COOPERS READY FOR WELSH RETURN

The Vertu MINI CHALLENGE Trophy returns to Pembrey this weekend after a year away, with a packed grid of cars set to do battle in the second meeting of the 2024 season.

The campaign kicked off at Snetterton a month ago, where Westbourne Motorsport emerged as the team to beat – taking pole and all three race wins.

Sam Gornall topped qualifying before winning race one, but a clutch issue at the start of race two opened the door for team-mate Harry Hickton to storm through the field from ninth to take his maiden win. Hickton then also won race three to snare the early championship lead, whilst he also leads the Graduate Cup.

“I’m looking forward to getting down to Pembrey where we can hopefully continue our strong start to the season,” said Hickton. “Snetterton was a dream weekend for us but we’ve now got to build on that momentum and push on.

“Westbourne have given me a car that I feel really dialled into and the little changes that we’ve made since the opening round should make the whole package feel that much more refined, which is only a good thing!”

His closest rival going into round two is Graves Motorsport driver Alex Solley, who battled his way to a best finish of second in Norfolk despite battling some issues with his car.

Although a number of drivers on the grid have raced at Pembrey before, Solley is one of those who have done so in the MINI CHALLENGE having been part of the field when the series last visited the Welsh circuit in 2022 scoring three top six finishes.

Similar results are the very least he will hope for this time around to keep the pressure on at the top.

“It was good that we got a podium from a difficult weekend at Snetterton, as this is a championship where you have to keep the points ticking along,” he said. “Going to Pembrey, I know we’ve had some success in the past, but Hickton and Gornall both look strong – and they won’t go down without a fight.”

One of the most impressive performances of round one came from rookie Ronnie Smith, who took all three Rookie Cup wins and came close to an overall podium to sit third in the points for Chandler Motorsport.

Smith is just ahead of team-mate Reece Lycett, who picked up his maiden podium finish last time out in the final race, whilst top EXCELR8 racer Gabe Fairbrother and Gornall – playing catch-up from his Snetterton DNF round out the early season top six.

Gornall is a point clear of James Black with his Graves Motorsport team-mate Alex Keens just behind, whilst Jamie Keates and Ashley Gregory rounding out the top ten.

Keates was arguably the most improved driver in round one and would have been higher up the standings without a race three DNF, although there were plenty of positives from his first weekend with the PerformanceTek Racing squad, which returns to the series this season.

“The pace at Snetterton was really strong and it leaves me feeling really positive,” he said. “I feel comfortable in the team and have the right mindset, and I’m showing what I can do.

“My expectations going into round one was to push for the top six, and we got onto the podium and were pushing people like Solley and Hickton round. That was fantastic, and now I think it’s time to go for the championship.”

Further down the overall order, the Directors Cup season kicked off with three different winners last time out – as John Castle, Ben Taylor and Paul Manning took a victory apiece.

Castle holds a slender lead in the points ahead of Taylor with Manning in third, whilst Tommy Watson had hoped to make his debut after being ruled out of the Snetterton races on medical grounds.

The EXCELR8 driver will be missing however, with former champion Matt Hammond instead stepping in to rejoin the grid in between the JCW events at Brands Hatch and Snetterton.