Tom Ovenden recovered from a disastrous start to secure victory in the opening Vertu Motors MINI CHALLENGE race of the weekend at Brands Hatch.

The EXCELR8 driver had qualified on pole position after a record-breaking lap in qualifying but was slow away from the line when the lights went out – allowing fellow front-starter Jack Byrne to sweep into the lead on the run to Paddock Hill Bend.

Things went from bad to worse for Ovenden when Nicky Taylor then nipped ahead mid-way through lap one, with impressive rookie Max Hall also taking a look going through the final corner only for Ovenden to hold on.

Further down the pack, NAPA Racing UK racer Callum Eason saw his debut in the series come to a premature end when he ended up in the gravel at turn one – leaving Paddock Hill under yellows for a handful of laps before the decision was taken to deploy the Safety Car so his car could be recovered.

The action resumed on lap eight with Byrne leading the way from Taylor and Ovenden, and the lead trio started to edge away from Hall in the three-way battle for the win.

Ovenden nosed his car down the inside of Taylor at Druids on lap eleven to move into second spot and a lap later, managed to get the cutback coming out of Graham Hill Bend to get down the inside of Byrne for the lead at Surtees.

As the pair behind started to fight for second, Ovenden managed to eek out a slender gap at the front and wrap up the first win of 2023.

“I made a total hash of the start but I knew I had to try and be patient after that,” Ovenden admitted. “I’m so happy that it did but it wasn’t easy. I managed to get Nicky at Druids and then got the switchback on Jack to move back into P1 and I’m so relieved because I thought I’d blown my chance.”

Although Taylor would briefly nose ahead of Byrne for second going over the line, the Irish driver managed to hold onto second spot after the pair ran side-by-side for a quarter of a lap – with the pair taking the flag in second and third to give Graves Motorsport a double podium.

The team would have extra reason to cheer on the final lap when Alex Solley – who had run fifth throughout – managed to get a run on Hall on the run to the line to steal fourth spot.

“Tom might have got the win, but second, third and fourth is good for us as a team,” Taylor said. “Me and Jack were quite even but Tom seemed to just have a little bit extra today and we’ll have a look and see what we can do for tomorrow.”

Solley’s late move on Hall didn’t prevent the Westbourne Motorsport driver from celebrating his first start in the series with a class win, taking fifth overall ahead of leader Directors Cup entrant Lee Pearce – who came through the pack well from twelfth on the grid.

“I got a good start but then slipped back a little as the race went on, but I’ll take that,” Hall said. “It was a challenging race for my debut but I think it went well and now I’m hoping to try and push for some podiums tomorrow.”

Pearce’s run to sixth came after a storming start saw him make up five places on the opening two laps before getting caught up behind Harvey Riby, who would defend well before Pearce managed to finally get ahead on lap ten.

Riby would later come under attack from James Black and Nathan Edwards, with Edwards launching his car down the inside of his two rivals at Paddock Hill to ultimately grab seventh spot on the final lap – with Black and Riby following behind.

Frankie Taylor then rounded out the top ten, having been involved in a feisty dice with Harry Hickton during the closing stages.

Eason was the only driver to not make the finish, although there were dramas for a number of drivers, with Ashley Gregory unable to build on her top ten showing from qualifying when she ran wide across the gravel out of the final corner and slipped down the order, and Mick Fitzgerald suffering a mid-race spin at Druids.