Strong start but Evergreen-backed Zelos hit by Mini penalties

Dan Zelos’ full-time Mini Challenge debut in the series opener at Cheshire’s Oulton Park proved the Evergreen Tyres-backed ace will be a real contender in this competitive series as he claimed a pole position and pushed the pre-season favourites to their limit.

But it also demonstrated that he’ll need to make a few more adjustments to maximise his potential as he adapts from the Clio Cup.

On a red-hot weekend on Oulton Park’s International circuit, the talented young Norfolk racer made everybody sit up and take note in qualifying as he stormed to the top spot on the starting grid in the 26-strong field behind the wheel of his distinctive Evergreen Tyres and CAM Systems-sponsored Mini.

Unleashing two consecutive laps quick enough for pole position, he notably outpaced his Mini UK VIP team-mate Nathan Harrison – twice a championship runner-up – by almost half-a-second.

The 20-year-old followed that up with what seemed like a textbook getaway in race one. He was confidently controlling proceedings when news filtered down that he had been handed a 10-second penalty for a false start!

Needing to push on to try to make up the time, he found his efforts frustrated by a lengthy safety car period and when the action resumed, there were only five laps remaining – with Zelos 16th including his penalty.

Pushing his 265bhp car – based upon the third-generation F56 Mini Hatch – hard, the Dereham hotshot stayed in front physically, if not on the board, until the last lap, when a worsening damper issue caused him to slide wide through Old Hall corner. Despite executing a spectacular save, he was powerless to prevent former British GT champion James Gornall and Harrison from slipping past, meaning he crossed the finish line third, a result that, with the penalty, saw him slip to eighth.

In race two, Zelos again ran inside the leading pack throughout, feistily battling his way from eighth up to fourth despite another long safety car intervention.

With nothing to choose between the front-running quartet, the Norwich University of Arts Graphic Design undergraduate went on to flash past the chequered flag fourth, barely a second behind the winner and just two 10ths adrift of the rostrum.

There In the Clio Cup last season Zelos had experienced first-hand race stewards’ leniency towards contact. In the Mini Challenge series however they take a different view. Zelos was summoned to the stewards for inadvertent contact and subsequently demoted to sixth – leaving him fifth in the overall standings.

Next up he heads to his home track of Snetterton on May 18 – having sent out a potent calling card that he will be a threat at every circuit on the calendar.

“Talk about ‘what could have been’,” Zelos reflected. “Hopefully that’s all of our bad luck for the season out of the way in one go! A succession of minor frustrations wound up costing us a couple of very big results and I’ve been going over everything in my head, thinking, ‘if only we’d done this differently or that differently’, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

“We went into the weekend aiming for a couple of consistent top eight finishes, and after a positive test we revised that target to top five. We worked very hard with the team to fine-tune the car and I think sticking it on pole shocked the paddock a bit. That shifted the goalposts and to do it at Oulton Park was a massive confidence boost –  it has not traditionally been one of my strongest circuits!

“I felt we had the upper hand after that and I was comfortable in race one until we picked up a problem with the rear damper halfway through that left me fighting severe oversteer in the car. As for the penalty, I caught myself creeping slightly before the start but managed to stop the car before the white line. I didn’t gain any advantage from that, but I accept rules are rules. When you’re told that is coming, you know you have to push like mad to try to build up a margin but the long safety car period put paid to that – it really was a case of everything that could go wrong, did.

“Overall, there are a lot of positives to take away from Oulton, from our pace in qualifying to leading all bar the final lap in race one and battling through the field in race two, and I guess it’s a good thing to be disappointed with eighth and sixth-place finishes. The majority of the other front-runners have a lot more experience than me – James Gornall was racing before I was even born – and whenever you enter a new series there’s an inevitable learning curve.