Former champion Matt Hammond enjoyed the perfect start to his Quaife MINI CHALLENGE Trophy return with an impressive run to pole position for the season opener at Snetterton.

On his first outing in the series since winning the title back in 2017, the EXCELR8 Motorsport driver emerged as the man to beat during the 15 minute session and was ultimately able to clinch pole with room to spare.

Rookie Lewis Saunders was the early pace setter in the session but times soon started to tumble as drivers got up to speed, with Graves Motorsport’s Lee Pearce setting the first representative quick lap.

His early time of 2:20.833s didn’t last for long however, with Hammond immediately lowering the benchmark time as he toured the longest circuit on the calendar more than half a second quicker. On the very next lap, Hammond improved his time down to a 2:19.604s, which would ultimately prove to be a time that was out of reach of his rivals.

That wasn’t for a lack of effort on the part of his rivals however, with fellow EXCELR8 driver Nicky Taylor moving up into second spot before double Junior Saloon Car champion Saunders improved to move onto the provisional front row.

It was PerformanceTek’s Dominic Wheatley however who would emerge as Hammond’s closest challenge in the closing minutes, with his quickest times coming right at the end of the session.

Moving ahead of Saunders onto the front row with two minutes remaining, Wheatley then joined Hammond in breaking into the 2:19s on his final lap but had to settle for a second spot on the grid with a time 0.270s down on the polesitter.

“In practice on Friday, I was struggling to get into the low 2:20s, so when I saw we’d got into the 2:19s, I knew it was a good lap,” pole man Hammond said afterwards. “I couldn’t really have asked for more to be honest and credit to everyone at EXCELR8 for giving me a good car.

“I managed to get a bit of a tow on my quick lap and the car felt really hooked it up, but to be three-tenths of a second clear is mega, and more than I expected. It was one of those laps that you look for but then don’t usually actually manage to get. Luckily this time, I did!”

Wheatley’s improvement late on left Saunders to head up the second row of the grid as the leading rookie driver – half a second off pole – alongside another series returnee in the shape of Ricky Page.

A late addition to the grid for his first race in six years, Page was at the sharp end of the times throughout the session and ended up just 0.004s down on Saunders.

Local driver Taylor slotted into fifth spot ahead of Pearce, with defending champion Harry Nunn in the leading AReeve Motorsport entry moving up the times late on into seventh. Josh Porter, Alex Jay and Morgan Wroot rounded out the top ten, with the close nature of the times behind the front row pair meaning positions three through to ten were covered by just three-tenths of a second.

The first session of the season wouldn’t pass without problems however, with rookie Nelson King unable to post a time after pulling off on the run to Agostini early on.