Zak O’Sullivan has been hot property since taking his first title out of karting.
He took part in the FIA F3 Championship post-season test at Circuit Ricardo Tormo, Valencia in November, while being assessed alongside fellow GB3 alumni Oliver Bearman and Louis Foster, as well as Carlin Buzz Racing F3 driver Jonny Edgar for the Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Award (AMABA), the award ceremony for which was recently postponed.
O’Sullivan found time in his testing schedule to speak to The Checkered Flag about his career to date, sim racing, designing his own helmet and much more.
“My first time driving a kart was actually on the tiny karting circuit in the paddock at Brands Hatch! It’s kind of a replica of the Brands Hatch Indy circuit, without the elevation! After that it was Buckmore Park.”
That first taste of karting aged eight paved the way for all the success that’s come since, but racing at such a young age necessitates a tender balancing act between the track and the classroom.
But Carlin‘s fourth GB3 champion in five seasons found a way around it to help his racing.
“It’s definitely a challenge, but one that I’ve learnt to manage over the years. Since 2018 I have been home-schooled which allows me to be flexible around my racing and testing schedules!
“I completed my GCSEs last year and then decided I wanted to take on A-Levels, so now I’m studying for those.
“While I’m never fully on a ‘break’ from racing, the off-season we’re now in provides more opportunity to get stuck into studying.”
He isn’t the only young driver to have gone down the home-schooling route, but his approach shows a willingness to learn both on and off-track.
“I like physics because I can relate the knowledge to racing. I think it really helps me when communicating with my engineer Anthony [Grenier] because I have a solid understanding of the theories at work.
“Another favourite is probably photography, it’s becoming a real passion of mine, as well as graphic design. With A-Levels you’re obviously fortunate to be able to pick your favourite ones to study so I enjoy them all, but in GCSEs I wasn’t a fan of maths!”
Having switched to home-schooling while in karting, Zak soon made another significant early decision for the future of his career, moving from karting to the Ginetta Junior Championship with eventual GB3 rivals Douglas Motorsport.
“We made the jump to cars when I was 14 and it was quite a big shock! A go-kart is very agile and light whereas Ginettas were on road tyres and pretty heavy.
“Karting had allowed me to learn the racecraft skills that I would go on to use throughout my career though, so that helped.”
He offered his younger self some advice, telling the Zak in karting to “start sim racing sooner! Generally I’d just remind myself to keep working hard, keep pushing.”
“I would say the jump from Ginetta to F4 was actually harder [than from F4 to GB3]. The biggest change was mainly the introduction to aerodynamics, heavier steering and braking and having to trust the car more in high-speed corners.”
All that, not to mention adapting to three different tyre manufacturers in three seasons (Michelin in Ginetta Juniors in 2019, Hankook in British F4 in 2020 and Pirelli in GB3 in 2021).
That 2020 season in British F4 brought another runner-up finish, this one by an agonising four-point deficit to Luke Browning as rain shortened the final race at Brands Hatch and saw half-points awarded.
Despite O’Sullivan winning and Browning finishing tenth, the Gloucestershire driver couldn’t overcome the deficit after his advantage for the race was effectively halved.
And despite that disappointment, Carlin took O’Sullivan up to GB3, then called British F3, for 2021.
“I was fortunate that for the step up to GB3 I was remaining with Carlin so I knew the team well and they were able to help me. The increase in power was the notable difference heading into GB3, and I knew it would be quite hard to overtake.”
As he leaves the championship, so too does the Tatuus MSV-016, being replaced by the MSV-022.
Carlin’s first recruit for 2022, Callum Voisin, will take O’Sullivan’s seat in the new car, graduating straight from Ginetta Junior.
“It’s not unusual for drivers to take this path. Tom Lebbon did that same jump and had a strong year in GB3,” he said.
“I would say that it’s absolutely key to form strong relationships with your crew and engineer, and to communicate with them on everything.”
Whatever a driver’s route to GB3, though, the current champion feels “to succeed in racing you have to have good racecraft skills, and these are usually first learnt in karting.
“I would say that in F4 and GB3 it’s a lot harder to get closer to the car in front than in karting though.”
With Zak taking the experience of two runner-up campaigns into his maiden GB3 season, he could’ve been forgiven for not planning to stick around for more than a season in Britain’s premier single-seater series either.
Quite how much he excelled, though, was well beyond his pre-season expectations.
He topped every key statistic at the end of the season, leading the way in podiums (12), laps led, races led (8), points for places gained in Race 3, fastest laps, pole positions (6) and wins (7).
“We went into the season hoping that we compete, and we knew that if the set-up was right the car would be quick.
“Obviously every driver’s aim is to win, but I would say that I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted all of those statistics, despite it being my aim!
“There were a number of drivers who were in at least their second year competing in the championship, so I knew they would be coming in with that edge.”
As a stellar campaign reached the eighth and final round at Donington, he knew he only had to finish Race 1 to officially be crowned champion due to the number of entrants.
And he did it in style, taking a pole position and two wins in Leicestershire for the second time in the season. All that around a circuit he claimed not to have enjoyed in British F4.
“Obviously it was something that I wanted to achieve, especially due to the way we had lost out on the British F4 Championship the year before, but I wouldn’t necessarily define my success on that one achievement.
“I think now that I have been able to secure that championship title though, it has given me a massive boost going forward.
“The team deserved that win too, they work so hard to give us the best cars possible and I wanted to give them that title.
“It’s hard to say when we felt we had it, because there were some ups and downs in performance, but after the first Donington round when I achieved two wins I started to feel quite positive.
