Formula 3Interviews

INTERVIEW: O’Sullivan hopes Carlin can move forward throughout FIA F3 season

9 Mins read
Credit: Formula Motorsport Limited

Zak O’Sullivan has stepped up to the FIA Formula 3 Championship for 2022 with Carlin, and is enjoying the prospect of his home race at Silverstone this weekend.

The reigning GB3 champion ended Free Practice in seventh place, an impressive showing considering the team’s struggles in the Championship so far this year.

“It wasn’t too bad, not what we were expecting! I think we expected a bit worse than that but we’ll wait and see how Qualifying goes.

“A lot of cars, especially the red cars [Prema Racing] seem to go a lot faster come Qualifying, but at the moment it looks like it could be wet so the standard British weather’s come into play last-minute.”

Around half of the grid is experiencing Silverstone for the first time, but Zak won there on his way to the GB3 title last August.

“The car felt quite fast, that’s always nice, it’s nice being on home turf, there’s no track learning to get on with so I can get onto it a bit quicker in the session.”

As he mentioned, the weather initially looked to stay dry after W Series cleared some of the rain, but conditions have remained changeable throughout Friday.

“We’re better than we thought in the dry. Coming into the weekend we were like, ‘It needs to rain!’, we were quite good in Imola in the rain, but now I’m not too sure to be honest.

“Mixed Quali is always a bit risky for all parties but I think this year we need some opportunities, so dry, wet, mixed, anything to be honest, doesn’t really matter!”

O’Sullivan has taken all of Carlin’s 13 points so far this year, and is confident he is continuing to move in the right direction.

“I think so, I think we’re trying to improve the car as much as we can throughout the year. We’ve made a few big philosophy changes quite recently and they seem to be, fingers crossed, paying off.

“Obviously it’s only Free Practice, but even though the balance wasn’t quite right the car was still fast, which isn’t something we’ve had all year. We’ve had a nice balance but not been fast, so a bit of a positive step but it’s only Free Practice and at a track I know, so we’ll have to wait and see for Qualifying.”

With FIA F3 being a spec series, there are only so many setup changes drivers and teams can make, but the Williams Academy Driver is confident he and Carlin are close to where they want to be this weekend.

“It depends how far out of the window you are in Practice, I think we’re quite close to that sweet spot. It’s only minor changes, you also have to contend with the track changing quite a bit.

“Obviously now it’s rained so it might not change much, but normally when F1 go out there they change the track quite a bit and lay some rubber down for us.

“It’s difficult to know whether to set the car up for the wet or dry, not knowing how Qualifying’s going to end.”

Last time the 17-year-old came to Silverstone to compete in a race meeting, he was on the Intelligent Money British GT Championship support bill; now he’s following the Formula 1 circus.

“The vibe’s pretty different, you don’t really recognise Silverstone on an F1 weekend, especially when you drive over the bridge at the old Bridge corner, it’s just packed which is really cool.

“Unfortunately this F2 and F3 bubble is kind of surrounded by trucks, you don’t really notice how busy it is, but it’s really cool coming in and out of the track.

“Even on-track, in Practice I was surprised how busy it was, all the stands seemed half-full already.”

Credit: Williams Racing

We asked him how he’s developed as a driver since winning the GB3 Championship, the Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Award and F1 junior status.

“I hope I’ve grown! But it’s a bit of a different step, a different atmosphere as well because we’re not doing as well as we were in GB3, there’s a bit less pressure on me, I can take a few risks and play around when it counts. As a team included, I guess, with a mixed Qualifying you always try to do that.

“It’s quite a nice situation to be in, obviously I don’t want to stay here forever so hopefully we can progress as the year goes on and be more in the fight towards the end of the year.”

The GB3 Championship introduced a new car for 2022 in the Tatuus MSV-022, and its reigning champion has been keeping an eye on his former rivals where possible.

“It’s interesting. A bit of a shake-up this year in GB3 which I wasn’t really expecting, the new car seems to have mixed the order up.

“Carlin are still up at the front in GB3, so no big surprises there!”

The Farnham team have been a dominant force in GB3 in recent seasons, but it would be fair to say FIA F3 has been its Achilles Heel, regularly challenging at the sharp end in FIA Formula 2 and British F4.

They sit eighth in the Teams’ Standings after three rounds, and have not finished higher than that since GP3 became FIA F3 for 2019.

“I hope [we’re getting closer]! To be honest I couldn’t tell you as a team whether we were or not. I think if we knew what the issue was we would’ve solved it by now, it seems like a deeper issue we’re trying to fix.

“For sure it’s not an ideal situation but I think we’re working better than ever before to try to improve the situation. Hopefully we get there but there’s no guarantee.”

Part of the prize for winning the AMABA Award is a test in a 2021 Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant F1 Team car.

“That was confirmed today, that’s pretty cool. That’ll be a good day and I think I also get to see this year’s finalists, so it’ll be cool, I’ll be able to tick it off the bucket list and say I’ve driven an F1 car. An older one, but still an F1 car.”

Credit: Kokoro Media

Zak’s F1 involvement has increased further in the last month, as he accompanied Williams from the garage at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

“I learnt a lot, to be honest,” he said.

“It was a bit different for me, obviously, I’m used to being in the thick of the action, not on the sidelines so it was nice to be on the fence for a bit and get an overview.

“I could listen to the engineers and how they deal with problems because they’re in a similar situation to ourselves [at Carlin], they’re trying to improve, trying to catch up after starting the season on the back foot.”

