|WORDS: MINI CHALLENGE PHOTOS: David Young|
Rob Smith withheld intense pressure to secure his first MINI CHALLENGE JCW Championship victory since 2015 in the first race at Brands Hatch. The MINI UK VIP driver produced a superb defensive display to score a lights-to-flag win and keep championship leader Brett Smith at bay. Rob, who scored his second pole position of the year in the morning, made a rapid getaway but was pursued by Brett throughout, taking the flag just 0.193s ahead.
“After the start, I built quite a big gap but then Brett just caught me,” Rob said. “I think we underestimated how much the temperature had gone up and it became a case of trying to manage the gap. It was a hot and stressful 20 minutes.
My last win was in 2015 and that monkey on my back has been getting bigger and bigger but has finally gone.”
Rob’s last triumph came two years ago when he took pole position and two wins at Donington Park.
Brett Smith, who was warned for breaching track limits in pursuit of his rival, stretched his championship lead with his second place finish. “For the sake of the championship, I am not going to take out my rival to gain a few extra points,” he said.
“I have got to think about the championship now. I obviously want to win, but I am happy to finish second.”
Former champion Charlie Butler-Henderson was delighted to take third place after passing fast-starting Formula Ford ace Stuart Gough on the first lap at Druids. “I am really chuffed,” the 2015 victor said. “I started to hear a few gremlins in the car towards the end but my luck has changed and I am now looking forward to two more podiums tomorrow. Henry Neal kept me honest and I was thinking about the tyres.”
Neal qualified fifth but produced a solid drive to finish fourth ahead of Mark Wakefield and Lawrence Davey, who enjoyed a good tussle.
Reigning champion David Grady cut a forlorn figure in the paddock after a disappointing qualifying, but made good progress on the 1.2-mile Indy circuit to take seventh from 12th on the grid. Reece Barr, Neil Newstead and a disappointed Gough, driving Newstead’s former car, rounded out the top-10.
Reigning Cooper class champion Max Bladon – Brett Smith’s closest challenger in the championship ahead of Brands – qualified in a lowly 15th but progressed to 12th.
Further back, ex-Formula 1 driver Mark Blundell spun on the first lap and only completed 13 laps before retiring his MINI UK-backed guest car.
Brad Hutchinson’s team worked wonders to get him in the race after a dramatic roll in qualifying, but he only completed 15 laps.
Twenty-four cars took the chequered flag, with Ray MacDowall the other non-finisher.
James Turkington had set the 11th fastest time in qualifying, but was unable to take part in the race following a heavy crash on Hailwood Hill after dropping a wheel in the Paddock gravel trap.
Round: 11 Laps: 16 Weather: Sunny, warm
Charlie Butler-Henderson landed his second JCW victory of the season in a tempestuous second race at Brands, but only after a post-race penalty for championship leader Brett Smith.
Race one winner Rob Smith got away well from pole when the lights went out, but Brett’s start from second was compromised by wheelspin, allowing Butler-Henderson the chance to dive past on the inside into Paddock Hill Bend.
Henry Neal then slipped by at Druids before trying a move on the inside of CB-H at Clearways, but a rub between Neal and CB-H elbowed CB-H wide and down to sixth by the end of lap one.
Up ahead the two Smiths gradually toured clear as things got tight behind them. Neal was running third on the road before the stewards decided that his flying start was a bit too good and handed him a 10-second penalty for a jumped start. That left Neal third on the road, but way down the order on the corrected times.
Mark Wakefield got past Neal on lap four, but when Neal tried to fight back a few laps later he locked up on the brakes, got sideways and clattered into the side of Wakefield. Wakefield’s car survived the contact, but Neal’s race sadly ended in the gravel.
That summoned the first safety car, which was soon followed by a second when Ray MacDowall rolled at Paddock on the restart.
When the race did go green Brett Smith got away brilliantly to close on Rob to set up the flashpoint of the race. Brett made a lunge on the brakes at Paddock on lap 17 but Rob closed the door. There was then contact mid-corner and Rob’s car was spat into the barriers.
