14 July, 2016
Dan Zelos admits that climbing into the cockpit of WIX Racing’s Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship Mercedes-Benz A-Class at the end of the season will be the partial realisation of a dream – and a welcome pick-me-up after a luckless start to his maiden campaign in the BTCC-supporting Renault UK Clio Cup.
Having joined Ciceley Motorsport – the outfit behind the front-running WIX Racing BTCC effort – at the beginning of 2016, Zelos has shown flashes of outstanding form in the fiercely-disputed, ITV4-televised UK Clio Cup but has been dogged by persistent ill-fortune behind the wheel of his distinctive, Evergreen Tyres-sponsored Clio.
Up against one of the strongest grids in recent memory, the talented young Norfolk ace stunned observers by qualifying an excellent third amongst the 23 high-calibre protagonists on his debut at Brands Hatch, only to find himself in the wars in both races. To put that pace into perspective, his rivals include two former UK Clio Cup champions and two drivers with prior BTCC pedigree.
Zelos, by contrast, is one of the youngest and least experienced competitors in the series at just 18 years of age, but he impressed again at Thruxton – the fastest and most fearsome circuit in the country – by annexing a brace of top six starting slots. Once more, however, the highly-rated Dereham-based hotshot was quite literally brought back down to earth with a bang in the races.
For a driver who had hitherto always been ultra-consistent, with just one – blameless – accident from 40 outings in Ginetta Juniors, it has been an uncharacteristically rough ride, and Zelos has also had to cope with the added pressure of dovetailing his racing commitments with intensive studying for his A-Level exams. Currently recharging his batteries over the summer break, the Dereham Sixth Form College student vows to return to the fray on home turf at Snetterton at the end of July fighting fit.
“There’s no denying that it’s been a big step-up this year, and in some respects, I think qualifying so well at Brands Hatch perhaps worked against us, as it immediately shifted the goalposts and set the bar unreasonably high for my first season,” he mused. “It’s important to remember that it’s a tremendously competitive field in the UK Clio Cup, and we’ve certainly had our fair share of bad luck so far which has been a combination of my lack of experience in the car, the odd rookie error and simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time when other drivers have made mistakes.
“It’s felt a bit like one step forward followed by two steps back and that whenever we’ve made progress, something has then stopped us in our tracks. In two years of Ginettas, I finished 39 out of 40 races, which makes the current situation even harder to accept as it’s completely different to anything I’ve ever been used to. That said, when things have gone right, we’ve proved we have good inherent pace – we just haven’t had a trouble-free weekend yet to convert it into results.
“Everybody at Ciceley has been massively supportive of me as I get to grips with it all, and although it’s obviously been a tough start to the season, I couldn’t be in a better place. The whole team is completely committed to winning, and being able to draw upon Adam Morgan’s advice as a mentor has been hugely beneficial – he spends as much time with us ‘junior’ Ciceley drivers as he can around his BTCC duties, and we get on really well. I think we’re quite similar in terms of our approach and dedication to the sport, and I’m learning a lot from him.
“We’re staying positive, and we’ve got two of my favourite circuits coming up next – my home track of Snetterton and then Rockingham, where I won two years ago. Now my A-Levels are out of the way, I can give the racing my full focus and I’m working hard to come back both mentally and physically stronger because the bottom line is that there’s an awful lot more to come.”
Underscoring the single-make Renault UK Clio Cup’s formidable reputation and proven track record of preparing drivers for BTCC graduation, once the final curtain falls on the 2016 campaign in October, Zelos will have the chance to demonstrate his mettle in Ciceley’s sophisticated WIX Racing A-Class, under the expert watch and guidance of four-time race-winner Morgan. To say that he is looking forward to it would be quite the understatement.
“Getting to try out Ciceley’s BTCC car is really exciting, and not something I had expected at all,” the East Anglian teenager enthused. “When we joined the team, we knew there would be some pretty cool opportunities given their touring car connections, but I never thought I’d be invited to sample the Mercedes in only my first year. The A-Class isn’t just any touring car, either – it’s a multiple race-winning touring car – and with my ultimate goal being to compete in the BTCC, this is like a little bit of that dream coming true.”
Having risen through the formative ranks himself before staking his claim to a long-term tin-top future over the past five seasons, Morgan is optimistic that Zelos will soon turn a corner and begin fulfilling the promise he has shown.
“Dan has certainly taken several knocks, but every time he gets back up again, dusts himself down and carries on and it takes a lot of mental strength to do that,” he acknowledged. “I told him that when I started out in the BTCC, I only finished two of my first 12 races so he shouldn’t get disheartened because eventually, his luck will change. What he’s going through is all part of the growing pains of moving up a level, and when things do turn around, the results will follow.
“From our point-of-view, we have no concerns because Dan’s raw speed and ability have never been in doubt and it will be interesting to see how he gets on when he drives the Mercedes. He clearly has the potential to shine, and with a better second half of the campaign under his belt, I’m confident he will use the test as a springboard to further advance his career.”