“I then however had the Spa-Francorchamps round which wasn’t my strongest, so I didn’t really have that moment until the end of Oulton Park.
“At that point we had basically won but hadn’t technically because it would depend on the number of entries at Donington.
“I continued to approach every round with the same determination to get the best results, and we would think about the championship implications later on.
“I think I learnt the most from that first race at Spa. I could learn from the pace I was lacking and learnt technique for driving in the wet which helped throughout the latter phase of the year [at Snetterton, Oulton and Donington].”
There was a five-week break between the final two rounds Oulton and Donington, but Zak kept himself busy “mainly through school, training and simulator work.
“I wanted to stay sharp and maintain the momentum we had after that final race at Oulton Park. I tried not to build the event up too much in my mind, and just treat it as any other round.”
We asked him about how he is able to compartmentalise positive and negative results and move onto the next race or round so quickly after wins and disappointments.
“That’s a great question. I would say on the Saturday evening of the day we won [the championship] it sunk in.
“As you say, I knew it was coming but when you’re at the track so much is going on that it’s when you step away that it fully hits you.
“I had dinner with my parents and my coach and it felt really good. I had two more races to go though so not much time to relax!
“My coach Kieren [Clark] often says about me that I do get affected by things, like anyone does, but only for a few minutes.
“I quickly move on and focus onto the next challenge, taking with me the learning experience but not dwelling. That’s definitely helped me this year.”
Another element which helped take Zak to his first title was remaining with Carlin for a second season as he graduated from British F4.
“That was hugely important,” he said.
“I built a very strong relationship with my race engineer Anthony in F4 and he stepped up to GB3 with me.
“I fully trust him and he fully trusts me, so we can skip the formalities and get down to business.
“Generally though, I get on with everyone at Carlin really well and I trust that they will always work hard for me – I’m very fortunate!”
Attention from new fans is something any championship leader, and eventual champion will come to experience over the course of a successful campaign. Taking seven wins in a season certainly drew plenty of admiration once fans returned to circuits.
“I would say it grew gradually throughout the season, mainly from Snetterton onwards.
“It’s hard to really judge though because fans were only actually allowed in the paddock from Snetterton.
“Looking back though, I was lucky to have gained some fans during my Ginetta Junior and British F4 campaigns, and it means a lot that they are still following my career.”
“I think the first autograph I signed was when I was in Ginetta Juniors. It definitely felt weird but I was happy that someone was supporting me!
“It is definitely a weird one. Motorsport in general really thrusts young people into the spotlight and it can be daunting.
“Generally though, I do enjoy the fan interaction and media side of being a driver, and if you look up to F1 you can clearly see how important fan engagement and social media has become.”
On his way to the title, O’Sullivan was rarely involved in incidents with other drivers, so may have kept most racing relationships intact throughout the season.
“The thing about British and European racing is that it is actually a very small world,” he said.
“Most of us have been racing against each other since we were about eight years old, so I am friends with a number of other drivers in addition to my team-mates.”
Having finished third in the British F4 iRacing Trophy during lockdown in 2020, sim racing on iRacing and Assetto Corsa is one of Zak’s (still racing-related) passions outside the paddock.
He raced Carlin team-mate Bryce Aron several times in 2021; when we asked Zak who was faster, the answer was unsurprisingly “Haha, me!”
Another long-standing passion is graphic design, with a key part of his branding being by his own hand.
“My helmet is my own design. I send it off to the brilliant Jason Fowler (JLF Designs) who paints it for me.”
See Zak’s 2022 helmet design here.
The main two of the GB3 champion’s many engagements since taking the title have been the AMABA Award, with assessments having taken place at Silverstone, and a three-day FIA F3 test in Valencia.
He wouldn’t be drawn on specific discussions with F1 driver academies when we commented that Aston Martin green suits him.
“There’s definitely been conversations but that’s all I can say – at the moment my focus is on preparing for 2022.
“[F3] is certainly the logical step and one that I haven’t hidden I want to pursue. The test in Valencia was a key step.”
Despite two positive years with Carlin on British soil, the Farnham team (Carlin Buzz Racing in F3) have finished ninth, eighth and tenth in the FIA F3 Teams Standings in the last three years. But their fourth GB3 champion in five seasons doesn’t see that as cause for concern.
“I’m certain Carlin will be working tirelessly to change that. If I do race with them, I would also embrace that challenge.”
Their penultimate British F3 champion from 2019, Clément Novalak stepped up to FIA F3 with the team in 2020, finishing 12th with two podiums, before taking third with Trident this year with four top-three finishes.
He graduated to the FIA Formula 2 Championship with MP Motorsport for the final two Middle-Eastern rounds at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit and the Yas Marina Circuit, with the F3 season ending at the Sochi Autodrom in September.
Understandably, the French-Swiss driver, and 2020 champion Kaylen Frederick, has blazed a trail for O’Sullivan to follow.
“Clément has followed the path that many of us hope to take, so it’s encouraging that someone with similar experience has made that jump.”
As this writer draws our feature with Zak to a close, it’s almost Christmas. How does a GB3 champion spend the off-season before a potential foray onto the world stage?
“There has been a bit of testing since the season ended, but that will be winding down very soon so I can enjoy some time over Christmas with my family.
“I will continue to use the simulator and go to the gym to stay sharp, and then everything will kick off again in the New Year.”
Whether Zak O’Sullivan finds himself racing in FIA F3 or elsewhere in 2022, this year’s crowning campaign surely means British motorsport, and Carlin, have another future star to savour.