Dan Zelos has cast the monkey well-and-truly off his back in the fiercely-disputed Renault UK Clio Cup, after producing a stunning performance in the 2017 finale at Brands Hatch last weekend (30 September / 1 October) to reach the rostrum for the first time – and not just once, but twice.
Bouncing back from a torrid rookie campaign in the single-make, ITV4-televised British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) feeder series last year, Zelos has enjoyed a much stronger sophomore season after switching camps to WDE Motorsport.
Arriving at Brands’ legendary GP circuit – home to Formula 1’s British Grand Prix on no fewer than 12 occasions between 1964 and 1986 – the talented young Norfolk ace had already repeatedly proven his potential with a pole position, fastest lap and five top six finishes to his credit, but for all his pace and promise, that first trip to the podium continued to frustratingly elude him. It would not do so for much longer.
After logging 37 laps of the 2.4-mile track during free practice, Zelos led the WDE charge in qualifying and featured as high as second before ultimately placing fourth on the grid amongst the 20 high-calibre contenders for both races – a scant eight hundredths-of-a-second shy of the top spot behind the wheel of his distinctive, Evergreen Tyres-sponsored Clio.
A stalled car immediately in front of the highly-rated Dereham-based hotshot sparked a pile-up at the beginning of race one, but Zelos artfully avoided the carnage and lived to fight another day. At the re-start, he pulled off a gutsy pass around the outside of Paddock Hill Bend to snatch second from Daniel Rowbottom, before conceding the position again a lap later to a do-or-die late-braking move.
Thereafter, he settled into third and proceeded to match the rhythm of the two drivers ahead before finding himself promoted to second with three laps remaining when Rowbottom picked up a time penalty for overstepping the track limits. The first podium of Zelos’ burgeoning Renault UK Clio Cup career was thoroughly well-deserved for a flawless and ultra-composed performance – and not a little overdue.
With his tail up, the 19-year-old Norwich University of Arts Graphic Design undergraduate and former Dereham Sixth Form College student produced a near-identical manoeuvre at the start of race two the next day, boldly taking the outside line through Paddock Hill Bend and holding his nerve to advance to second – and this time he would not relinquish it.
Mastering the damp conditions following earlier rain, Zelos did not put so much as a foot out-of-place and his commendable consistency saw him impressively peg recently-crowned champion Mike Bushell – a man with five seasons, 16 victories and two titles in the series under his belt – as he maintained around a one-second deficit to the leader throughout while edging away from the cars behind.
It was another superb effort that yielded what was easily his best weekend score to-date and cemented eighth spot out of 33 in the final drivers’ standings – although his qualifying exclusion and points penalty at Silverstone two weeks earlier through no fault of his own cost him at least one position. Even so, it was an overwhelmingly positive end to the campaign and if the old adage about a driver only being as good as their last race rings true, then Dan Zelos is very, very good indeed.
“I’m over-the-moon,” the East Anglian teenager enthused. “We’ve shown strong speed pretty much everywhere this year, but for a variety of reasons, the podium has always escaped us – until now. I love Brands’ GP layout – it’s one of my favourite tracks on the calendar, and it’s an amazing challenge in qualifying and so rewarding when you successfully nail a lap. It’s a proper, balls-out old-school drivers’ circuit that rewards complete commitment and maximum attack – awesome fun.
“After our misfortune at Silverstone, I was more fired-up than ever going to Brands Hatch. I’d really felt Silverstone was going to be the weekend where it would finally happen following our performance in qualifying, and then of course we were sent to the back of the grid for a small clerical error. That meant Brands was our last remaining chance to take a top three finish in 2017, and I wasn’t going to waste it.
“We were solid in all conditions throughout practice and then in qualifying, we managed to punch in a series of fast and consistent laps that were good enough for fourth on the grid. That set us up nicely for the races and I felt confident and relaxed about our chances.
“I got a good start in race one and hung on around the outside of Rowbottom all the way to Druids for the first time to make the move stick. He then came back at me a lap later, and I could see he was on a mission and clearly not taking any prisoners so rather than risk a collision, I let him go and focussed on consolidating third place. In the end, of course, it was all academic because he pushed too hard and was penalised, reinstating us in second.
“I was a bit lost for words after stepping out of the car, and it was an amazing feeling and very special to look down from the podium and see my family and team cheering for me.
“Having done it once, I obviously wanted to do it all over again on Sunday and I pulled off the same move at the start to grab second. After that, I just focussed on looking after my tyres and trying to keep Bushell honest, and it was good to see that he couldn’t get away much. Given Mike’s experience in the championship and the fact that he has recently won the title for the second time, that was pretty encouraging...
“It was brilliant to be on the podium again – what is it they say about waiting for ages and then two come along at once?! To take away two trophies was an absolute dream end to the season, and to have earned them both on merit proved we really deserve to be up there. I just wish there were more races still to go this year, but it’s a fantastic way to head into the winter.
“It’s no secret that 2016 was a big bump in the road for my career – a really tough year – but now I’m fully back on-track and I need to thank Evergreen for keeping the faith and WDE for believing in me and picking me up from what was a pretty low ebb. They’ve been absolutely awesome and I really cannot praise them enough. Thanks to them, I’m a totally different driver now to the one I was 12 months ago – and we can look to the future with an awful lot of optimism.”
Indeed, the statistics leave no doubt. Last year, Zelos finished 18th in the standings on just 79 points and with only two top ten finishes to his name. This year, he wound up ten spots higher with a points total of 270 – representing an astonishing 240% improvement. Little wonder WDE Team Manager and three-time UK Clio Cup Champion Paul Rivett is so quick to sing his praises.
“This kind of weekend has been a long time coming for Dan, and I couldn’t be happier for him or more proud,” he enthused. “He has done a fantastic job for us all season and improved and matured so much as a driver. The way he approaches his racing is so impressive and he is an absolute pleasure to work with. I always said that once Dan got his first podium there would be no stopping him, so the next goal now is clearly to win a race – and that will surely come soon.”