HANDY Motorsport delivered on their pre-season Donington Park pace during the second Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship event of the year over Easter weekend as Rob Austin secured his maiden 2017 podium after claiming the team’s historic first ever BTCC pole position.
After racing to a hard earned third place in round four of the season on Sunday, the second contest was less favourable as Austin’s Toyota Avensis was barged off the track into the gravel and retirement.
As at Brands Hatch during the season-opener a fortnight earlier, 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 – with 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 shovelled 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 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 did not disappoint by scorching to the second quickest time – 1m, 09.514 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 on to pole position for round four.
Running the prime choice of Dunlop tyre and with no ballast on board for the first race on Sunday, 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, 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 regain 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 did not 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 tenth 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. Austin lined up on the 16th and final row of the grid due to the earlier non-finish, but no sooner had the race started, red flags appeared due to several incidents.
Following a lengthy delay, the third race of the weekend was restarted but the Safety Car headed out on to track almost straight away after an incident at the second corner.
Holding 25th place at the restart, 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.
Handy Motorsport’s ‘home’ circuit, Thruxton near Andover, will host the third event of the BTCC season on May 6/7.
Austin is 13th in the Drivers Championship standings with 29 points and eighth in the Independents Trophy standings with 44 points.
Handy sit 11th and tenth in the respective team events with 28 and 45 points.