“Directly on race weekends, they don’t help me so much, they’re trying to run an F1 team!

Sven [Smeets], who runs the Academy keeps in touch, wishes me good luck etc after some updates.

“But I think it’s quite nice that on race weekends they kind of leave me to it. Between race weekends I’m on the sim around every two weeks, working through bits and bobs the F1 drivers have done. Any time in a car, whether it’s virtual or real is always good.”

O’Sullivan weighed in on the technical details of his focus areas as he looks to get closer to the front of the order.

“I think long runs, to be honest. In Quali we’re not awful, but if we’re six, seven tenths off in Quali it might put us in the mix for the reverse-grid.

“Six tenths over 20 laps is pretty substantial, especially with the Pirelli tyres, you get into a situation where you want to push for DRS, you get more degradation.

“That’s no secret, it’s the same in F1, same in F2, the fact is if you don’t have enough grip it’s never going to be a great race!

“But in that sense the focus is then on trying to build up Quali pace because then the race can follow if we have something more to fight with.”

He started on Sprint Race pole in Bahrain after qualifying in P12 for the Feature Race, before slipping down the order from the halfway stage onwards.

He’s willing to get his elbows out should he qualify around that position at Silverstone on Friday afternoon to hold on for a podium or more.

“I’ll try to be a roadblock for everyone else, I guess! It’s a good opportunity, I didn’t expect to be starting on pole in Bahrain, kind of glad I got it out of the way and it was a nice wake-up to the Championship I guess.”

The increased fan interest that comes with being on the Formula 1 support bill has been a pleasant surprise.

“Especially here it’s pretty impressive, like I said it’s a shame we’re kind of separated from them in a way in our little paddock here, but all across the year it’s been pretty cool.

“I think the standouts have been Imola, Barcelona and obviously Silverstone. Bahrain was a bit less fruitful in terms of fans, but I’m expecting it to be as busy as ever throughout the year.

“The Red Bull Ring will be cool with all the orange fans, and Zandvoort as well! So it’s cool to see the fan support, and it helps with the atmosphere as well when the track doesn’t look empty.”

FIA F3 visits Zandvoort for the penultimate round of the Championship in September; O’Sullivan, unlike many of those on the grid who have competed in F4 series’ in mainland Europe, has never experienced the Dutch circuit.

“Zandvoort should be cool, I think Qualifying will be pretty key, also trying to hang on in the race is pretty difficult. I think everyone’ll be taking caster off the cars to make them easier for us to drive, so it brings a different challenge but it looks like a really cool track.

“This is a home race for all parts, Academy, team and driver, so it’s cool and I like Silverstone as well. It’s not just because it’s my home race, it’s actually a really cool track as well, which I think we’re pretty lucky to have as British drivers.”

“DRS is pretty powerful, especially down to Stowe, dirty air isn’t too bad in these F3 cars, you just kind of lose all-round grip rather than just losing the front which is pretty nice, it gives you something more to fight with.

“I think DRS is something silly like six tenths down the back straight, you can be pretty far back and benefit, which is cool.”

Pirelli supply the rubber for FIA F3, as they did, and continue to do for GB3, but compounds and configurations which vary significantly.

“It’s a bit easier to balance, I think as a Championship the tyres are designed to thermally overheat quite easily, so the main problem is, when you get behind another car you start overheating all four tyres, sliding around, you hit the cliff and then you’re in trouble.

“All of us as rookies in Bahrain actually didn’t find it too bad, those of us coming from GB3 especially, where you lose the fronts and start damaging the front tyre.”

O’Sullivan is the most experienced driver in Carlin’s F3 stable this year, and seems to have a positive relationship with his two team-mates, Enzo Trulli and Brad Benavides.

“It’s been a bit of a different situation, obviously we’re all in the same boat trying to improve the car. They’ve got a tiny bit less experience than me at some of the circuits, they’re both nice kids, I get on with them as well as I can.

He competed against Prema’s Oliver Bearman in the latter’s select GB3 rounds last year, including at Silverstone where he beat the part-time Fortec Motorsport‘s driver to a win.

“I think since the Autosport Award [Ollie and I] have been chatting a bit, at least this year we’re not direct competitors so to speak, so there’s less chance to crash into each other!

“It’s cool, there’s quite a few British drivers this year, especially now Jonny [Edgar]‘s back, so it’s nice to see that representation on the grid. But there’s only so much you can be friends with them, I guess.”

We asked him which of the Triple Crown he would rather win, and his answer was a somewhat left-field one.

“The Indy 500, because it’s a proper one-off race. Monaco’s just another round in the Championship, and if you’re on pole you’re pretty much sorted.

“I think Le Mans is pretty car-dependent as well, any car advantage just amplifies over 24 Hours, plus you have to have very good team-mates!

“But I think the Indy 500, it’s hard enough to be at the front in Qualifying but in the race, there’s so much that can go wrong, you’re racing every lap.

“I think the top 20 always have a chance of winning the race in Indy, so it’s pretty cool to watch.”

We spoke with mixed conditions on circuit and in the paddock, though things brightened up as the cars got on track, with F1 drying the surface before F3 went back out.

“I would’ve had a bit of a clearer idea if it wasn’t raining. It’s just started raining again as we’re talking, so I think it’ll be a mixed Quali. That’s my prediction, but due to that prediction I can’t predict the results, so we’ll wait and see but it’ll be entertaining anyway.”

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Stickler for track limits, covering the GB3 Championship and the FIA Formula 3 Championship. Twitter: @MCallanderMedia
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