Evergreen Tyres-backed Dan Zelos had to draw upon all of his raw pace and racecraft to leave Brands Hatch with a brace of hard-fought eighth-place finishes last weekend (6-8 April), after persistent gearbox woes threatened to derail his challenge in the 2018 Renault UK Clio Cup curtain-raiser.
One of the pre-season favourites after speeding to a podium double in the 2017 finale, Zelos has not enjoyed the smoothest of preparations heading into his third year in the fiercely-disputed, ITV4-televised British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) feeder series.
That situation was compounded by a troubled practice day plagued by gearbox issues in both sessions, leaving the talented young Norfolk ace with just 30 laps on the board – when some of his rivals covered as many as 78 – and next-to-no time on the new 2018-spec tyres, compromising his chances of securing a strong grid slot.
To rub salt into the wounds, Zelos’ dramas continued in qualifying as his car once again stopped out on-track with a similar problem, meaning he would begin both races a perhaps appropriately unlucky 13th amongst the 19 high-calibre protagonists.
Undeterred, a superb getaway in Saturday’s contest saw the WDE Motorsport star bravely thread the needle between two of his adversaries and the pit wall, immediately gaining him a couple of positions behind the wheel of his distinctive, Evergreen Tyres-sponsored Clio.
Following a short stoppage due to an incident further down the order, the action resumed and Zelos again went on the attack, pulling off a neat and incisive move into Druids to snare ninth place, after which he set off headlights ablaze in pursuit of ex-BTCC racer Michael Epps while judiciously keeping one eye in his mirrors.
Despite grappling with a lack of top-end power, as the laps ticked down, the highly-rated Dereham-based hotshot latched onto the pack ahead while simultaneously staving off pressure from double race-winner James Dorlin behind. In what was a very confident and polished drive, he opportunistically nabbed eighth with four laps remaining by reading the developing situation to perfection, and he would remain there to the chequered flag, less than two seconds shy of the rostrum to cap an impressive five-place improvement.
The weather changed on Sunday, and on a wet track, Zelos maturely kept his head to leapfrog three of his rivals into tenth over the course of the opening tour. He was continuing to make progress when he found himself tagged into a half-spin on the exit of Druids on lap two, prompting an eye-catching save but costing him a number of positions.
After nabbing ninth from Brett Lidsey at the beginning of lap seven, the 19-year-old Norwich University of Arts Graphic Design undergraduate and erstwhile Dereham Sixth Form College student despatched Saturday podium-finisher Daniel Rowbottom for eighth with a gutsy move on the run towards Surtees.
Rapidly narrowing the deficit to the fight over fourth as he mastered the greasy conditions, Zelos’ next target was former championship runner-up Lee Pattison, but try as he might, he could not unsettle his ultra-experienced WDE team-mate and with his tyres fading in the closing stages, he wisely focussed on consolidating a second consecutive eighth-place finish.
Whilst far from what he is aiming for this season, by the same token, his results were considerably better than he may have feared after qualifying, and the East Anglian teenager is already looking forward to kick-starting his bid in the next two rounds at Donington Park and Thruxton, where last year he respectively achieved his first car racing pole position and a new race lap record.
“We were a little unsure what to expect going into last weekend,” Zelos reflected. “Given the build-up to the season and our lack of much meaningful testing, Brands was arguably never going to be the easiest event for us, but the difficulties we encountered throughout Friday and again in qualifying made things even tougher.
“That was obviously frustrating and an early setback as I felt we had the pace to be inside the top six or seven in qualifying – probably not right at the front, but at least a fair chunk higher than we ended up. With so little between everybody around such a short lap, making up ground was always going to be a challenge but at the same time, we had to simply knuckle down and get on with it and the WDE boys did a great job to resolve the problem before the races.
“I knew the starts would be key and I nailed them all, which was encouraging after the issues I had in that department last year. After that, it was a case of staying out-of-trouble around the first lap and the car definitely felt better than it had earlier in the weekend.
“Overtaking was difficult given the nature of the track, so I had to grab opportunities whenever they presented themselves and pick my way through – and I have no doubt that had we started further up the field like we should have done, we would have been fighting for the top three in both races.
“The weekend in general was a big learning curve and we’ve not yet found the sweet spot with the car on the new tyres, but I feel more confident now than I did arriving at Brands and a bit of testing should sort us out. Ultimately, to come away with a couple of top eight finishes and not a million miles away in the points table is a solid start, and with Donington and Thruxton both holding happy memories for me, hopefully we can move up the order there and push for some podiums.”