The HMS Racing-developed Alfa Romeo Giulietta can look forward to next year with optimism after signing off its debut year in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) with a podium finish and the Independents Trophy win during the final round of the season held at Brands Hatch.
Returning to the BTCC podium for the first time since the opening event of 2018, held on the Kent venue’s shorter Indy Circuit, driver Rob Austin made an outstanding start from second on the grid in Round 30 to surge into an early race lead.
Battling hard throughout, with never more than a few tenths of a second separating the top three, Austin eventually finished the 15-lap season finale in third position just 0.7 seconds adrift of race winner Ashley Sutton and second placed Josh Cook on the sprint to the line.
“It’s nice to end the season with a podium but, if I’m honest, I really wanted that win!”, reflected Austin afterwards, “We didn’t manage to hook the car up quite as well as we did at Silverstone which meant I was struggling with the front end washing out on power, leaving me defenceless when Cook got under me exiting Clearways and there was no way I could fight Sutton’s Subaru like Cook did.
“There is still a lot of development work to be done on the Alfa, it’s a process that I definitely underestimated coming in to this year, but the potential in it is unquestionable and the DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing guys have done an amazing job.”
Making a steady start to the final weekend of the 2018 season in opening free practice on the Saturday morning, the team made improvements for the second session – moving to within 0.7 seconds of the top of the times – and in qualifying Austin bagged the 14th fastest time with a lap of 1:31.123 seconds (96.13 mph), within half a second of pole position and the all-dominant Hondas which filled the top five places.
Austin made a clean getaway at the beginning of Round 28 on Sunday (30 September) and although having to take the outside route through Druids, he was able to pick off a couple of places before dropping down to 16th position as a result of some tight action.
Running right behind title contender Tom Ingram, when the Toyota driver moved alongside Ricky Collard on lap five Austin was able to follow him through and so broke back into the championship points in 15th place. Shadowing Ingram lap after lap, pressuring as much as possible and seeing his rival locking brakes on multiple occasions, Austin had to settle for 15th at the chequered flag.
Taking the soft compound ‘option’ Dunlop tyres for round 29, Austin made great early progress into the top 12 over the first couple of laps before being edged back to 13th by the Ford of Sam Tordoff on lap three. Breaking back into the top 12 a few laps later, Austin then moved up inside the top 10 prior to the emergence of the Safety Car on lap seven.
When racing resumed on lap nine, the DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing driver was edged back a spot but he soon hit back on and on the 11th tour he moved into the top 10 again at Druids before taking ninth soon after. Then climbing into eighth on lap 12 and remaining there for several laps, on the 17th and final tour he was shuffled back behind Sutton to finish ninth.
“In race one we struggled to get the heat in the tyres and got a bit mugged on the opening laps, but once we got going the pace was good – although the pack had gone by then”, Austin said, “I worked with Tom [Ingram] to pull them back in but as soon as we got there the race was over.
“Race two started off well as, again, I found myself working my way through the pack with Tom but he managed to make it past [Tom] Chilton and I didn’t quite get there and got sucked back into the pack. It was carnage, some of the most appalling driving I have seen in the BTCC, needless contact after needless contact and that was just down the straights!”
On the ‘reverse grid’ for round 30, the final race of the BTCC season, Austin lined-up on the front row in second spot by virtue of his ninth-place result from race two. Making a sensational start, the Worcestershire driver surged into the lead ahead of pole-starter Cook and the Alfa Romeo led the way until the end of lap four when Cook managed to get a run on the inside out of Clearways.
Edged back to second into lap five, on lap seven Austin then slipped to third after a move by Sutton at Westfield. Refusing to be dropped, he remained within just a few tenths of a second of the lead battle and as Cook and Sutton diced Austin closed back in while also coming under pressure from fourth placed Chilton.
With nothing in it, into the 15th and final lap just 0.4 seconds split Austin from the lead duo and he was also challenged hard by Chilton. Rebuffing the attack at Surtees, he went on to take the flag just 0.7 seconds shy of second placed Cook who, in turn, was pipped by Sutton on the drag to the line by a mere 0.032 seconds.
“Another great final race of the year, just as Rob did in 2017!” said elated team principal Simon Belcher, “It always takes a while to get a new car dialled in, as the mighty works Honda team has shown this season. We really understand the car now and have focused in on where we need to develop more over the closed season. Without doubt, the Alfa Romeo can be a title challenger now.
“Being an independent team, we simply did not have the resource or money to do the amount of pre-season testing you need to do with a new car. The whole team has been amazing this year and we have had great support from all our sponsors, it is hard to believe we have just completed our fifth season in the BTCC – time flies by!”
In terms of the championship battles, Austin ended the first season with the Alfa Romeo Giulietta seventh in the Independents Trophy championship while DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing finished ninth in the Independents Team standings.
In Dunlop’s ‘Forever Forward’ Award, which acknowledges drivers who have proven very proficient at rising through the order in the 30 races over the course of the season, Austin ended the campaign in sixth position.
Photos: HMS Racing/Duo Motorsport Alfa Romeo Giulietta - British Touring Car Championship 2018
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