Tom Ovenden made the ideal start to life in the JCW class of the Vertu MINI CHALLENGE with the quickest time in qualifying at Donington Park.

The reigning Cooper champion emerged at the head of the field in one of the closest sessions in recent memory as the leading five drivers on the times were covered by little more than a tenth of a second.

Fellow rookie Max Hall had been the early pacesetter in the half hour long session, which was the first to be run under new qualifying rules in place for this year – with the race three grid decided on the fastest times set in the session, and the race one grid being decided on second fastest laps.

Hall was the overhauled by defending champion Dan Zelos and Ovenden before the session was called to halt to recover two cars from the circuit, with the JCW Sport entry of Ben Crossley off in the gravel at the Old Hairpin and Hannah Chapman’s Invitational car pulling off with a mechanical issue.

Across the final ten minutes of the session when the action resumed, Zelos was unable to improve on his fastest lap, with Ant Whorton-Eales – a last minute addition to the grid – moving into provisional pole before Ovenden’s fast lap saw him edge ahead.

The margin between the two at the finish would be just 0.051s as Ovenden beat the former champion to top spot, picking up six bonus points in the process.

“It was very unexpected and my dash wasn’t doing what it normally does so I had no delta time showing,” Ovenden said. “I was just driving round and I could see P1 on my pitboard so I thought it must be going alright and I kept going, came in and was told it was good enough.

“I’ve always liked having a time to aim for and like the live feedback but it seemed to work not having it – so maybe I should stick with it in future!”

Ovenden wasn’t able to secure pole for both races however, with his second quickest time being bettered by Marlo Cordell – who only missed out on the front row of the grid for race three by just 0.016s.

Cordell’s second fastest lap was 0.047s quicker than Ovenden’s, which means the JamSport driver will have the honour of leading the field away for the opening race of the season.

“I didn’t know I had pole for race one, so that’s great!” he said. “We struggled a lot last season and have pretty much written off 2023, so this is a great way to start the year. Having Ant here has been a huge plus for me and I’ve been able to learn a lot from him and we have a much better handle on the car.

“The one advantage from last year is that I didn’t have the nerves going into the session and we knew it would be close from the times in testing. It’s going to be close in the races and hopefully we can have a good run.”

Defending champion Zelos would end up fourth quickest on the times, with Hall and NAPA Racing’s Jamie Osborne rounding out the top six.

Lydia Walmsley and Dominic Wheatley followed close behind, with the top ten on the times being completed by Matt Hammond and Bradley Gravett. Hammond was also the quickest driver amongst the Directors Cup entries heading into his JCW debut.

Second fastest laps put Zelos and Whorton-Eales on the second row of the grid ahead of Hall and Walmsley, with the top eight completed by Osborne and Wheatley.

Qualifying amongst the JCW Sport cars saw Albert Webster – winner of the inaugural MINI CHALLENGE Scholarship – secure double pole position, with his fastest lap being just three-tenths of a second off the back of the JCW pack.

The JRW Motorsport driver outpaced Dylan Hotchin by six-tenths of a second with a slightly larger margin between the pair on second fastest laps.

“I felt confident from Thursday testing but I can’t believe we’ve bagged pole,” he said. “There are only a few tenths to the JCW cars on the grid so it would be great it we could tag onto them and have a bit of a battle. The car is awesome and so different to what I have raced before, but I’ve gelled with it and this is a great start.”

Cameron Richardson will start both races from third on the grid ahead of Crossley and Chapman after their respective issues.

The most unfortunate driver in the session was Bitcoin Racing’s Chris MacKenzie, who will start at the back after a mechanically-induced spin before he had been able to set a quick time.