Tom Ovenden saw off a late attack from Nicky Taylor to secure his second win of the Vertu Motors MINI CHALLENGE Trophy season in the opening race of the weekend at Croft.

The EXCELR8 driver had qualified on pole position earlier in the day ahead of championship leader Alex Solley – who was then demoted back to tenth on the grid due to a penalty carried over from the previous event at Thruxton.

That promoted Max Hall onto the front row but when the lights went out it was Ovenden who retained the lead as the field headed down to Clervaux for the first time.

Hall slotted into second spot but a slow start from Taylor saw him lose ground from third spot – dropping behind a fast-starting Jack Byrne as well as Luca Marinoni Osborne and Alex Keens.

Ovenden quickly set about trying to break away at the front, helped by the fact that Hall was under pressure from Byrne in the battle for second.

When Hall suddenly slowed coming out of the chicane on lap three, Byrne was able to move into second spot, with Taylor taking advantage of the cars ahead checking up to go from sixth to third as the train of cars barrelled down to Tower, with Hall dropping back to eighth place.

Amongst those to have moved ahead of the Westbourne Motorsport man was Solley, who had quickly moved himself up into the top six but things would take a turn for the worse heading into the complex at the end of the fifth lap.

Contact on track resulting in pad knock-off saw Hall run deep into the second part of the complex and clatter into the side of Solley’s car – putting both drivers out of the race and leaving Solley visibly angered when he returned to the pits having suffered a second successive DNF.

Solley’s demise meant the fight for the lead was now a race for the championship lead, with Byrne and Taylor drawing in on Ovenden to make it a three-way battle at the front – the trio having moved clear of Marinoni Osborne, Keens and Ashley Gregory, who were now rounding out the top six.

James Black and Reece Lycett were also firmly in the mix for a top four finish, with Gregory rising to the top of the ‘second pack’ as Marinoni Osborne found himself shuffled back down into seventh after a three-wide moment with Keens and Black into Sunny.

Keens briefly got ahead of Gregory into fourth only for the former JSCC racer to reclaim the place a handful of laps later going into turn one just moments before the lead at the front changed – with Taylor finally managing to make a move on Ovenden into the hairpin to hit the front.

That move came at the end of the penultimate lap but Ovenden then closed in on Taylor going into Tower and managed to draw alongside through the Esses before sliding into the lead at Sunny, holding on through the final corners to beat Taylor and Byrne to the victory.

“That was a tough race,” Ovenden said. “I thought we were going to have it quite easy early on but the tow had a massive impact, particularly with the addition of the wind on the run to Tower. They managed to catch up and I knew it was going to be a fight to the end. When Nicky got ahead and then I saw the last lap board I thought I hadn’t given myself long to get back ahead but I managed to get a run into Sunny and fight back ahead.”

“I knew Tom was going to fight back on the final lap, but I’m happy with P2,” Taylor added. “That was a great battle at the front and one of the best races I’d say I’ve been involved with in the MINI CHALLENGE. We’ll be pushing to go one better tomorrow.”

Behind the top three, Gregory came through the final lap unscathed to secure fourth place, which meant a first rookie class victory of the campaign for the family-run team, which has shown flashes of pace during the opening half of the season.

“It was a very tricky race but I’m happy with that,” she said. “I think that result has been coming for a while and it’s the perfect way to kick off the second half of the season. The car has just had a full rebuild and to come away from here with a trip to the podium is perfect.”

Black would take fifth place ahead of Keens, with team-mates Lycett and Rhys Hurd rounding out the top eight. Marinoni Osborne would end up taking the flag in ninth, with the top ten completed by Callum Eason for NAPA Racing UK.

Aside from Hall and Solley, Harry Hickton was an early retirement after contact at the complex, with Daniel Armstrong coming into the pits late on with a technical issue.

The reverse grid draw will see Gregory start race two from pole.