DAN ZELOS READIES FOR HISTORY AT BRANDS HATCH
The fight for the 2023 Vertu Motors MINI CHALLENGE title draws to a close this weekend at Brands Hatch with Dan Zelos looking to secure a historic second championship crown.
The EXCELR8 Motorsport driver goes into the final three races of the season looking to become the first driver to secure two titles in the current JCW era, and has opened up an advantage of more than 100 points – albeit with 174 still available around the famous GP layout.
So far this season Zelos, who won his first title in 2021, has largely been the man to beat, with a 100 per cent record in qualifying and an impressive ten race wins over the campaign – double the tally of anyone else on the grid
That record means Zelos has now scored more wins than anyone else in series history, whilst he has also closed in on the record for podium finishes, which he could eclipse this weekend.
The title could be won in race one if the result goes his way, but Zelos remains grounded going into the weekend.
“I’ve never had much luck at Silverstone before, so to come away with that weekend with two wins and an extended lead in the points was phenomenal,” he said.
“It’s nice to have a bit more breathing space going into the last round as a result, but with so many points still available it would only take a DNF in one of the races at Brands Hatch and things could change very quickly.
“We need to keep our heads screwed on and continue to work hard.”
As he suggests, Zelos certainly can’t afford to relax despite his lead because the smallest error could open the door for rookie Will Orton.
Orton has been found in Zelos’s side throughout the season and scored win number five of the campaign last time out at Silverstone.
Unfortunately for Orton, a gearshift issue would hamper him in race two and enabled Zelos to extend his lead, although he will continue to give his all to try and chase down the leader, whilst also looking to wrap up the Rookie Cup for Hybrid Tune.
“Silverstone was a real weekend of two halves but we have been able to stay in contention,” he said. “We’ll just have to see what happens when it comes to the overall title, but I think our focus now is on making sure we wrap up the Rookie crown.”
Orton will hope to benefit from the support of team-mate Joe Tanner in his title bid, but the Scot – who has already wrapped up the Directors Cup – is himself embroiled in a battle for third in the championship standings.
That fight is a much closer affair, with Tanner going into the final three races of the campaign with an advantage of just five points over Nelson King, who will be competing on home soil with the Graves Motorsport squad.
Although there have been some tough weekends along the way, such as Silverstone where he found himself down on power, Tanner has largely been ever-present towards the front of the field this season with eight podium finishes to his name, although he has yet to make it onto the top step.
King by contrast is one of only four drivers to have secured a victory this year having taken his maiden JCW win at Snetterton and has since gone on to show exactly why he was such a dominant champion in the Cooper class last year.
Since that win, King has scored five podiums in eight races, although failing to get away from the line in race three at Silverstone means Tanner was able to hold on to his top three position ahead of the final weekend.
“It’s nice to have won the Directors Cup, but it’s not what I was aiming for at the start of the year,” Tanner admitted. “I’m here to try and win overall and after a tough weekend at Silverstone, we’re looking to come back fighting at Brands Hatch to end the season strongly.”
Outside the top three sit three more EXCELR8 Motorsport drivers in the shape of Oliver Meadows, Thomas Jack Lee and Bradley Gravett – who enjoyed vastly different fortunes in the penultimate weekend of the year.
Meadows and Lee were both on the podium alongside Zelos at Silverstone as the team enjoyed a 1-2-3 finish in the final race, but there was less luck for Gravett who snapped his gear stick in race one and was on the back foot from that point on.
Points wise, Meadows should have enough in hand over his team-mates to end the campaign inside the top five in the points but Lee is only twelve ahead of Gravett who will be bidding to try and repeat the top three result he scored on the Indy circuit earlier in the campaign.
“I’ve had a bit of pace everywhere this season but Silverstone was the first weekend where I put it all together – which was reflected in the results,” Lee admitted. “Being closer to the front meant I could learn from the quicker drivers, and it leaves me in a strong position going into the last round.
“Hopefully we can go well at Brands Hatch and if we can wrap up a top-six championship finish, it would be a great way to end the year.”
NAPA Racing’s Jamie Osborne and Graves Motorsport’s Dominic Wheatley hold eighth and ninth, and are the two drivers still dicing for Graduate Cup honours.
Osborne – an overall winner at Oulton Park – holds a slender advantage in the standings despite being forced to sit out race one at Silverstone due to feeling ill, which enabled Wheatley to close the gap in the points.
He however had to contend with issues of his own across the three races, which leaves Wheatley playing catch-up going into the final three races of the year.
“I might have taken points out of Jamie at Silverstone, but I feel we should be leading going into the final round,” he said. “He had a DNS, so I should be going to Brands Hatch clear in the points with him as the chaser.
“As it stands, I’ve got work to do to beat him and we’ll have to see if we can do it.”
A strong weekend at Silverstone for Lydia Walmsley means she goes into the finale sitting inside the top ten having edged of Lewis Selby in the points, although both Selby and Josh Porter could yet overhaul her this weekend if results go their way.
Further down the order, Billy Hardy, Simon Reed and the returning Marlo Cordell will all be seeking to cement their places inside the top 15. Sam Smith meanwhile is eager to end what has been a challenging year with three solid results on track, whilst Spencer Stevenson makes a second outing with Graves after a solid debut at Silverstone.
An additional twist this weekend comes from the addition of three guest drivers to the field, two of whom bring with them plenty of JCW experience.
Outgoing champion Sam Weller is back for a second appearance of the season with Hybrid Tune in place of the absent Ryan Faulconbridge with Nathan Harrison in action in the series for the first time since he won the 2020 title at the same circuit – meaning the the last three drivers to win the championship crown will be going up against each other this weekend.
Youngster Max Hall rounds out the entry as he steps up from the Coopers to gain a taste of what to expect if he is able to conclude a deal to graduate into the JCWs full-time in 2024.
In a change to the usual broadcast plans, all three races will get live coverage this weekend, with race one on Saturday afternoon and race two on Sunday morning both shown in full on the ITV Sport YouTube channel. Race three will then be shown as part of the ITV4 coverage of the BTCC finale.