29 August, 2016
Dan Zelos secured his second top ten finish in as many meetings in the fiercely-disputed Renault UK Clio Cup at Rockingham last weekend, producing a stellar performance in treacherous conditions as he ably showcased his wet-weather prowess.
Buoyed by having achieved the best result of his rookie campaign in the single-make, ITV4-televised Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) support series four weeks earlier at Snetterton, the talented young Norfolk ace headed to Rockingham – the only UK circuit to comprise a banked NASCAR-style ‘oval’ section – with his tail up, and he spent the opening practice day focussed on establishing a sound race set-up for his Ciceley Motorsport-prepared car.
After lapping ninth-quickest in the afternoon amongst the 18 high-calibre protagonists – less than a tenth-of-a-second adrift of the top six – Zelos was optimistic going into qualifying, but a combination of a change in temperature, traffic and the lack of a tow along the high-speed banking conspired to leave him a disappointed 15th on the starting grid for race one and 14th for race two.
The skies darkened and the heavens opened with a vengeance before the Saturday afternoon contest, marking a real journey into the unknown for the highly-rated Dereham-based hotshot, who had scant prior wet-weather running under his belt in the Clio. Impressively undeterred – indeed, relishing the challenge – Zelos pushed hard and kept out of trouble around the course of a lively first lap to gain ground, and following a brief safety car intervention, he swiftly climbed into the top ten with a series of bold and incisive manoeuvres as he revelled in the tricky conditions.
By mid-distance, the 18-year-old was up to ninth and rapidly homing in on the duel over seventh when a small mistake precipitated a 360-degree spin on the approach to Tarzan Hairpin, requiring Zelos to call upon all of his car control to keep out of the barriers and get pointing the right way again. Resuming down in 12th, he maturely maintained his composure and unleashed a succession of superb lap times to battle back into the top ten and annex the second-best finish of his fledgling UK Clio Cup career.
In evidence of his outstanding pace, the East Anglian teenager lapped fastest of anybody through the middle sector and sixth-quickest overall – better than two of the three podium-finishers. He was targeting more of the same on a dry track in race two the next day, but confusion as the safety car boards appeared for an early incident saw the field concertina together, with contact forcing the crash structure into the engine intercooler on Zelos’ distinctive, Evergreen Tyres-sponsored Clio and prompting an unscheduled pit-stop.
Following makeshift repairs by the Ciceley crew, the Dereham Sixth Form College graduate rejoined the fray a lap down. Courtesy of further dramas ahead, he advanced to 14th at the chequered flag to complete a solid points haul and improve two spots in the championship standings with two outings remaining on the 2016 UK Clio Cup schedule – at Silverstone in mid-September and Brands Hatch GP at the beginning of October.
“After our breakthrough at Snetterton, I felt positive going into the weekend and was looking forward to taking another step forward,” he reflected. “I’ve got a good record around Rockingham and I like the track, and having tested there at the pre-season Media Day, we weren’t going into it totally blind. It has a unique layout that is unlike anywhere else on the calendar, with an abrasive nature that requires a smooth driving style, which plays in my favour.
“We spent Friday morning concentrating on race simulations and didn’t put new tyres on, so our position was not really representative, but we knew we had some good speed over longer runs and we pushed a bit harder for a lap time in the afternoon. That left us confident going into qualifying, but the session just didn’t come together; the track conditions had changed overnight and I was struggling with the rear end of the car, and on top of that we missed out on getting a tow, which is worth several tenths-of-a-second. Still, we learned from that and with opportunities to overtake at Rockingham, it wasn’t the end of the world.
“Race one was an entirely new experience for me. I hadn’t had a fully wet race in cars before so I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was excited about getting stuck in and that’s exactly what I did. We had good pace and my Clio felt very stable through the faster corners thanks to a mega effort by the Ciceley boys, which allowed me to pick other drivers off one by one.
“The conditions were really tough, with poor visibility, darkness descending and the windows steaming up, but I was really enjoying the challenge and catching the cars ahead when the tiniest error as I put one of my wheels just a fraction off-line spun me round. I didn’t let it affect me though, and I got going again straightaway and managed to fight back into the top ten by the end, which proved our potential.
“There was a lot of pushing and shoving at the start of race two, and whilst the team did a great job to fix what they could, the damage inevitably compromised our performance and left us down on straight-line speed, which is something you really need at Rockingham! That was clearly disappointing after showing so much promise, but at least we scored some more points and it genuinely does feel like we’ve turned a bit of a corner now with two competitive weekends in a row. I’m increasingly comfortable in the car and our confidence and momentum are continuing to build, so the aim has to be to capitalise upon that with a really strong finish to the season.”