Dan Zelos fought his way to a fourth triumph of the 2021 MINI CHALLENGE campaign at Croft last weekend (18/19 September), with a commanding performance that has kept the talented young Norfolk ace firmly on-track to clinch the coveted Drivers’ crown.
Having lifted the Rookie Cup laurels in 2019 and Graduate Cup honours last year, this season, Zelos has his sights solidly fixed on the main prize in the fiercely-disputed single-make series and – following a dominant double victory at Knockhill five weeks earlier – he arrived at Croft ensconced at the top of the title table.
Behind the wheel of his distinctive, Davanti Tyres and CAM Systems-sponsored MINI, the EXCELR8 Motorsport British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) Development Driver maintained that momentum in free practice as he lapped comfortably quickest around the challenging North Yorkshire circuit. He duly headed into qualifying primed to shoot for a fifth career pole position, but a disjointed session left him a scant 0.057s shy of the top spot in the high-calibre, 25-strong field.
Nonetheless, that secured him a front row grid berth – four places ahead of chief championship rival, Max Bird – and Zelos swiftly made it clear in race one that he would not be satisfied to settle for second, trying to unseat pole-sitter Jack Davidson from the lead while simultaneously fending off the attentions of Lewis Brown behind in a tense three-way tussle for supremacy.
The relentless pressure he was applying paid off at the end of lap seven, as the Dereham-born hotshot spied a chink of light at the hairpin and needed no second invitation to prise the door fully open. Once released, he immediately posted the fastest lap of the race for six bonus points, and after breaking the tow, he went on to take the chequered flag just over a second clear of his pursuers to ascend the highest step of the rostrum for the fourth time in 2021.
In front of the live ITV4 television cameras – with the MINI CHALLENGE featuring prominently on the support package to the hugely popular BTCC – Zelos began the second contest from eighth on the partially-reversed grid, but the action was red-flagged early on following a number of incidents that left cars strewn across the track.
The race re-started behind the safety car with less than eight minutes remaining, and despite missing his front splitter due to contact, the 23-year-old British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) Rising Star proceeded to unleash a succession of ‘purple’ sector times as he exploited other drivers’ errors to move up to sixth.
He was set to snatch fastest lap again on the final tour – as well as another position – when he was forced towards the pit wall approaching the finish line by Saturday sparring-partner Davidson. A post-race penalty for Bird elevated him to fifth, but unfortunately, there would be a late sting in the tail for Zelos, too, as he found himself penalised for a coming-together with Sam Weller at the chicane.
A 30-point deduction from his championship score consequently reduced his advantage at the summit of the standings to 38 points with six races remaining. He will additionally carry an eight-place grid drop into the first of those races, but the former Norwich University of Arts and Dereham Sixth Form College student has vowed to quickly bounce back and continue his winning ways around two circuits at which he boasts an excellent previous record – Donington Park (9/10 October) and Brands Hatch GP (23/24 October).
“It was my first time racing at Croft since 2018, and it was good to go back,” Zelos reflected. “It’s a fast track that calls for a lot of confidence and commitment, and we set the pace right from the start. I was a bit underwhelmed to qualify second, to be honest, because I definitely had the car underneath me for pole but the red flag came out at just the wrong time for us and after that, we never quite managed to get our tyres into the right operating window.
“Still, a front row start put us in a good position to go on the attack and I could see I had more pace than Jack [Davidson] in race one. I didn’t want to get drawn into an early battle as that would only have allowed the guys behind to catch up, so I bided my time while trying to size up where I might have an opportunity and when that opportunity arose, I grabbed it.
“I got my head down and set fastest lap to open up a bit of a gap, before maintaining that margin to the end. It was extra-satisfying to win having had to fight so hard for it; Jack isn’t an easy driver to overtake, and I had to properly grit my teeth to pull it off.
“Due to the stoppage, there annoyingly wasn’t much time to make up ground in race two. I picked up places where I could and got the cutback on Davidson exiting the hairpin for the last time to edge alongside him on the run to the flag, but he turned hard left and drove me towards the pit wall, which obliged me to jump on the brakes and cost me fastest lap – and then of course, the penalty merely rubbed salt into the wounds.
“I held my hands up for the contact with Weller. I was halfway up the inside and as soon as I realised the move wasn’t going to come off, I backed out of it to try to avoid hitting Sam, but it was too late and I just clipped his rear wheel, which was enough to put him out of the race. There’s no question that it was my fault, but that didn’t make the penalty any less tough to swallow.
“That said, we still have the championship lead and we still have the pace, so now we need to produce the same form again at Donington Park and Brands Hatch, which I’m very confident we can do. The last two events of the year are at two of my strongest tracks, so let’s go and win this!”