Sam Smith made a return to the top step of the Vertu Motors MINI CHALLENGE with victory in the opening race of the weekend at Brands Hatch as Dan Zelos secured an unassailable lead in the championship standings.

Smith had topped the times in qualifying to become the first driver other than Zelos to score pole position this season, and nailed the start when the lights went out to head the field into turn one for the first time.

As Zelos came under pressure from Spencer Stevenson for second place, Smith was able to scamper away at the front and by the end of the opening lap, was more than a second clear of the champion-elect – who had briefly slipped to third before reclaiming his position.

A number of quick early laps were key as Smith extended his lead at the front and it meant that even when Zelos came back at him as the race wore on, the Hybrid Tune driver had enough of a gap to hold on and secure the victory.

“I’m notoriously bad when it comes to starts but I actually had my best start ever in that race and early on, the car felt really strong,” he said. “I backed off a bit and Dan was closing on me so fast towards the end, but when I tried to respond, I had nothing left to give!

“Having such a big advantage early on was a real help as I was up for a fight at the start, but Dan certainly kept me on my toes late on and I’m delighted to get the win.”

Having seen off the challenge of Stevenson early on, Zelos was able to edge away from title rival Will Orton, who moved into third spot on the second lap.

Knowing that he was in position to take the crown unless Orton got ahead, Zelos was able to follow Smith home and secure enough points that – with dropped scores factored in – he now cannot be caught by Orton across the final two races.

Orton would actually outscore Zelos by virtue of setting the fastest lap of the race, but can now do no better than reach a maximum score three below the lowest Zelos will manage.

Sam Weller would take fourth place as the best of the guest drivers ahead of Nathan Harrison as the two championship winners held station throughout with a comfortable buffer to Bradley Gravett in sixth spot.

Gravett in turn had a comfortable margin over a huge squabble behind for seventh which would eventually be decided in favour of Oliver Meadows, with Joe Tanner, Jamie Osborne and Nelson King rounding out the top ten.

With Dominic Wheatley taking the flag in eleventh place, Osborne was able to extend his advantage in the Graduate Cup going into the second race of the weekend on Sunday morning.

Orton meanwhile is odds on to snare the Rookie Cup, with a 91 point lead over King and only 100 left to play for.