Former champion Dan Zelos emerged as the man to beat in the first Vertu Motors MINI CHALLENGE qualifying session of the season as he topped the times at Donington Park.

In what would prove to be a truncated session with three red flags, Zelos grabbed his fifth JCW pole at the wheel of his EXCELR8-run car ahead of Hybrid Tune’s Joe Tanner as two of the drivers returning to the series proved to be the ones to beat on track.

Zelos had grabbed the early advantage in the session having gone ahead of Sam Smith on the timesheets just before the first red flag was thrown after rookie Thomas Jack Lee went off track on the run down the Craner Curves and got beached in the gravel at the Old Hairpin.

Once his car was recovered there was time for just one more lap before Jordan Kerridge also found himself off track heading down to the Old Hairpin to bring the red flags back out.

With ten minutes on the clock when the session resumed, Zelos was the man with the target on his back and would almost find himself overhauled by Smith before he lowered what was already a record-breaking qualifying lap around the resurfaced Donington National layout.

His advantage over the pack behind was three-tenths of a second when the final red flag – caused by separate incidents for Simon Reed and Josh Porter – brought things to an early end, ensuring he will lead the field away for race one on Saturday afternoon.

“It was a tough session and when it’s like that, it can all come down to being in the right place on track when the red flags come out,” he said. “You may have been on a good lap and lose it, so you have to keep your composure and I’ve done this long enough to know it can happen.

“The resurfacing work they’ve done to the circuit has made a massive difference as the whole structure of the lap has changed and you’re finding yourself in a different gear or braking at a different point. We had pre-season testing but it rained, and EXCELR8 have come here and pulled it out of the bag.”

Behind Zelos, Tanner had to settle for second as the best of the Directors Cup drivers, despite admitting that he hadn’t managed to get the most from his track time due to the various stoppages that would affect proceedings.

“I’m really pleased as I’m not usually good at qualifying but the car was great,” he said. “Everyone at Hybrid Tune has done a great job as they always do, and that’s why it hurts a bit when you mess it up.

“The gap to Dan is a big one but I don’t feel its accurate as we had a scrappy session and only really got two laps with the red flags – and neither of mine were clean…”

It looked like Hybrid Tune would secure a 2-3 on the grid with Smith following Tanner on the times but a late lap from Cooper graduate Oliver Meadows saw him instead grab the spot by just 0.010s ahead of his first JCW start.

“The car feels great and EXCELR8 have done a great job setting it up,” Meadows said. “I feel better suited to this car than the Cooper and my engineer Joe has really helped me to really gain an understanding of the engineering side of it.

“Everything aligned for me to get P3 so it’s a good place for me to start.”

Smith had to settle for fourth place as the fastest of the Graduate Cup entrants, with fellow Hybrid Tune runner Will Orton grabbing fifth place and Bradley Gravett rounding out the top six.

Two rookies share the fourth row of the grid in the shape of Porter and reigning Cooper champion Nelson King, with Barry Ward and Ryan Faulconbridge completing the top ten.

Only 22 of the 23 drivers were able to set timed laps during the session with technical issues preventing NAPA Racing UK racer Jamie Osborne from logging a time.

Jamie Petters however was unable to set a representative lap time due to the various stoppages, with his best lap being more than twelve seconds off the pace as a result.

Race of the weekend is scheduled for 14:30.