|Handy Motorsport delivered on its pre-season Donington Park pace during the second Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship event of the year over Easter weekend, with Rob Austin securing his maiden 2017 podium – after claiming the Swindon team’s historic first ever BTCC pole position.
Racing to a hard-earned third place in round four of the season on Sunday, 16th April, the second contest was less favourable when Austin’s Toyota Avensis was barged off the track into the gravel and retirement.
As at Brands Hatch during the season-opener a couple of weeks ago, the Evesham driver was then tasked with a big recovery drive from the back of the grid in race three – and he more than delivered with a stirring performance in a very challenging rain-affected contest.
Despite a distinct lack of wet-weather experience in front-wheel drive, Austin only having had one previous outing in the rain at Croft last season, the Handy driver got quicker and quicker with every lap to carve his way through from the back of the 32-car grid into a lofty 13th place.
“I don’t know how to feel about the weekend really”, said Austin, “It was obviously fantastic to get the team’s first pole in qualifying, and I’m really happy with our first podium of the season, but we had the car to win the first race and didn’t come away with the haul of points we wanted. If I was to lose the win to anyone, though, I’m glad it was Aiden [Moffat], he’s a good lad and deserved it.
“Race two was just annoying, being shoveled out of the way and ending the race in the gravel is never good. I was happy with what we managed to do in race three though, I started steady and built up the pace. It was nothing special in terms of the result, but I’m quite happy with it from the back. There are lots of positives to take away, I know we can win races this season.”
Austin served notice of his intent on the second weekend of the season from the get-go, lapping fastest of all in the opening free practice on Saturday, 15th April, and then ending session two just 0.1 seconds shy of the pace, fifth quickest in his Toyota Avensis.
Qualifying, of course, was where it would count though and the Worcestershire driver certainly didn’t disappoint by scorching to the second quickest time, 1m09.514 seconds (102.49mph), to secure the team’s first ever front row start in the BTCC.
Remarkably, the news was about to get even better for Handy Motorsport when Ashley Sutton’s original pole time was expunged due to a contravention of the technical regulations, linked to his Subaru’s turbo overboost. Austin was, therefore, elevated onto pole position for round four.
Running the prime choice of Dunlop tyre, and with no ballast onboard for the first race on Sunday, 16th April, Austin had high hopes but contact to the rear of his Toyota in the braking zone for Redgate, from the similar Avensis of Tom Ingram, enabled the latter to move through into the lead.
Austin somehow managed to fend off Jack Goff to retain second place out of the turn and although Ingram initially opened a healthy cushion, Austin quickly closed back in. Just 0.3 seconds behind the leader into lap three, Aiden Moffat then took advantage of their battle to grab second.
On lap five at the Old Hairpin, Austin was under threat of losing his podium placing as Matt Neal tried to pass on the inside. Keeping his foot in, despite being edged out wide across the kerbs at the exit, Austin kept the No.11 Toyota ahead of the Honda Civic into Schwantz.
Ingram had been passed by Moffat at that point and Austin managed to get ahead of the Avensis at Coppice on lap six to re-take second place. Setting the fastest lap on the eighth tour, Austin tried to close down leader Moffat but into the Old Hairpin on lap 11 he was shuffled back to third by Neal.
Sandwiched between Neal and Colin Turkington during the closing stages, Austin didn’t put a wheel wrong to secure his and Handy’s first podium finish of 2017. In terms of pace, he ended the contest with a quickest lap just 0.2 seconds shy of Turkington’s outright fastest.
Lining-up third on the grid for round five Austin made a very good getaway and climbed into second, but after being pushed wide at the Old Hairpin he dropped to 10th place. Before he had a realistic chance to recover, though, he sustained more contact and was barged into the gravel on lap four.
Rain, which was predicted for earlier in the day, finally arrived over Donington Park ahead of round six – the first wet race of the 2017 season. Lining up on the 16th and final row of the grid due to the earlier non-finish, no sooner had the race started than red flags appeared due to several incidents.
Following a lengthy delay the third race of the weekend was re-started but the Safety Car headed out onto track almost straight away after an incident at the second corner. Holding 25th place at the re-start, Austin set about making great progress and he mastered the tricky conditions to finish in 14th position. Post-race, winner Gordon Shedden was excluded so Austin took an improved 13th.
“It’s fantastic to get our first ever pole position and the first podium of the year”, reflected team principal Simon Belcher, “We had hoped we could hold off the rest for our first win but it wasn’t to be. Rob got jacked-up by Tom Ingram in the first corner, which held him up, but he raced well to put some real points on the board. Race two spoiled the weekend a bit, but we proved our pace.”
Handy Motorsport’s ‘home’ circuit, Thruxton near Andover, will host the third event of the BTCC season three weeks from now on 6th/7th May.
2017 BTCC Drivers Championship Standings:
13th Rob Austin, 29pts
2017 Independents Trophy Standings:
8th Rob Austin, 44pts
2017 HiQ Teams Championship Standings:
11th Handy Motorsport, 28pts
2017 Independents Team Trophy Standings:
10th Handy Motorsport, 45pts