By his own admission, Zak O’Sullivan didn’t want to set himself any goals ahead of his arrival into Formula 3, opting instead to focus on himself. Throughout his 2022 campaign, his tenacity was never in doubt. From the opening weekend, he adapted to whatever came his way with a drive to extract the maximum out of every occasion.
Graduating from GB3 to F3 with Carlin presented him with a several major changes to overcome, not least adjusting to the track time available, but O’Sullivan insists he relished the challenge the Championship posed.
"I think the main thing is that compared to other championships, especially GB3, there was a bit of lack of track time early in the weekend, so you had to be on it quite quickly,” he noted. “I quite enjoyed it in that sense because if you turned up and hit the ground running, there wasn't too much time for people to catch up.
“It was a bit of a shock, especially in Bahrain and after that we had Imola, which was a new track for me. You had 45 minutes of Free Practice and then straight into Qualifying, so that aspect was quite tricky. Also, in the races you had tyre degradation so you’re learning as you go. In testing you can replicate race runs, but nothing really replicates a race properly until you’re out there with 29 other cars.”
Immediately the Brit was thrust right into the spotlight as he started from reverse grid pole position in the opening Sprint Race at Sakhir. It was a situation he found rather daunting but ended up proving to be beneficial in the long run.
“I was thrown into the deep end because I had finished Qualifying in 12th, so I had reverse grid pole. My first F3 race was starting from pole, which was a bit nerve-wracking. As far as the race went, it was a pretty big learning curve. We knew we maybe didn’t have the pace of some of the cars around us, so it was a bit of a tricky one. I also had a bit of tyre deg and ended up finishing sixth, but it was still a good experience.
“In some ways, I got that pole position start out of the way early so any kind of nerve-wracking situation had already been done from the first round, which was good. I think I learnt some lessons from that weekend, but maybe I didn’t apply them as well as I could have done across the rest of the year, mainly just staying out of trouble, especially in the Feature Race. I was in P8 at one point and dropped back a bit. There were so many small incidents and stuff happening that I think just being there always gave you an opportunity to score points.”
It was at his home round in Silverstone where the Williams Academy junior truly shone by claiming an impressive maiden pole position, Carlin’s first in F3, before getting his elbows out all the way to line to finish second in the Feature Race.
Looking back at the weekend, O’Sullivan believes that his prior experience at the circuit combined with the team’s development between the two races gave him the level of understanding needed in order to succeed, but confessed he was a bit apprehensive about starting from pole once again.
“Obviously I know the track quite well, so maybe I had some home track advantage,” he said. “Of all the places to be fast, it was a very nice place to have a lot of pace, and I think we put it to quite good use. The familiarity was pretty useful because from Practice you’re not wasting sets of tyres learning the track, you’re just on it straightaway.
“We had a bit more of a read of the balance going into Qualifying and because of my experience there, I knew where to push and where to find the lap time. I think at Silverstone that’s quite key because it’s a mixture of high-speed corners and long straights, so there’s plenty of places to lose time. To get pole was pretty unexpected, I think after the first run I was P8 or P9, then I had a really good second lap and that was it!”
He added: “After Qualifying I wasn’t that excited because the first thing that was running through my head was ‘oh we’ve got a race on Sunday to try to do from the front’. So, I was thinking it’s cool that we were on pole.
“We could actually use the Sprint race to prepare for the Feature Race, which was quite nice. Normally, the Sprint Race was more of our chance to score big points, whereas that weekend in Silverstone we could try some stuff on the car then see if it worked. Going into the Feature Race, I wasn’t too confident, but in fairness we made some good changes overnight and the pace was there. Even in the last few laps, I started getting back up to Arthur (Leclerc), until Ollie (Bearman) came up as well. It was my first proper race where I could stay at the front for the majority of it.
“We certainly found our forte of corners, which seemed to be all high-speed. It gave us a bit more of an understanding because I’ll be the first one to admit I wasn’t expecting to go to the Red Bull Ring and immediately be on pole again fighting for wins.”
In F3, experience can often make the greatest difference for a driver and O’Sullivan made sure to put his to good use in Budapest. Having seen off several wet races earlier in the year, the heavy downpour before the Feature Race left him confident that he could gamble on an early jump to slicks – a risk that was well worth its reward as he went from P22 to P4 by the chequered flag.
“We’ve had a lot of wet races. I was surprised at how many, and they all ended the same with the track drying and everyone saving tyres the whole way through. There’d been a couple of times where I was really tempted to go on to slicks, but it never really happened. It sowed the seeds in my head because in Imola Qualifying I put slicks on quite early, and just before the Red Flag I went green in the middle sector.
“From that point, my engineer and I realised you can go to slicks when the track is still quite wet, and they pick up temperature quite well. Before the Feature Race, it had been quite dry and then there was a big downpour, but until that point, we were planning on starting on slicks. So, I was like ‘let’s just do it, we’ve got nothing to lose’. Then it rained so we definitely couldn’t start on slicks, but I said to him on the radio ‘I’m always going to try them if it’s anywhere near close enough’.
“Then I was thinking maybe it was there and I saw Correa just in front of me box and I decided I was going to push as hard as I could that lap and then box immediately on the next lap. I didn’t know what position I was in and just thought let’s do it. Once my engineer got on the radio and said we were 10 seconds quicker than everyone, I suddenly realised I had to pass Correa if we had any chance of winning.
“It was quite a weird dynamic because the two of us racing and defending on our own for P30 and P29 at the time. He made a mistake and I got past, which was good because if it does work, I’m net P1. Then it was just about clearing everyone without losing as much time as possible, which was really tricky because they were like roadblocks with it being wet offline making it hard to overtake. I didn’t think it was going to work and neither did my engineer to be honest.
“I’ve run it through too many times in my head, thinking that if I didn’t make a mistake here earlier in the race, I could have won but P4 was good enough.”
While things didn’t pan out how he would have hoped, O’Sullivan now closes the door on his 2022 campaign content with how his season has shaped him into a more all-rounded driver, with the knowledge that in a Championship like this with such tight margins, it’s all about seizing whatever opportunities come your way.
“I think I’ve grown quite a lot with a different experience. In my first three years in cars, I was always in a position to win a Championship, fighting at the front and trying to pick up lots of wins. This year was about scoring points consistently or if we’re lucky a podium. In that sense, it was a bit different, and I was managing a bit of frustration throughout the year. Obviously, I would have wanted it to go quite a bit better, but it was an interesting learning experience.”