Dan Zelos is inching ever-closer to his maiden podium in the fiercely-disputed Renault UK Clio Cup, after recovering from a troubled qualifying session to threaten the top three at Oulton Park last weekend (20/21 May) – tallying his finest finish to-date in the process.
Zelos travelled to the undulating Cheshire circuit with his tail up, having achieved his first car racing pole position, a trio of front row starts and two new lap records in the preceding outings in the single-make Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) feeder series at Donington Park and Thruxton.
Determined to convert his palpable potential into rostrum results, the talented young Norfolk ace worked methodically throughout free practice, topping the timesheets for a while during both sessions and ultimately placing seventh amongst the 19 high-calibre contenders.
Zelos looked set to replicate his stellar recent qualifying form the following day as he read the conditions perfectly when the heavens opened, darting for the pit-lane for a switch to wet-weather rubber before any of his rivals. Unfortunately, a clutch issue prompted a full system reboot and a lengthy delay, and by the time he finally got going again, everybody else had posted lap times and the 19-year-old was firmly on the back foot.
Undeterred, he immediately went fastest of all in the first sector and maintained that momentum in sector two, but to add insult to injury, as he was nearing the end of the lap, the red flags flew for an incident and he had to abort. By the time the session re-started, the best of the weather had gone and Zelos was forced to settle for an unrepresentative 11th on the grid for race one and ninth for race two, albeit quickest of the WDE Motorsport quartet for the third weekend in succession.
The asphalt was still damp at the start of the opening encounter, meaning grip levels were at a premium but the highly-rated Dereham-based hotshot invariably excels in such tricky conditions and was already moving up the order when he found himself squeezed onto the grass on the first lap and sent into a spin. The incident left him with a front-left puncture and after pitting for a replacement tyre, he rejoined the fray a lap down, motoring on to take the chequered flag a lowly 16th.
In front of the live ITV4 television cameras and tens of thousands of trackside spectators the next day, Zelos carefully kept out-of-trouble around the course of a chaotic opening lap to emerge in fourth position.
Following a stoppage to repair barrier damage, the East Anglian teenager looked racy at the re-start and very nearly stole third on the exit of the hairpin behind the wheel of his distinctive, Evergreen Tyres-sponsored Clio. Maturely electing not to risk an accident around a circuit where overtaking is famously a fine art, he was continuing to apply the pressure on the two drivers ahead while pulling away from the chasing pack when the action was red-flagged again – this time for good – on only lap three.
Fourth place represented Zelos’ best result in the Renault UK Clio Cup thus far, and whilst understandably a touch disappointed at not having been able to pursue his podium bid, he is convinced that his first top three finish – if not better – is just around the corner.
“I felt confident going into the weekend after the pace and racecraft we’d shown at both Donington and Thruxton,” revealed the Norwich University of Arts Graphic Design undergraduate and former Dereham Sixth Form College student. “Whilst I’ve not always had the best record at Oulton in the past, the same could be said for Donington and I put it on pole position there, so we were very optimistic of being in the fight. I love Oulton’s fast-and-flowing nature; it’s definitely a challenge, but that’s part of its appeal and when you really have the car underneath you and hook the lap up, it’s hugely rewarding to drive.
“We were there-or-thereabouts throughout practice and knew that with a few more tweaks, we should be well in the mix in qualifying – and then of course the weather decided to throw a curve ball. That in itself wasn’t so much of a problem, but the clutch issue that we had was and by the time we finally got back out on-track, any advantage of the early tyre switch strategy had been well-and-truly lost. We could still have salvaged a good starting spot even after that, but the red flag put paid to any chance of pushing for pole.
“It was obviously frustrating to line up so far down the grid when we knew we had the potential for much more, but it only served to give me even more motivation for the races and in the first of them, I had already made up some ground when I got turned into on the run down to Cascades, pitching me into the gravel and leaving me with a puncture. After that, it was effectively just a glorified test session although with the tracking bent from the contact, we were never going to be lighting up the timing screens.
“I got a good start again in race two and placed my car in the right positions to avoid all the opening lap carnage, which elevated us to fourth before the red flag. At the re-start, I had a little tussle with the driver ahead coming out of the hairpin, but given how many big accidents there had been over the weekend and the fact that we really needed a solid score after race one, it wasn’t worth risking a half-hearted manoeuvre when I wasn’t completely alongside so I backed out of it to keep my powder dry for later.
“Aside from a slight damper issue, the car felt the best it had all weekend and I was quicker than the two guys directly in front of me. I was very confident there would be more opportunities to attack, but then the red flags re-appeared and that was that. It was satisfying to get my best result to-date and to turn things round from qualifying, but disappointing at the same time as I really wanted to fight for the podium and we had the pace to do so. I guess that’ll just have to wait until Croft...”