Outstanding pace and racecraft from Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship driver Rob Austin enabled Handy Motorsport to get the new season off to an extremely competitive start at Brands Hatch over the weekend, 1st/2nd April, with a best result of fifth place in round one.
Delivering a series of excellent performances throughout the BTCC curtain-raiser, Evesham driver Austin leapt from eighth on the grid in race one to finish inside the top five and went one better in round two with fourth place after some tremendous battles.
Devastatingly, though, a penalty for a yellow flag infringement in the second contest meant Austin was excluded from those results – also costing him the opportunity to challenge for the podium in round three on the softer ‘option’ tyres at the wheel of the No.11 Toyota Avensis.
Completely unaware any yellow flags were being shown at the point he passed Andrew Jordan for fourth place at Clearways in round two, only when invited to see the Clerk of the Course did it become clear an infringement had taken place. Despite his dejection, Austin produced a superb drive in round three to rise through from 32nd on the grid into 18th place, a gain of 16 positions.
“I’m absolutely devastated…mortified”, said a deflated Austin, “I’ve obviously seen first-hand the amount of effort the boys have put in to everything, I know how much effort I’ve been putting in and then there’s all of the amazing support from our sponsors and fans. I really feel I’ve let everyone down through a silly mistake in race two.
“We had the potential for three top five finishes this weekend and to be right up there in the championship going to Donington. Until I was sitting in the [TOCA] bus being told about the yellow flags in race two, everything about Brands had exceeded our expectations as I didn’t think the track would suit us. It’s devastating for things to turn out the way they did, I only have myself to blame.”
As throughout winter testing and the pre-season Media Day a couple of weeks ago, Austin and the Avensis were a potent combination from the outset at Brands Hatch’s Indy Circuit with a top 10 time in the opening free practice session and fifth fastest in session two, just 0.2 seconds shy of the pace.
Qualifying looked all set to throw a spanner in the works when a broken door catch resulted in the Toyota sitting in the pits for a large chunk of the session. Worryingly languishing in 31st position as the clock ticked down, as intermittent rain interfered with the flow of the session, Austin managed to brilliantly salvage the eighth fastest time with a lap of 48.819 seconds (89.07mph).
Hopes were high of a strong showing from the fourth row of the grid in round one on Sunday and Austin made a terrific launch, gaining one place immediately and avoiding a tangle ahead to climb into fifth. Soon enough, though, the Safety Car was deployed with racing then resuming on lap five.
Austin found himself in the classic position of trying to attack while defending and, on lap 15, his hard work paid off as he passed the pole-starting Honda of Jeff Smith to take fourth. Four laps later, though, Smith’s team-mate Jack Goff edged Austin back to fifth where he stayed to the flag.
Despite a less than straightforward beginning to round two, an aborted start followed by a red flag stoppage due to a heavy accident on the start line, Austin remained cool and produced a fantastic getaway to rocket into third place from fifth on the grid.
Passed by Jordan on lap two at Paddock Hill Bend, Austin was then edged back to fifth by another of the BMWs on lap three. Challenged by the Mercedes of Adam Morgan on lap nine at the first turn, Austin swiftly retaliated and re-took the position at Druids.
Following a mid-race Safety Car period, Austin closed up behind Jordan’s car in fourth and on lap 21 he went for a straightforward move into Clearways – without seeing the yellow flags from another incident. Frustratingly, exclusion from the results duly followed.
“It was a clean move”, explained Austin, “I was on the apex and under control, there was a bit of rubbing, but then I was hit from behind and so I sent Jordan sideways. I kept my foot in purposely and drove at his front wheel to help straighten him up, the last thing I want to do is take anyone out. It was all fair enough but, obviously, I didn’t see the yellows…
“I have to thank the team for an absolutely awesome job, the car is fantastic and I’m so grateful for the hard work Simon [Belcher – team principal] and all of the other guys have put into this. Everything we thought pre-season has been proven, we’ve done what we said we could and at least the sponsors had lots of exposure on TV! There are huge positives to take to Donington.”
Team principal Belcher added: “It’s been great to come to Brands in a positive mood, knowing our pace was solid and consistent. It hasn’t been a case of reinventing the wheel over the winter, we took what we’ve got and improved. To qualify eighth, despite the problems we had, and take away a top five proves we’ve got the pace to challenge. It’s been a much better start than 12 months ago!”
There are just two weeks to wait until rounds four, five and six of the new BTCC season which will take place at Donington Park National Circuit in Leicestershire over Easter weekend, 15th/16th April.
2017 BTCC Drivers Championship Standings:
13th Rob Austin, 11pts
2017 Independents Trophy Standings:
8th Rob Austin, 19pts
2017 HiQ Teams Championship Standings:
11th Handy Motorsport, 11pts
2017 Independents Team Trophy Standings:
9th Handy Motorsport, 20pts