Rob Austin propelled Handy Motorsport into the illustrious list of Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship race-winning teams at Brands Hatch Grand Prix Circuit on Sunday, 1st October, with an absolutely dominant performance in the final race of the 2017 season.
In the Swindon squad’s final BTCC race with its trusty No.11 Toyota Avensis, ahead of its switch to an Alfa Romeo Giulietta for next season, touring car ace Austin delivered a faultless drive in incredibly tricky wet conditions and stormed to a three second winning margin in round 30.
While the first ever outright BTCC victory for Handy Motorsport, success in the final race of the season also marked a welcome return to the top step of the overall podium for Austin who last claimed an outright race victory in 2014. Poignantly, the Evesham driver dedicated the victory to his late Grandmother who very sadly passed away last month.
“I made some silly mistakes in race one and two, I wasn’t having it in that one!”, said an elated and equally emotional Austin, “I lost my Gran when we were at Silverstone, she was my biggest fan, and in race three there it [a win] was on the cards. It got taken away from us, so this is for her.”
Ahead of round 30, the arrival of rain – which had been a factor all weekend – left drivers and teams with a quandary over what to do with tyre choice. Austin initially wanted to run with slick tyres but the final decision from his engineer was to change to wet-weather Dunlops on the grid, a great call.
Lining up second on the partially reversed grid, after a draw made by motorsport commentating legend Murray Walker, Austin made an excellent launch to get alongside pole-starter Michael Epps and stayed with his rival through Paddock Hill Bend. Tucking back into second on the run to Druids, Austin got fantastic drive out of Graham Hill Bend and made a terrific pass for the lead into Surtees.
Opening a one second advantage, Austin maintained the gap on lap two before the Safety Car was deployed in time for the start of the fourth tour. The action resumed on lap six and Austin made a good getaway, pulling 0.9 seconds clear over the first tour back at racing speed. Doubling his advantage over Epps to 1.8 seconds by the start of lap eight, Austin controlled the race beautifully.
Into lap 10, Austin was 3.6 seconds to the good over new second placed driver Jack Goff and then set the fastest lap of the race to edge further clear. By lap 14 his cushion stood at 4.8 seconds and, as rain started to fall again, Austin managed the gap before taking the flag 3.1 seconds ahead.
“I knew I needed to pass him [Epps] before we got onto the back straight as his car is quick, so I tried something at Graham Hill I learnt in the Legends race I did last year and it worked well”, explained Austin, “I knew he’d work as a bit of a blocker to the others, and I needed to take advantage of that, so I did but the Safety Car spoiled my original lead. At the re-start we were OK though.
“It’s easy when you’ve got the car under you, the team did a fantastic job and gave me a great race car. The job everyone has done this year deserved more silverware than we’ve had, but that’s been down to circumstances and just bad luck. Without that we would have hit our target of a top 10 championship finish. What’s that saying, though…you’re only as good as your last race!”
So strong was the performance of Austin in the season finale, it sparked a memorable comment from lead BTCC commentator David Addison on the live ITV4 broadcast: “The only constant [in this race] is Rob Austin who’s almost into next season, so far ahead is he!”
Handy Motorsport strong throughout final weekend of season
During pre-event practice and qualifying, the Handy Motorsport car looked very competitive and Austin delivered in the grid-determining session for round 28 with a fantastic fourth fastest time on a drying track, securing a second row start for the opening encounter.
Tyre choice was a gamble for race one with the track wet to begin, Austin and the team opting for slick Dunlops with an intermediate car set-up. Making a great start, Austin moved alongside Ash Sutton on the run to the first corner before tucking back in to fourth but then, on the exit, he was lucky to avoid being collected by Goff’s Honda which speared across the track in front of him.
Losing momentum as a result on the run uphill to Druids, Austin slipped to fifth and he then maintained position. Edged back to sixth on lap six, he then lost the rear of his Toyota into the slippery Graham Hill Bend and the resulting spin across the grass dropped him to ninth where he stayed to the flag – actually ending up with the second fastest race lap.
For round 29 Austin ran the soft compound ‘option’ tyre and after being edged back to 10th place off the line by Matt Neal, the Handy driver remained close behind the triple champion before boldly challenging around the outside at Hawthorn Bend. Staying wheel-to-wheel with the Honda driver, he was ultimately held out wide and slipped back to 12th place.
Quickly regaining one position, he duly moved into the top 10 soon after and then grabbed ninth on lap eight. Closing right onto the tail of battling championship protagonists Colin Turkington and Sutton, as they fought tooth and nail into Druids on the inside Austin went around the outside to take eighth from Sutton but slipped back again to ninth into Surtees.
Shuffled back outside the top 10, Austin was determined to regain the lost ground amid increasingly frenetic action and on lap 13 he moved into ninth. Going on to end the race just 0.3 seconds behind Goff, notably Austin’s best lap was a match for podium pace.
For Handy Motorsport team principal Simon Belcher who, over the past four years, has put a huge amount into getting the squad to the position of becoming race winners in the BTCC, the maiden victory is testament to an incredible work ethic and an immense effort from all involved.
“We’ve had pole position, seconds, thirds and Independents wins – the only bit that was missing was the first overall win and now we’ve done it”, said an ecstatic Belcher, “As far as I was concerned, this was ours to lose basically. I told all the boys to double-check, triple-check, everything on the car to make sure it wouldn’t let Rob down and he put in a fantastic performance in difficult conditions.
“It’s the perfect way to sign off our time with the Toyota as we head into the winter working on our new project with the Alfa. This win proves what a great car we’ve put together, we’ve proved we can produce a car that can win races in the BTCC. Everyone at the team has done an incredible job this year, we have some amazing people – this is such a buzz for everyone.”
Final 2017 BTCC Drivers Championship Standings:
11th Rob Austin, 174pts
Final 2017 Independents Trophy Standings:
5th Rob Austin, 286pts
Final 2017 BTCC Teams Championship Standings:
10th Handy Motorsport, 173pts
Final 2017 Independents Team Trophy Standings:
6th Handy Motorsport, 302pts