining one more spot on lap two, a drive-through penalty for Jason Plato then enabled Austin to break into the top 20 and on the fifth tour he climbed into 19th position before challenging the Honda Civic of Jack Goff. Into lap seven Austin was alongside Goff and nosing ahead into 18th position but, with the Alfa on the outside line for Clervaux, he had to settle back into 19th place.
Moving up into 18th soon after, when Adam Morgan pitted, as the race entered its second half Austin continued to pressurise Goff and passed him on lap eight to take 17th place. He then grabbed 16th position at the expense of Matt Simpson before climbing into the top 15, passing Mike Bushell’s Volkswagen, to continue his meteoric rise through the order.
When Rob Collard’s BMW slowed with a puncture on lap 11 Austin gained yet another position but he was edged back the next time around to 15th by the recovering Plato. Sticking tight in the wheeltracks of the Subaru to the conclusion, the top 15 from stone last was a remarkable result. Notably too, Austin also set the fourth fastest lap of the race.
Beginning round 15 from the head of row eight, the final race of the weekend also marked the one where Austin selected the hard compound ‘option’ tyre. At the start he made a good launch from the line, threaded through the first couple of corners cleanly and ended the first lap in 16th position.
Sandwiched between Aiden Moffat and Goff, Austin soon started to put some space between himself and the pursuing Honda while also sticking close to the back of Moffat’s Mercedes. Taking 15th place on lap four, as Simpson dropped back, the Alfa Romeo then moved up into 14th at the beginning of lap six when Chris Smiley speared across the grass after contact with Moffat.
On lap seven, though, the race ended frustratingly early for the squad when Austin lost all power with an overheating issue and had to retire the No.11 Alfa Romeo to the pits – certainly not the way the team wanted to end the first half of the season.
“With us running the hard tyres in race three, I knew [Aiden] Moffat and the others on the primes would come back to me and that was just starting to happen when I lost all power”, Austin added, “It’s been another weekend of frustration, but we are looking forward to the two-day Dunlop tyre test during the break as we have some things to try with the car to help us unlock our true pace.”
The BTCC now embarks on its annual mid-summer break with the second half of the championship set to get underway over the weekend 28-29 July at Snetterton 300 Circuit in Norfolk.
Photos: British Touring Car Championship 2018 - HMS Racing Alfa Romeo Giulietta