Rob Austin bettered Handy Motorsport’s best ever finish in the UK’s premier motor racing category for the third event in succession at Thruxton in Hampshire on Sunday, 8th May, with a great drive to seventh place in the third race of the weekend.
As the Swindon team’s ‘home’ event hopes were high of a strong showing and although qualifying didn’t go to plan, Austin impressively worked his way higher up the order over the course of the first two races to be in a position to take a very competitive season-best top seven finish in round nine.
Elevating the Toyota Avensis driver into the top five of the Independents Trophy championship, his consistently strong scoring across the weekend’s three races also enabled Handy Motorsport to climb into sixth in the Independents Team Trophy and the top 10 of the HiQ Teams Championship.
“We’re all really pleased to see the team move forward again with another best result”, said team principal Simon Belcher, “It wasn’t a straightforward weekend, with qualifying giving Rob a lot to do in the races, but he did a great job and the final race was a real highlight.
“We’ve got a bit of a break now to the next round so will spend that time working hard to ensure we’re in a position to nail qualifying at Oulton, and put ourselves in the best position possible for the races. The race pace was good this weekend, it’s qualifying which is our Achilles Heel at the minute.”
Practice on Saturday, 7th May, went well with Austin lapping eighth fastest in the second of the two sessions. Qualifying, though, proved a major headache on two fronts – Austin had a time disallowed after he was adjudged to have exceeded track limits but the bigger issue was the Avensis being too ‘tail happy’. Austin, therefore, started round seven from a lower than expected 24th on the grid
Making a good start to race one, with Thruxton bathed in glorious blue skies, Austin gained three places on the first lap and three more the next time around to move into 18th position. With 1.2 seconds to make up to the next group, he pressed on and as the race passed mid-distance he was in a position to pressurise the Honda Civic immediately ahead.
Into lap 10 the complexion of the race changed for a number of drivers with several suffering punctures as the abrasive track surface and very hot temperatures conspired to cause big problems for the Dunlop rubber. Austin, though, didn’t fall victim and moved up into 16th before a dramatic incident at the exit of the chicane on lap 11 led to the encounter being red flagged.
Matt Neal’s Honda suffered a puncture and, as the Civic slowed, ensuing contact triggered a multi-car incident. Austin avoided the drama to finish in 14th place and earn a seventh row start for round eight, where the race distance was reduced to 12 laps – from the originally scheduled 16 – on the grounds of safety due to the number of punctures suffered in race one.
Getting away well at the start, Austin challenged for 13th into the complex but stayed in 14th place before gaining the position on lap two. Almost able to pounce for the top 12 into lap three, he was then slightly baulked into Allard which gave Mat Jackson the opportunity to slice past.
Austin swiftly hit back out of Campbell and Cobb, though, and he broke into the top 12 soon after before climbing into 11th position on lap five. Although edged back a couple of places in the tight battle just outside the top 10, during the final few laps Austin was able to make more progress again.
Holding 12th position with three laps to go, he moved into 11th place soon after and then, on the penultimate tour, climbed into the top 10 as a result of a puncture for Martin Depper. Closing right onto the tail of the Proton ahead, Austin took the chequered flag on lap 12 just 0.2 seconds shy.
Frustratingly, the grid draw for the final race meant the top nine finishers would be ‘reversed’ to form the upper order for the start of round nine. Austin, therefore, just missed out on the opportunity of pole position and instead began the race on the fifth row – carrying 9kg of ‘success’ ballast from the previous race.
Making a good start, he held position initially but was edged back to 11th at the complex on the opening tour and then down to 12th over the line into lap three. Despite staying with the group ahead, he was edged back further to 13th on lap four but then started to make great progress.
Moving into the top 12 again on lap five, the No.11 Toyota then took 11th place two laps later when Andrew Jordan suffered a puncture – Austin fortunately avoiding the Ford when it pirouetted in front of him at Allard. Then breaking into the top 10, he closed up behind the BMW of Sam Tordoff and both gained ground at the end of lap 10 when two cars made contact at the chicane.
Holding eighth position into the penultimate lap, the Handy driver pressed on and into the 12th and final tour he was just 0.6 seconds adrift of the five car train ahead. Taking seventh from Tordoff right at the end, producing a smart move to box the BMW in behind Rob Collard, Austin chalked-up Handy’s best finish yet and, notably, lapped just 0.2 seconds shy of race winner Jackson’s best time.
“It’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster again this weekend, the same as last time at Donington really”, reflected Austin, “We’ve been making some mistakes but we know what we need to work on before Oulton to get it sorted out. We still need to find a bit more pace too.
“We stayed out of trouble this weekend in the races and managed to come through with another best result in the end, in qualifying we made a mistake at the critical point but regrouped and took improved results again. The day we qualify in the top 10, we’ll definitely be in the fight for podiums.”
Oulton Park Island Circuit in Cheshire will host rounds 10, 11 and 12 of the season four weeks from now, over the weekend 4th/5th June.
2016 BTCC Drivers Championship Standings:
14th Rob Austin, 38pts
2016 Independents Trophy Standings:
5th Rob Austin, 85pts
2016 HiQ Teams Championship Standings:
10th Handy Motorsport, 39pts
2016 Independents Team Trophy Standings:
6th Handy Motorsport, 92pts