“I was attacking and holding the inside and Rob came across on me, I was still steering right,” said Brett of the clash. “I never intended for any contact, but he moved into me.”
Rob felt differently, saying: “He drove into me, plain and simple. I was ahead and had the line. He could have backed off, but he didn’t and next thing I know I’m in the barriers and have a lot of damage to repair.”
Regardless, Rob’s stranded car summoned the red flags, with Brett declared the winner initially.
The chaos up front helped Butler-Henderson climb the order. He made one place when Wakefield’s gearbox gave up, and then another with a fine pass on David Grady at Druids. Rob’s retirement helped him into second behind Brett, and that then became the win when Brett was penalised back to second for the contact with Rob.
CB-H said: “It was a mad race. I got a great start but then got smashed wide at the end of the first lap and I was having to work so hard after that. I had a great fight with David and then just saw cars dropping out ahead of me. I’ll take this though!”
Grady took third place in the amended result, behind Brett Smith. He added: “My start was brilliant, far better than recently. Then it was a good fight with Charlie and basically everything kicked off in front of me so I just stayed out of it. This is a good result.”
Reece Barr came home fourth ahead of George Sutton, Neil Newstead and Stuart Gough. Scott Jeffs was eighth ahead of Keenan Dole, Dean Brace and Will Neal.
It was a disappointing race for Max Bladon, who retired after a driveshaft failure. It had looked promising after a turbo boost issue was found overnight and his car finally enjoyed some power before the failure.
Round: 12 Laps: 16 Weather: Sunny, warm
After his race two upturn, David Grady went two better in the finale, with a scorching start helping him to a stunning victory to cap off MSVR’s annual MINI Festival.
Grady started fourth on the reversed grid, but pulled off arguably the best start of the year to snatch the lead after just three corners. Grady controlled his wheelspin perfectly, then ran around the outside of the pack at both Paddock Hill Bend and Druids to snare the inside line for Graham Hill Bend and slip past poleman Neil Newstead and grab a surprise lead.
“I figured everybody would be slowed in traffic on the inside line so I decided to try a different approach and the outside worked nicely,” said Grady, who tore away from Newstead to build a comfortable margin that he’d never lose.
“Once I got ahead I got my head down and kept pushing. I knew [guest entry] Neil wasn’t quite up to speed with his car yet so the chance to build a gap was there. I had a scare when I got to the backmarkers, but I managed it pretty well,” said Grady after taking the flag over five seconds clear.
That left a frantic fight for second, which only came to a head in the final few laps.
Newstead held the place for much of the race, but picked up a heartbreaking puncture on the final tour and was forced to retire.
That meant the fight for third became the battle for P2. Reece Barr held the spot, but came under pressure from Brett Smith, who had started back in eighth after a grid penalty from the race two contact.
Brett set fastest lap after fastest lap to climb up the order before latching on to the back of Barr. Barr defended superbly for three laps, before Brett picked his moment up the inside at Clearways to annex third, which would become second after Newstead dropped out.
“I was only expecting third, but it’s been a decent weekend for the championship, but also disappointing in general,” said Brett. “I’ve not agreed with a lot of the decisions and didn’t even know I had a grid penalty until I got to the collecting area. I guess that fired me up. But the team have given me an unreal car!”
Barr took third and said: “I’m happy with that. I was catching Neil but then Brett appeared in my mirrors and it was a real fight with him. Always clean, but really, really tough. I’ll take a podium to cap the weekend.”
Newstead’s departure handed fourth to Charlie Butler-Henderson to cap his strongest weekend since the season-opener at Oulton Park. Stuart Gough was fifth after a battling drive. George Sutton took sixth ahead of Mark Wakefield, Lawrence Davey and Rob Smith.
Rob’s progress up the order initially was startling, having made up 11 places on the opening lap-and-a-half to run 10th from 21st on the grid. But then trouble reared its head. “I think the tyres just died,” he said. “I was racing a car that’s been rebuilt from the bulkhead forward in just half-an-hour, so it was never going to be perfect.”
Freddie Lee rounded out the top 10 ahead of the recovering Max Bladon, Scott Jeffs, Will Neal, Keenan Dole, Henry Neal and James Loukes.