Three trophies and prodigious pace for Dan Zelos as MINI CHALLENGE joins BTCC bill

Three trophies and prodigious pace for Dan Zelos as MINI CHALLENGE joins BTCC bill

03.08.2020: • East Anglian ace right in the hunt in 2020 MINI CHALLENGE curtain-raiser • Reigning ‘Rookie Cup’ champ bags trio of top six finishes at Donington Park

•    East Anglian ace right in the hunt in 2020 MINI CHALLENGE curtain-raiser

•    Reigning ‘Rookie Cup’ champ bags trio of top six finishes at Donington Park

•    BRDC Rising Star confident he will be ‘even stronger moving forward’

Dan Zelos was one of the fastest drivers in the field as the MINI CHALLENGE’s 2020 campaign got belatedly underway last weekend (1/2 August), kick-starting his title bid with a hat-trick of trophies at Donington Park.

Returning to the scene of his second victory in the fiercely-disputed single-make series last year, talented young Norfolk ace Zelos was a front-runner from the outset, lapping inside the top three amongst the 30 high-calibre contenders in free practice and going on to qualify fourth, just 0.145s adrift of the top spot in the headlining JCW class.

Advancing to third on the opening lap of race one on Saturday, the 22-year-old British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) Rising Star was locked in a tight three-way tussle for supremacy throughout. He looked to be the quickest of the trio and edged alongside for second place on the penultimate lap, but as the driver ahead moved back across, slight contact resulted in a loss of momentum that relegated the distinctive, Davanti Tyres and CAM Systems-sponsored car to fourth at the chequered flag, albeit with the consolation of Graduate Class glory.

In Sunday morning’s contest, another good start – a feature of his weekend – elevated the highly-rated Dereham-based hotshot to third once more, and on lap four, Zelos determinedly battled his way past 2018 MINI CHALLENGE champion Ant Whorton-Eales into second, but the side-by-side scrap cost him vital time to leader Nathan Harrison, which would ultimately define the race.

Thereafter, the EXCELR8 Motorsport stablemates were inseparable in terms of pace, with their fastest laps split by a single thousandth-of-a-second – in Zelos’ favour. The runner-up spoils were his reward for a valiant effort, as the series’ reigning ‘Rookie Cup’ champion again scooped the Graduate Class laurels.

Lining up ninth for the reversed-grid finale left Zelos mired in the pack, but in front of the live ITV4 television cameras – as the MINI CHALLENGE joined the immensely popular British Touring Car Championship support package for the first time – he went on a charge, stealing two spots in as many laps before almost finding himself sideswiped by an out-of-control Jason Lockwood, who clipped a kerb exiting the Old Hairpin and spun wildly across the track.

Having to take to the grass in avoidance, the former Norwich University of Arts and Dereham Sixth Form College student produced an epic save, but the delay dropped him to 13th. Immediately fighting back, he was soon into the top ten as he scythed through the field to sixth, flashing across the finish line barely a tenth-of-a-second adrift of the driver ahead to cap a stirring recovery and leave Donington sitting fourth in the championship standings – firmly in the mix.

“Our speed was strong all weekend,” Zelos reflected. “We deliberately restricted the number of laps we ran in free practice to save tyres in light of the new regulations this year, so to still go third-quickest was extremely encouraging.

“Qualifying didn’t pan out as we were hoping to begin with. Usually, I’m straight out-of-the-box and on it, but I wasn’t happy with the balance initially. I think the drop in temperature overnight meant our set-up was no longer quite right, so we made some changes and were able to climb the order later on, which put us in the ballpark.

“I definitely felt I was being held up in race one. I got a good run exiting Redgate towards the end and pulled alongside for second, but I found myself blocked and unfortunately there was contact. That was really frustrating, as I’m convinced we had the pace to win; I had an excellent car underneath me and my tyres were still in really good shape.

“I got a good start again in race two and was able to pass Ant [Whorton-Eales] going down the Craner Curves, which was a bit of a heart-in-mouth moment! I really had to work to make the move stick, which was very satisfying, but then I had to defend for half-a-lap which gave Nathan [Harrison] the opportunity to escape. In hindsight, that was the key moment of the race. We were lapping at such a similar pace after that, but with Lewis [Brown] breathing down my neck, I was never free to focus on trying to close the gap.

“The reversed grid for race three put us right in the ‘danger zone’, which is precisely where you don’t want to be, but I was moving forward and pulling away from Lewis and Nathan behind when it all went wrong on lap two – that was certainly a close call! I saw Jason [Lockwood] spin and aimed for the outside to avoid him, but then suddenly I saw his back end come round and he was heading straight for me as I was already committed!

“Fortunately, I just missed him, but I ended up going fully sideways across the grass and was a passenger from that point on. I caught the edge of the gravel trap and for a moment, I really thought I was going to roll, but thankfully it straightened me out.

“I had a big vibration after that, and when I got back to the pits at the end of the race, the front splitter was hanging underneath the car, I was missing the rear diffuser plate and my front-left brake duct was full of grass – it actually set on fire after I’d parked up! All that considered, to fight back to sixth was a great result and I really enjoyed all the overtaking moves along the way.

“Looking to the rest of the campaign, one thing is clear. The fact that the top four were so evenly-matched all weekend really underlines the importance of qualifying this year, especially with the extra points on offer for the pole-winner and fastest lap – because the best way to secure those bonus points is by being out front and not getting caught up in battles. That’s one of our key focusses now, and three poles last season proves we’re more than capable.

“Overall, we came away with three trophies, and our position in the championship doesn’t reflect how good a weekend we had. Last year aside, Donington has never traditionally been my best track; the forthcoming circuits should suit me more, so if we were that strong there, I’m confident we can be even stronger moving forward...”

Dan is seeking further partners to join him on his exciting high-speed journey. If you are interested in getting involved in life in the fast lane, please contact:

Russell Atkins - photos Ebrey


03.08.2020 / MaP

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