Dan Zelos launched his bid for a third JCW title in the Vertu MINI CHALLENGE with victory in the opening race of the new season at Donington Park, although only after a penalty for on-the-road victor Ant Whorton-Eales.

The race had started with Marlo Cordell on pole position thanks to the second quickest times set in qualifying, and he held the lead through the opening corners as fellow front-row starter Tom Ovenden was slow away from the line – which allowed a fast-starting Whorton-Eales to jump up into second place from the second row.

Before the end of the lap, Whorton-Eales had hit the front before the safety car was called out to recover the cars of Max Hall and Lydia Walmsley, which came together at Coppice when Hall got out of shape and Walmsley behind was left with nowhere to go to avoid his sideways car.

With the pair stopped at the final chicane, the safety car would lead the field four for a lap, with Whorton-Eales leading Zelos, who had jumped Cordell just before the caution came out.

On the restart, Whorton-Eales and Zelos went into battles as the two title winners went side-by-side for the lead, with Cordell fending off Tom Ovenden for third spot before he was forced to bring his car into the pits with a vibration.

Further down the order, the battle for the JCW Sport category was being headed by Albert Webster, with the MINI CHALLENGE Scholarship winner having battled for the class lead with Dylan Hotchin – who briefly got ahead of his rival only for Webster to reclaim the position.

Unfortunately for Webster, an incident at the Craner Curves on the seventh lap saw the JRW Motorsport man roll into the gravel, bringing out the red flag as he was helped from his car before being taken to the medical centre for precautionary checks.

The race restarted over seven laps with Whorton-Eales retaining the lead from Zelos, despite the best efforts of Jamie Osborne to find a way ahead – with the NAPA Racing man having surged up the order from seventh on the grid prior to the stoppage.

Osborne did manage to get ahead of Zelos briefly on the first lap, but the EXCELR8 man got back ahead and the front three would then run together throughout, with little more than half a second splitting the trio for much of what would become a seven lap race.

Zelos tried to find a way into the lead whilst also defending from Osborne until the final lap when Whorton-Eales took a more defensive line into the final chicane and lost momentum on the exit.

Zelos tried to draw alongside with the pair running side-by-side up to the line, with Whorton-Eales crossing the line just 0.013s ahead. Zelos however had been forced to take to the grass during the run to the line, with a post-race penalty reversing the result to put Zelos into first and Whorton-Eales back into second.

“When you see someone like Ant appear on the entry list, it was the chance to go up against another champion and I knew we were in for a big battle,” Zelos said. “It was a really enjoyable race and I think we put on a good show for the fans. I think we spent half of the race side-by-side and we are here to entertain – which I think we did!”

Osborne was just a tenth of a second further back in third to kick off his title challenge with a podium finish, whilst Ovenden took fourth having held off the challenge of Bradley Gravett who – like Osborne – had surged through the pack from eighth on the grid, setting the fastest lap en-route.

Lewis Selby took sixth spot to secure top honours in the Directors Cup ahead of Nathan Edwards and Dominic Wheatley, with Nelson King overcoming the challenge of Matt Hammond for ninth.

With Webster’s retirement, the battle for honours in JCW Sport came down to Hotchin and Cameron Richardson, with Richardson taking the lead at the start before Hotchin managed to sneak ahead on the third lap, with Hannah Chapman’s Invitational entry fending off Ben Crossley.

Former single-seater racer Hotchin looked to be heading for the first JCW Sport win but on the final lap, Richardson was able to make his move and got ahead to beat his rival to the line by just a tenth of a second, with Chapman crossing the line ahead of Crossley – although her Invitational status meant it was Crossley classified third in class.

“That was a mega difficult race as it was so tight, and at one stage we were in amongst the JCW cars,” Richardson said. “It was great racing and everyone was on it and the stars aligned for me a bit – I’m buzzing!

“The conditions were really tricky and the front tyres were going off a bit towards the end of the race but it was all about trying to make sure I could bring it home. I think the fact I did Coopers last year helped me as the more laps I did in testing, the more I realised the car wasn’t as different as I expected when I got to grips with it, and this is a good start.”

The reverse grid draw will see the top four from the original reversed on the grid, with Ovenden on pole from Osborne, ahead of Zelos and Whorton-Eales.