After the Cooper class season kicked off at Brands Hatch earlier this month, the JCW field springs into action this weekend as the Vertu Motors MINI CHALLENGE heads for Donington Park for the opening meeting of the campaign.

A field of more than 20 cars will hit the track for the first three races of the new season, with a raft of new faces appearing on the grid for the 2023 campaign after a winter of huge change.

In fact, only three of the top 15 drivers in the standings last season return this year with half of the field currently entered being eligible for Rookie Cup honours.

The highest-placed returning driver is someone who certainly doesn’t lack experience of what it takes to be successful in JCW machinery in the shape of Dan Zelos, who returns for another season looking to try and reclaim the title he won in 2021.

Last season turned out to be one to forget for the EXCELR8 driver as he failed to make it onto the top step of the podium all season, only ending the campaign in eighth spot as Sam Weller took away his title.

Over the winter however, Zelos has regrouped and now goes into 2023 as arguably the driver to beat given his past success and also his extensive experience behind the wheel of the JCW machine.

To drive home that fact, later this season, Zelos will break Jack Davidson’s record for most starts in the current-spec JCW car.

Zelos – who topped the times in Thursday’s official pre-event test – is part of a bumper line-up for EXCELR8, which will be looking to try and secure the Teams’ title for a fourth successive season.

Bradley Gravett is back for a full year having joined the team in the latter stages of 2022, whilst Barry Ward converts his part programme with LUX Motorsport into a full-season assault on the series and will hope to fight for both Graduate and Directors cup honours.

The remaining five drivers are all newcomers to the category, including three with experience of the Cooper class in the past.

Oliver Meadows joins the team on the back of a Cooper programme with Graves Motorsport last season, whilst Jordan Kerridge moves up into the top class after a guest outing with EXCELR8 in the Cooper finale last year.

The last of the three graduates from the lower class is Josh Porter, who returns to competition following a year on the sidelines in 2022, in which he worked in an off-track role alongside the JCW squad.

Steven Lake and Thomas Jack Lee round out the line-up, with the former switching to sprint racing having spent recent years in endurance competition and the latter making the step up from the Fiesta Junior series on the back of an impressive 2022 campaign.

Whilst champion Weller doesn’t feature on the entry this season, his Hybrid Tune team is back with a four-car team as it seeks to defend the title – led by the returning Joe Tanner.

Tanner secured the Graduate Cup title in his first year with the team in 2022 and played a key supporting role in Weller’s title bid, with the season ahead providing him with a chance to now fight for the overall win he craves and to push for overall honours.

Sam Smith will also hope to be in the mix on the back of an impressive debut in the final two meetings of 2022, which ended with him battling to a fine victory in the final race of the season at Brands Hatch, whilst long-time JCW racer Ryan Faulconbridge is back for another year – making the switch over from the now-departed LUX squad.

The four-strong line is then rounded out by Will Orton, who has shown solid pace in pre-season testing and will hope to join Smith in pushing for Rookie Cup honours over the course of the year.

Another driver with eyes on the Rookie crown is the reigning Cooper champion Nelson King, who steps up to JCWs on the back of a stunning 2022 season where he proved to be the dominant force in his class – scoring eleven race wins in 19 starts and only failing to make the podium three times.

King remains with the Graves Motorsport team that took him to the title last season and teams up with the man he replaced as Cooper champion, Dominic Wheatley. For much of the winter, Wheatley’s participation was in doubt after sponsor issues, but having confirmed his place on the grid, he will hope to regularly fight for top ten finishes at least having shown flashes of his speed last year.

A Graduate Cup title assault should also be on the cards, with a three-car line-up completed by Directors Cup entrant James Griffith – who is back for another season.

Having debuted in the Cooper class at Brands Hatch, NAPA Racing UK will appear on the JCW grid for the first time with Jamie Osborne back for a second season in the series having made his debut with JW Bird last year and series rookie Lewis Selby completing the line-up, whilst there is also a two-car entry from Team Petters Racing.

The team, which is new to the series, is set to provide one of the most intriguing stories of the season as brothers Daniel and Jamie join forces to drive the two cars – with the siblings having never previously competed together on track.

The remainder of the field for the Donington Park opener comprises of single-car entries, with Lydia Walmsley and her family-run team returning alongside the Autotech Motorsport car of Billy Hardy.

OX4 Racing are back after a year away with Simon Reed at the wheel, whilst former title winners JamSport also rejoin the grid with Fiesta graduate Marlo Cordell.

Donington Park entry list:
5 – James Griffith – Graves Motorsport
8 – Steven Lake – EXCELR8 Motorsport
9 – Billy Hardy – Autotech Motorsport
10 -Bradley Gravett – EXCELR8 Motorsport
13 – Ryan Faulconbrige – Hybrid Tune
14 – Dominic Wheatley – Graves Motorsport
18 – Lewis Selby – NAPA Racing UK
22 – Barry Ward – EXCELR8 Motorsport
24 – Joe Tanner – Hybrid Tune
26 – Thomas Jack Lee – EXCELR8 Motorsport
27 – Marlo Cordell – JamSport Racing
31 – Will Orton – Hybrid Tune
35 – Simon Reed – OX4 Racing
42 – Sam Smith – Hybrid Tune
45 – Dan Zelos – EXCELR8 Motorsport
77 – Jamie Osborne – NAPA Racing UK
82 – Lydia Walmsley – Lydia Walmsley Racing
86 – Daniel Petters – Team Petters Racing
88 – Oliver Meadows – EXCELR8 Motorsport
94 – Josh Porter – EXCELR8 Motorsport
95 – Nelson King – Graves Motorsport
96 – Jordan Kerridge – EXCELR8 Motorsport
322 – Jamie Petters – Team Petters Racing