As the MINI CHALLENGE reached the midway stage of its 2021 campaign at Knockhill last weekend (14/15 August), Dan Zelos stamped his authority on proceedings in commanding fashion with a dominant double victory that has vaulted him clear of his adversaries in the chase for the coveted crown.
Fired-up to fight for the top step of the podium after being denied a deserved triumph at Oulton Park a fortnight earlier – leading the race when the action was red-flagged, only for the result to be counted back a lap, when he had been lying third – Zelos was the pace-setter from the outset in Scotland in the high-calibre, 29-strong field, as he left his rivals trailing in his wheeltracks.
Showcasing his consistency, the EXCELR8 Motorsport British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) Development Driver produced three laps all good enough for the top spot in qualifying, as he brilliantly secured his fourth career pole position in the fiercely-disputed single-make series – elevating him to third on the all-time list – and scooped the six extra points that accompany it, with chief title rival Max Bird down in seventh.
Following a textbook getaway when the lights went out in the opener, Zelos repelled an early attack from local specialist Joe Tanner before breaking the tow to his pursuers as they scrapped amongst themselves. Thereafter, the highly-rated Dereham-born hotshot pulled effortlessly away in an inch-perfect display, posting the fastest lap in the process.
The second contest on Sunday morning would yield another sublime lights-to-flag success – albeit in altogether different circumstances. After the initial attempt to get the race underway was halted by a multi-car accident that brought out the red flags, Zelos replicated his superb launch and was already 1.3 seconds up the road when the safety car was summoned for a further incident lower down the order.
Despite seeing his advantage eroded, the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) Rising Star immediately reasserted his supremacy and stretched his legs when racing resumed, going on to take the chequered flag more than two seconds ahead of home hero Jack Davidson following a peerless performance. Not only that, but his third win of the campaign was complemented by his fourth fastest lap to ensure a second consecutive maximum score.
From seventh on the partially-reversed grid for the finale, in front of a full house of enthusiastic Scottish fans and the live ITV4 television cameras – with the MINI CHALLENGE featuring prominently on the high-profile BTCC support package – Zelos swiftly despatched Bird for sixth courtesy of a great run onto the start/finish straight and snatched another spot from Sam Weller at the hairpin, only to slip back to seventh when he momentarily lost drive on the exit.
Unleashing the same scintillating raw speed as in the two previous encounters behind the wheel of his distinctive, Davanti Tyres and CAM Systems-sponsored MINI, the former Rookie Cup and Graduate Cup Champion made further passes on both the inside and outside of the hairpin to regain fifth place. He was sizing up a move for fourth when the safety car re-emerged due to an accident not far behind, and with only five minutes remaining on the clock, this time, the race never re-started.
Nonetheless, his excellent results in Fife saw Zelos more than double his championship lead from 26 points to 64 – or 51 once dropped scores are applied – with eight of the season’s 19 rounds left to run. Little wonder he is approaching the second half of the campaign in bullish mood.
“What a weekend – my best in MINIs so far!” enthused the 23-year-old ex-Norwich University of Arts and Dereham Sixth Form College student. “I was a little apprehensive heading to Knockhill as I knew how strong Max [Bird] had been there last year, but we set the pace at the test day and found a set-up that really seemed to work, and it felt like we had the upper hand right from the word ‘go’.
“After missing out on pole position by so little at Oulton Park, I was really determined to get it this time and following a good early battle with home boy Joe [Tanner] in race one, I focussed on getting my head down. Once the guys behind began fighting, that gave me a bit of breathing space and it was great to have an uninterrupted run, with no safety car interventions. It was just a dream start to the weekend – I really enjoyed that one.
“Race two was obviously a lot more disjointed, with the red flag and safety car, but I was always confident we had everything under control and even though I knew Davidson behind me was quick, I never felt under too much pressure. The EXCELR8 boys and girls did an incredible job to give me a fantastic car again – my MINI was totally on rails – and like on Saturday, that win was for them.
“Starting from seventh, the goal for race three was to bring the car safely home in one piece and ideally inside the top five. It was a tight battle at the front and I got past Max and up to fifth pretty quickly, but then for some reason I didn’t get any drive on the exit of the hairpin – we’re still not sure exactly why – and that cost me two places and meant I had to do it all over again.
“If it hadn’t been for the safety car at the end, I’m pretty sure we could have gained even more ground because we definitely had the pace, but I wasn’t too bothered as we had already made our point – and scored a lot of points – in the first two races.
“It hasn’t been easy to get to this stage, but it feels like we’ve got some really positive momentum going now and there are some tracks coming up that I’m optimistic should suit us well. I’m super excited for the second half of the season!”
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