Glorious weather and a bumper crowd greeted the class of 2019 for the traditional Easter weekend season opener in Cheshire and a stunning 31 car entry produced some sensational wheel-to-wheel racing across the meeting as no less than 11 different drivers graced the podium.
Qualifying would give an indication of how competitive it will be at the sharp end of the grid this season, with less than a tenth of a second splitting poleman Scott McKenna (Xentek Motorsport) from Adam Smalley (Elite Motorsport) and Sami Saarelainen (Xentek Motorsport).
Reigning Ginetta G40 Cup champion Tom Golding (Assetto Motorsport) qualified an impressive fourth overall meanwhile, with Ginetta Junior graduate Ruben Del Sarte (Total Control Racing) and Gordie Mutch (Fox Motorsport) completing the front three rows of the grid.
In the opening race of the weekend in the sweltering Cheshire sunshine, McKenna led the field from the starting lights to the chequered flag, however a ten second penalty for a false start would unfortunately drop him to sixth in the classified results.
A superb five car battle behind would therefore ultimately decide the race-winner. Smalley held the position initially before Golding slipped past at Cascades on lap two, however it was all change next time around as Mutch emerged at the front of the group.
The Scotsman held the spot for the remainder of the race to kick off his second season in the GT5 Challenge with a maiden victory in the championship, while debutant Del Sarte and Geri Nicosia (Quattro Motorsport) rounded out the first podium of the season.
Connor Grady (Privateer) rose from ninth on the grid to finish fourth, while Josh Malin (Richardson Racing) came away with a top five finish on his debut. Behind McKenna, David Ellesley (Race Car Consultants) battled through from 14th to seventh ahead of Gus Bowers (Xentek Motorsport).
In the Am Class, Wesley Pearce (Elite Motorsport) was seemingly on course for victory until unfortunate late drama dropped him a position and opened the door for James Townsend (Fox Motorsport) to take the victory. His team-mate Matt Konczos completed the class podium.
After a tough opening race saw him finish 26th following a puncture, Smalley had an immediate chance to bounce back as he lined up on pole position for race two, courtesy of posting the fastest second best time in qualifying.
The 2018 Ginetta Junior champion took full advantage as he stormed clear at the head of the pack, with a faultless performance earning him a maiden race victory on his championship debut by an impressive margin of nearly 10 seconds.
Behind, there was a mammoth battle over the remaining podium places, with no less than seven Ginetta G40’s in contention at one stage. A superb defensive performance from Nicosia earned him second position ahead of McKenna.
Grady picked up a second consecutive fourth place finish ahead of Mutch, who had made a last lap bid to dethrone Nicosia for second. Katie Milner (Merlin International) picked up a top six result, with Race Car Consultants pair Josh Hislop and Ellesley not far behind.
Saarelainen had been part of the podium battle in the first half of the race but slipped to tenth at the finish behind Will Dyrdal (Privateer). Reigning Am Class champion Nick Halstead (Fox Motorsport) finished a strong twelfth, just ahead of Abbi Pulling (Race Car Consultants).
Bouncing back from his late disappointment in race one, Pearce took a dominant first victory in the Am Class. Townsend came home second, while a time penalty for Konczos dropped him a position from third, with Dale Albutt (Quattro Motorsport) taking the final podium place.
The race two result set the grid for the final race of the weekend, with great starts from Nicosia and Grady seeing them leapfrog poleman Smalley into first and second respectively. That kicked off a sensational race-long battle for the win, which at one stage featured a ten car train at the front.
Nicosia led the first half of the race from a chasing pack that included Smalley, McKenna, Grady and the impressive Ellesley, before an incident into the chicane on lap five opened the door for Smalley to seize the lead, with McKenna slotting into second.
Those two remained in position to the chequered flag, with Smalley making it two wins in a row. Post-race McKenna was handed a time penalty for the incident with Nicosia, which promoted Grady to second and his best finish in the GT5 Challenge so far.
Nicosia completed the podium, with McKenna fourth in the final classifications. Mutch produced a great drive from 11th at the end of the opening lap to fifth ahead of Milner and Bowers, with Hislop taking his third top ten result of the meeting behind.
Two of the most impressive drives of the weekend came from Del Sarte and Golding. From the fifteenth row of the grid, they each gained no less than 20 places each on their way to ninth and tenth respectively. It could have been better for Golding too, who ran sixth at one stage.
Danny Harrison (Mutation Motorsport) came home in eleventh to cap off a solid championship debut, with Saarelainen and Halstead next. Lewis Ryder (Privateer) bounced back from missing Saturday’s action to take a hugely impressive 14th from Malin and Dyrdal.
In the Am Class, an early issue for erstwhile leader Pearce opened the door for Albutt to come through and make it three different class winners for the weekend with his maiden success. Konczos was second and Phil McGarty (GBR) got his first podium finish of the year in third.
The 2019 Protyre Motorsport Ginetta GT5 Challenge is next in action at Thruxton in Hampshire next month (18/19 May) as it joins the support bill for the Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship.