EXCELR8 Motorsport BTCC Development Driver holds his nerve at Brands Hatch
Completes title hat-trick in fiercely-disputed single-make series
Dan Zelos was crowned the 2021 MINI CHALLENGE Champion following a ‘rollercoaster ride’ at Brands Hatch last weekend (23/24 October), cementing a hat-trick of titles in the single-make British Touring Car Championship support series to cap a sensational season.
The talented young Norfolk ace headed to Brands Hatch’s legendary ‘GP’ loop – home to Formula 1’s British Grand Prix on no fewer than 12 occasions between 1964 and 1986 – holding a slender four-point margin at the summit of the standings, after his previously healthy advantage had been slashed by persistent engine issues at Donington Park a fortnight earlier.
The weekend got off to a tough start as Zelos’ troubles persisted in free practice, compounded by an uncharacteristic error that saw him clout the circuit barriers – and ninth position amongst the 26 high-calibre contenders in qualifying left him five places behind his chief competitor, team-mate Max Bird.
A raft of set-up changes before race one transformed his car’s performance, and showing his determination, the EXCELR8 Motorsport BTCC Development Driver hung it bravely around the outside of the opening corners as he threaded the needle to climb to fifth. Following a brace of safety car interventions, he then grabbed fourth at the re-start with a neat dive into Paddock Hill Bend – leaving him directly behind Bird.
Thereafter, Zelos was embroiled in a four-way scrap for the runner-up spot in his distinctive, Davanti Tyres and CAM Systems-sponsored MINI, and whilst a late lunge by Bobby Thompson cost him a position, he wisely elected not to fight it as – being a guest entrant – the ex-BTCC racer was ineligible to score.
His confidence duly restored, the 23-year-old British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) Rising Star took a one-point championship lead into the final day of the season, and following a demon launch in race two, he passed Sam Weller for fourth at Westfield before staving off Max Coates right the way to the chequered flag. With Bird finishing just ahead, that left Zelos trailing by three points going into the all-important decider in front of the live ITV4 television cameras and capacity trackside crowd, but he was not done yet...
From fourth on the partially-reversed grid, he profited from a mistake by Kenan Dole and outfoxed Coates to advance to second by the conclusion of lap two, as his title rival slipped to sixth. The pendulum swung again at mid-distance, when the highly-rated Dereham-born hotshot found himself shuffled back into Bird’s clutches, but after regrouping, he executed a brilliant pass on Weller to rise to third heading onto the penultimate tour and snatched second from Jack Davidson right on the finish line.
The result proved sufficient to secure the spoils by seven points at the end of a magnificent campaign that has yielded four victories and five further podium finishes from 19 starts in the fiercely-disputed championship. Having clinched the Rookie Cup in 2019 and Graduate Cup honours last year, it was unquestionably the crowning moment of Zelos’ hugely successful MINI CHALLENGE career.
“What a rollercoaster ride!” reflected the former Norwich University of Arts and Dereham Sixth Form College student. “It hasn’t sunk in yet what we’ve achieved. Just racing in cars was a dream for me growing up, and even after we started to live that dream, I still always felt like the underdog. To now be the one lifting the big trophy is crazy.
“The weekend certainly didn’t get off to the best start. The new engine still felt pretty tight in practice, and we were struggling to get the rear tyres up to temperature in the cooler conditions, which meant I couldn’t switch it on as quickly as I wanted to and was lacking confidence in the faster sections.
“I’ve never had to try so hard to get a lap time out of the car, and it simply wasn’t coming. I was probably pushing too hard in an effort to compensate, and midway through the second session, I dipped a wheel slightly off-track at Westfield and with the grass being wet, that sent me skating into the barriers.
“Brands GP has always been one of my strongest circuits, so we were scratching our heads a bit and in qualifying, it felt like the car was trying to drive me rather than the other way round – it just wasn’t doing what I expected it to. That obviously gave Bird the advantage, but I tried to not let it faze me and we made a lot of changes before race one, which really paid off. That was the turning-point.
“We didn’t quite get the result we were hoping for in race two, but in race three, it was full attack from the start – I didn’t want to go home thinking I could have done more. I knew I had to keep Max behind me and the momentum kept ebbing and flowing between us, but I stayed calm and concentrated on going forward and taking my chances when they came. Whenever I checked in my mirrors, he was always there-or-thereabouts and I didn’t know if he had fastest lap, which is worth six extra points, so I could never afford to ease off.
“It got really tense towards the end as the lead pack concertinaed up – at every corner, it seemed like there was somebody going for a move and I was wary of getting caught up in anything – and the last lap was probably the most stressful of my career.
“I started to well up inside my helmet after taking the flag, and having everybody there supporting me – my family, friends, sponsors and customers from work – made it even more special. It’s been a three-year relationship with EXCELR8 Motorsport to get to this point, and without their tireless hard work, none of this would have been possible. They stayed at the track until past midnight on Friday, pulling out all the stops to make sure my car was repaired in time for Saturday, and this title is as much for them as it is for me.
“Their commitment and passion drives me to do the best job I possibly can for them all, and I genuinely wouldn’t have wanted to be on this journey with anybody else. I owe an extra big thanks to my awesome mechanic, Dan Cusick, who has been my rock throughout. Honestly, this still feels like a dream – the smile on my face isn’t going to fade anytime soon...”