Dan Zelos survived a last lap scare at Donington Park to secure victory in the opening Vertu Motors MINI CHALLENGE race of the season.

Zelos had qualified on pole position at the wheel of his EXCELR8-run car with a new qualifying lap record, and was able to lead the field down to Redgate when the lights went out ahead of Hybrid Tune’s Joe Tanner, who slotted into second spot.

A fast-starting Sam Smith was able to get ahead of Oliver Meadows off the line to take third, and wasted little time in making a move on team-mate Tanner at the start of lap two to move into second, and then set about trying to chase down Zelos at the front.

Smith would bring the gap between the pair down but Zelos was able to respond, edging away at the front as the lead duo cleared away from the fight for third but on the final lap, the leader suddenly found himself without power steering.

Despite that, Zelos was able to wrestle the car to the finish line to secure the win by three-tenths of a second.

“I’m over the moon and couldn’t have asked for more,” he said. “I didn’t have big expectations coming in this weekend and the Hybrid Tune boys were right on my tail and keep the pressure on.

“I came onto the final lap and lost power steering – maybe I’d been hitting the kerbs a bit too much, I’m not sure. After that final lap, I know I need to go to the gym a bit more and I was praying for the chequered flag to come out, as I couldn’t have done another.”

Second spot for Smith saw him secure Graduate Cup honours, and he admitted he didn’t quite have the pace needed to attack Zelos for the lead.

“Dan drove better than I did in that race to be fair, and he has massive experience in these cars,” he said. “I think when I got close to him, I just overcooked the tyres a bit and had nothing left, but I’m confident the team will give me a good car for tomorrow as they always do and we’ll go again.”

The fight for third place would rage throughout the race, with Tanner forced to defend hard to keep Bradley Gravett at bay.

Gravett had jumped up from sixth to fourth on the opening lap and would shadow Tanner throughout, forcing the Scot to defend more than once on the run to the final corner in order to stay ahead.

Unfortunately for Gravett, he would drop out of the race on lap 14 when he went off the road at McLeans; his car later being returned to the paddock with a punctured front left tyre.

That issue for Gravett promoted Will Orton up into fourth spot after he had enjoyed a race long dice with Oliver Meadows for the honour of top rookie, with Orton holding the place through the early stages before Meadows was able to get ahead on lap twelve.

However, on the start of the next lap, Orton tried to reclaim the place at turn one, with contact between the pair seeding both go sideways and once again swap places.

Orton would remain ahead to the flag to take fourth spot ahead of Meadows, with Barry Ward taking his best finish in the series in sixth spot after a lonely race that saw him running largely alone on track.

Behind, a huge five-car battle for position ended with Thomas Jack Lee kicking off his MINI CHALLENGE career with seventh place ahead of reigning Cooper champion Nelson King, with Josh Porter holding on to ninth on the run to the line ahead of Lydia Walmsley despite running slightly wide out of the final corner.

NAPA Racing’s Lewis Selby had also been involved in that battle for much of the race before he dipped a wheel into the gravel at Coppice and ran off track, costing him places before he was forced to then pit to have the rear bumper removed from his car.

“It was my mistake,” he admitted. “I was enjoying the race and learning how to race these cars, but out-braked myself into Coppice and the gravel just sucked me in.

“Had I not had to pit, I think we could have caught the group back up as the pace was really good, but it was driver error and something I’ll learn from.”

Outside the top ten, Dominic Wheatley took eleventh spot ahead of Marlo Cordell and Ryan Faulconbridge, with Daniel Petters beating brother Jamie to 14th after they ran together throughout the 17 lap encounter.

Jordan Kerridge and Simon Reed were the final two drivers on the lead lap ahead of Billy Hardy, Selby and Steven Lake – with both Hardy and Lake having also been forced to make unscheduled trips to the pits.

Aside from Gravett, James Griffith retired following a contact-induced spin at turn one at the start, with Jamie Osborne stopping on the green flag lap as his technical gremlins continued.