Dan Zelos produced a sublime performance to scythe to the second victory of his fledgling MINI CHALLENGE career at Donington Park last weekend (14/15 September) – meaning the talented young Norfolk ace will travel to next month’s season finale still in with a shout of the coveted crown.
The MINI CHALLENGE’s most consistent competitor in 2019 – with no finish lower than fifth since the Oulton Park curtain-raiser – Zelos arrived at Donington in optimistic mood, buoyed by a podium double at the former Formula 1 circuit back in June in the fiercely-disputed single-make series.
Behind the wheel of his distinctive, Evergreen Tyres and CAM Systems-sponsored MINI, the 21-year-old duly set the pace for the majority of qualifying in the 27-strong, headlining JCW class. It was only a late charge by James ‘Jiggy’ Gornall – who had missed the early part of the session due to a mechanical issue – that denied him a third consecutive pole position as the track got quicker in the closing stages, by which point, the best of Zelos’ tyres had gone.
Maintaining second place when the lights went out in race one, the highly-rated Dereham-based hotshot took advantage of a mistake by the leader to snatch the top spot at McLeans on the opening tour, but a persistent engine problem that left him down on straight-line speed allowed Gornall back past – prompting Zelos to get his elbows out to fend off the marauding pack.
Remaining right in the ex-British GT champion’s slipstream, the MINI UK VIP star kept the pressure on and again fleetingly grabbed the lead just past half-distance. He attacked once more on the penultimate lap but found himself boxed in, which allowed team-mate Nathan Harrison and Lewis Brown to demote him to fourth at the chequered flag, another Rookie Cup win the sole consolation.
With his engine woes resolved, Zelos went immediately on the offensive in race two, as an excellent launch vaulted him up to third from fifth on the partially reversed grid. Following a lengthy safety car intervention for a multi-car incident down the order, the Norwich University of Arts Graphic Design undergraduate and former Dereham Sixth Form College student then exploited a superb re-start to bravely steal second from James Loukes going down the Craner Curves.
Wasting no time at all in zeroing in on Rory Cuff ahead, Zelos pulled off a spectacular late-braking move to sweep around the outside and into the lead on the entry to the chicane, mere moments before the safety car returned to the track for another collision further back.
From thereon in, there was no stopping him as the East Anglian proved to be in a class of his own, pulling seamlessly away when the action resumed to seal his second MINI CHALLENGE triumph by more than three-and-a-half seconds – and keep his title hopes very much alive heading into the Snetterton season finale on 19/20 October.
“Wow – what a weekend!” reflected Zelos. “It was brilliant receiving the chequered flag and a real confidence boost – it felt like my first ‘proper’ MINI win after the race at Brands Hatch had finished under red flags.
“My car was really good in qualifying and I genuinely thought I had done enough for pole, so to be pipped to the post right at the end of the session was more than a little frustrating. The track was developing all the time, and in hindsight I should have saved some tyres for a late run when it was at its fastest. Ironically, Jiggy’s problem ended up doing him a favour!
“That left me really fired-up for race one, but we had an issue with the boost control valve that hampered our top speed, which is so important at Donington as the best overtaking opportunities come at the end of long straights – I was never quite close enough to make moves, and simultaneously, I was always vulnerable to attack. Jiggy just drafted back past me the first time I took the lead, and on the second occasion, I was probably a bit too polite – the legacy of my penalty at Oulton Park earlier in the season.
“By the end, I was struggling for grip after working my tyres so hard in the fight with Jiggy, and my diffuser was dragging along the ground following contact from behind, which compromised my straight-line speed even more. It was definitely a missed opportunity, but the reversed grid gave me a second chance and the disappointment only reinforced my determination to get a result from race two.
“I made a really good start to settle into the top three, and at the re-start, I don’t think Loukes was expecting me to lunge him into Redgate. I toughed it out down the Craners on relatively cold tyres and then held my breath going into the Old Hairpin to make it stick – I enjoyed that one!
“After that, Rory [Cuff] defended really well, and it was like one of our old karting battles. I got a slightly better run on him out of Coppice and being my team-mate, I knew he would play fair. It was a real ‘last of the late-brakers’ duel into the chicane, and no sooner had I made the move than the safety car boards came out, so I just got it done in time and that was crucial to the end result.
“Now, I already can’t wait to go to Snetterton and chase some more wins. It’s my home circuit, so hopefully I’ll have the crowd on my side and whilst I’m clearly the outsider in the title race, with a lot of points still up for grabs, everything remains to play for. Nathan [Harrison] and Jiggy will be focussed on each other and they have it all to lose, whereas being a little way further back, we can keep on just doing our thing – so let’s see where that leaves us when the final scores are tallied up…”