Leading team Handy Motorsport and fan-favourite driver Rob Austin endured a race meeting to forget at Knockhill in Scotland over the weekend, 12th/13th August, as the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship made its annual visit to the Fife track.
With a problematic qualifying session and some race one set-up issues badly impacting the start to the seventh event of the 2017 season, alternator failure in race two and a very robust final contest limited Evesham driver Austin and the popular squad to a best finish of 20th place.
Slipping to 11th in the overall BTCC standings, only a single point behind race one winner Jason Plato, Austin did retain a top four placing in the keenly contested Independents Trophy battle as the squad returns to its base in Swindon ahead of the visit to Rockingham a fortnight from now.
“It’s gutting to be honest”, said a dejected Austin, “Any faults up to this point this season have been mine and I feel bad saying anything that might point to the team. I’m good round Knockhill and I was straight on it this weekend, but we succeed as a team and we fail as a team. We have some great people at Handy Motorsport, we’ll pick ourselves up and be back stronger for Rockingham.”
Qualifying on Saturday took place on a wet track which did dry towards the conclusion of the half-hour. Producing top three pace in the wet, Austin held a competitive sixth on the timing screens as the session unfolded but his best time was then deleted as a result of a ride-height check failure.
With the treaded wet-weather tyres standing fractionally shorter than the slick Dunlops, that was the reason for the ride-height discrepancy. So, with the track drying and Austin confident after a change to slicks, hopes were high of a competitive time. With the car released into the session with only three minutes remaining, though, he didn’t have time to get sufficient heat into the tyres.
Starting round 19 from an unrepresentative 23rd on the grid, the Worcestershire driver was very determined to make strong headway but struggles with a lack of front end grip meant he had a huge battle on his hands. Fighting as hard as possible in the circumstances, Austin ended a frustrating contest in 23rd place having run as high as 21st early on.
Choosing to run the ‘soft’ compound tyre for round 20, the Handy Motorsport driver held realistic hopes of making major progress and he actually started the race an elevated 22nd on the grid due to Adam Morgan heading to pits after the formation lap.
Making a good start, instantly gaining another position, chaos then ensued up ahead at Duffus Dip with numerous cars making contact through the right-left downhill drop. Austin needed his eyes on stalks to pick his way through safely but he did so prior to the encounter being swiftly red flagged.
Following a delay of around 20 minutes, the race readied to be re-started with Austin 17th on the grid as a result of the impacted entry. After the second formation lap, though, the Toyota headed to the pitlane due to electrical issues. Joining the race one lap down, Austin’s involvement only lasted two further corners before he was forced to pull off the track with alternator failure.
With a huge mountain to climb to try and salvage anything like a result in the weekend’s finale, round 21, Austin started the encounter 27th on the grid as a result of the earlier retirement and he rapidly made progress.
Into the top 25 by the start of lap three, Austin ran in a tightly bunched pack and on lap eight displayed typical tenacity by fending off the attentions of Senna Proctor as they traded places back and forth through Duffus Dip and up and over the crested chicane. Maintaining 25th spot, the No.11 Toyota soon edged closer to the top 20 but the action became increasingly charged.
With a number of drivers producing particularly aggressive moves, Austin opted not to take any significant risks having endured such a difficult weekend to that point and he went on to conclude the contest – which was affected by two separate Safety Car periods during the second half – inside the top 20, just 0.169 seconds shy of the group ahead following a final two lap dash to the flag.
Reflecting on the weekend, he said: “We gambled on qualifying drying, we knew we’d be quick on slicks at the end but we didn’t go out with enough time so I couldn’t get heat into the tyres. It’s frustrating as the conditions were built for me, and I love Knockhill. We had a great chance.
“In race one we just didn’t have any front-end. If we’d started where we should we may have been able to do something, it’s easier to maintain position than trying to come forward. For race two we had the right tyres with the softs and, seeing the amount of DNFs and incidents, we could have got up somewhere near the top 10. We had the electrical failure though, nothing we could do about it.”
Austin added: “In the last race it surprised me how aggressively people were willing to fight for 20 something position, there was a slim chance we might have been able to push through to the top 15 but the risks to do that were high so, for maybe one championship point, I didn’t consider some of them worth taking.
“It’s not the weekend any of us wanted, we had the capability for much more but I’m not beaten! Overall we have taken a considerable step forward this year and we will continue to do so over the next few seasons, weekends like this will only serve to make us stronger as a team and I’m already 110% focused on Rockingham.”
Northamptonshire’s Rockingham International Super Sportscar Circuit will host the eighth event of the BTCC season just a fortnight from now, over the weekend 26th/27th August.
2017 BTCC Drivers Championship Standings:
11th Rob Austin, 110pts
2017 Independents Trophy Standings:
4th Rob Austin, 205pts
2017 HiQ Teams Championship Standings:
10th Handy Motorsport, 110pts
2017 Independents Team Trophy Standings:
5th Handy Motorsport, 210pts