Rob Austin and Handy Motorsport made a sparkling return to form at Silverstone National Circuit over the weekend, 16th/17th September, with the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship front-runners celebrating a brace of fantastic top five finishes…and very nearly a podium.
With a realistic chance of silverware in the second and third races on Sunday afternoon, Evesham racer Austin had to ultimately settle for fifth place on each occasion to add to the ninth place achieved in the opening contest, where he ran the less favourable hard compound ‘option’ tyres.
Pace-wise the No.11 Toyota Avensis was strong straight out of the box and after preparing well in free practice, Austin was only prevented from having a genuine shot at the front row of the grid in qualifying after being badly baulked on his quickest lap. Nonetheless, sixth on the grid was a good return and set the scene for a stellar weekend – one in which he felt a race win was a possibility.
“Off the back of what we’ve had recently, I’m happy to come away from Silverstone with two P5 finishes – but race three was mine, in my head the win was there”, said Austin, “It should have been more than P5, we’d taken the pain of the hard tyres in race one, race two was OK and the only threat I saw for race three was [Colin] Turkington jumping me, but I made an awesome start.
“I’m probably feeling more negative than I should be, so I apologise if I am being too negative but I know we had a great chance. When the win is there for the taking and you have that opportunity, you want it and nothing less. I’m here to win, the team is here to win, and race three was a chance.”
Austin’s pace was impressive from the start in free practice, lapping within half a second of the top of the times in the opening run and just 0.3 seconds shy of the outright pace in session two, even though on old tyres throughout. Eyeing a big push in qualifying, after being delayed on his best lap he ended up sixth and just 0.229 seconds away from pole position.
Opting to run the harder ‘option’ tyres for race one, round 25, Austin held sixth off the line and then grabbed fifth into Maggotts. When a Volkswagen up ahead went wide at Brooklands further around the lap, Austin then grabbed fourth place to continue his superb beginning to the race.
With the hard Dunlops not delivering the same level of grip as that benefiting the chasing pack on softs during the early going, especially with the weather cooler than expected, Austin was edged back a couple of places on lap five as Matt Neal and Colin Turkington went past. Slipping two more spots the next time around, rain then started to fall which had a negative impact on Austin’s grip.
At the end of lap eight, contact between Neal and Mat Jackson enabled Austin to move back into eighth, having been edged further back just before, but he then slipped to ninth on lap 10. Then, on lap 15, the Safety Car was deployed after a heavy collision involving three cars and the race was ultimately red flagged.
Back on the prime Dunlop tyres for round 26, Austin lined-up on the fifth row of the grid with the threat of light rain in the air again. Making a superb start, he was in the battle for sixth into Maggotts but after being edged wide at Becketts he was shuffled back to 10th spot.
Challenging successfully for ninth at Copse on lap two, passing Michael Epps, the VW driver hit back at Brooklands as Gordon Shedden also got involved. Running in 10th again, Austin then leapt up into eighth on lap four at the expense of Epps and Ant Whorton-Eales and took seventh on lap five.
Producing a fantastic pass on the inside at Brooklands to take sixth from Dave Newsham on lap seven, the Handy racer then closed on the scrap just ahead. By lap nine Austin was right on the tail of Ashley Sutton’s Subaru and the battle over third became a seven-car affair.
Running line astern lap after lap, Austin had a real heart-in-mouth moment on the 16th tour when Adam Morgan edged him onto the grass on the run out of Copse. Fortunately continuing with the Toyota pointing in the right direction, Austin swarmed all over the Mercedes and piled on the pressure as Morgan defended heavily, bringing Shedden into the equation.
Into the 22nd and final lap, Austin was still a thorn in Morgan’s side and he made the breakthrough mid-lap with a great move to deservedly take fifth place and finish little more than a couple of seconds shy of the outright podium – third in the Independents Trophy.
Starting fifth for the final race, Austin made a great getaway to see off the rear-wheel drive BMW of Turkington and through Copse he nosed ahead of the Honda of Shedden on the outside line to momentarily edge into third. Contact, though, pitched Austin into a huge slide but with lightning reactions he expertly recovered the Avensis.
Ending lap one in 10th place, the Safety Car was then deployed in time for the fourth tour due to a multi-car tangle at Luffield. The re-start came on lap nine and Austin repelled his challengers before then taking ninth on lap 11 and moving into eighth a couple of laps later.
Due to an excursion for Shedden on lap 15 in the heat of battle, Austin was able to thread his way through into the top six – having passed Epps too – and he then started to swarm all over the similar Avensis of Tom Ingram with the lead six cars all running nose-to-tail.
As Newsham and Morgan battled over third, the scrap almost afforded Austin an opportunity to move up into fifth with Ingram getting involved too. Maintaining sixth, Austin then got ahead of the unsettled Morgan on lap 21 to climb into the top five. Running only 0.7 seconds shy of the podium into the penultimate lap, Austin gave it his all but remained fifth on the dash to the flag on lap 25.
“It’s taken us a couple of events to resolve the issues we had with the car, but this weekend showed how competitive our package is”, added Austin, “Matt, my engineer, gave me a great balance and we’ve come away with some good results and a lot of points. Yes, I wanted more from the weekend and I know we were capable of more, but it’s still been a very strong performance.”
There is now only a fortnight to wait until the action-packed BTCC season reaches its conclusion, over the weekend 30th September/1st October, at Brands Hatch Grand Prix Circuit in Kent.
Before then, though, Handy Motorsport sponsor TH White, part of the Alfa Romeo Dealer Council which is partnering with the team to bring the Alfa Romeo Giulietta into the BTCC next year, is to host a special ‘meet and greet’ event in Swindon this coming Saturday, 23rd September.
Providing an opportunity to see the Giulietta showcar, there will also be the chance to speak with the Handy Motorsport team following a special introduction and Q&A with touring car legend, and current ITV4 commentator, Tim Harvey.
For more details about the ticket-only event visit the TH White Facebook page HERE
2017 BTCC Drivers Championship Standings:
12th Rob Austin, 139pts
2017 Independents Trophy Standings:
6th Rob Austin, 244pts
2017 HiQ Teams Championship Standings:
11th Handy Motorsport, 139pts
2017 Independents Team Trophy Standings:
6th Handy Motorsport, 260pts