Two Feature Race wins, two Sprint victories, one pole position and a further podium finish made for a great season on paper, but Zak O’Sullivan’s 2023 didn’t go as he’d hoped.
The PREMA Racing driver ended up 45 points off the top spot, a number that puts his season in a harsh light, but such is the high standard to which the Briton holds himself, it could have been his year.
Finding the positives in his 2023 campaign isn’t tough to do. The success with PREMA retaining the Teams’ Championship was further proof of potential he’d shown in his rookie F3 season in 2022. Progress from the driver of one year ago was clear according to the driver himself.
“It was not bad, but probably not what I’d expected. I had a few more tricky rounds than perhaps I would’ve wanted. But there’s been some quite high highs and quite low lows, but I think the last couple of rounds, we rectified a few things, and it all came together a bit more.
“I feel like I stepped up this year. Having more experience running at the front, which is always really useful, but when we've had the pace, I've always maximised on points, which is important. At times maybe I’ve not had the pace and tried to come through in the races.”
The start of the campaign did not go according to plan in any way shape or form for O’Sullivan and PREMA. The Briton was the only one of the team’s trio who missed the top 12 and he was left with a tough fight back in both races.
“Sakhir wasn't the best. A combination of things ended up in it being a zero-point struggle of a weekend, which wasn’t on my bingo card before we got started. Melbourne was a far better weekend and since then we were consistently scoring points, which of course, is what matters the most.”
Interestingly, O’Sullivan says that the second half of the season was the half he was much happier with. After the Sprint wins in Melbourne and Barcelona, he recorded just four point-scoring finishes between Spielberg and the finale at Monza, split between two Feature wins and a P2 in the final Feature of the year, along with fourth in the Spielberg Sprint.
Though he only had the four point-scoring results, it was in the latter half of the campaign that he made his charge up the Championship standings. Only eighth in the table following the Sprint Race win in Barcelona, O’Sullivan leapt to third in Spielberg and was vice champion by the time the chequered flag fell in Monza.
“Spielberg and Budapest were pretty good weekends points-wise. The Feature Race wins, and Sprint Race wins as well, it's not been a bad year, but there were some setbacks and points lost in in some of the earlier rounds.
“I felt like we found something in Hungary for sure. The pace is really strong. A bit of a shame that Spa was weather affected. We ended up kind of being on the wrong side in some of the decisions, but it was just one of those things.”
Six point-less results from the final nine races ultimately cost him a chance at challenging Gabriel Bortoleto for the title. Race pace and management of the Pirelli tyres were the areas in which he excelled and led to four wins in 2023.
But it was a “mysterious” end to the campaign says O’Sullivan, who points to a lack of Qualifying pace as the weak point in the final phase of the campaign.
“There are a few mysterious weekends where, for some reason, we didn't really have any pace. I wish we fully knew why. Then on other weekends, we've been really, really fast. I wish I knew to be honest. Obviously, Qualifying pace or a bad qualifying result put you on the back foot for the weekend.
“After that, it's a bit tricky to come from the back in races, but we had quite strong race pace, just around some circuits, I seemed to lack Qualifying pace, which is still a bit mysterious, but it's one of those things. If I could go back, I would put a bit more focus on one-lap pace. At times, I was quite happy with my performances and felt I extracted the most I could have done. It's one of those things where I wish I knew where I went wrong in some areas some more.”
From being a rookie in 2022 to a front runner at reigning Champions PREMA, the expectations, goals and skillset each went up exponentially in 2023.
For O’Sullivan, his experiences from his maiden F3 campaign helped to form one of his strongest points this year. Race management was the biggest step forward for the Williams Driver Academy man, alongside his race pace and handling of the tyres.
“Obviously, more experience in the race is always quite useful. Race pace seemed to be good all year, so I reckon risk management in some instances was better, especially the tracks where it’s easier to overtake, not always going for the gap does pay dividends.
“Race management, particularly on the high-definition tyres was good. That led to more wins. I can’t complain about that. Race pace has always been stronger than Qualifying pace and I was able to make ground in the races.”
Reflecting on his finer moments in 2023, O’Sullivan’s pick for his best race of the year might surprise you. While he led from pole and dominated, securing a grand chelem en route to Budapest Feature Race victory, Spielberg’s fight from sixth stands out most to the PREMA driver.
“I'd say Spielberg, the Feature Race was my best moment of the year. It was a really fun race. Going from sixth, I didn’t expect to win but it was a fun race with DRS the whole way and playing games with the rest of the top five and battling into the last lap. I kind of enjoy those races where it's all to play for until the chequered flag drops, and we got a nice result as well.
“I like the races where there’s more going on and there's a bit more of a battle. Obviously, it's always nice leading from the front, but it was a bit of a boring race to be out front. Also, the tyre degradation across the weekend meant it was more about management rather than attacking. So, it was a bit of a weird weekend in that sense. For sure, pace-wise, Budapest was our strongest weekend, but I enjoyed Spielberg a bit more just because of the unpredictability.”
Ultimately the season was strong but could have been even greater. For O’Sullivan, if he had found the mid-season gains earlier in the year and found a quicker lap once or twice in Qualifying, things could have gone very differently. In the end though, he believes it’s just part of the game.
“The result was going into the last round without a shot at the Championship was disappointing, but that's racing. I wish I knew where we went wrong in some areas and I would’ve liked to be closer to the front in all the races, but every racing driver wants more, that’s natural.”