Home Featured GB3 season review: Catching up with runaway champion Zak O’Sullivan

GB3 season review: Catching up with runaway champion Zak O’Sullivan

by Steve Whitfield

Photos: Jakob Ebery Photography

The season started as BRDC British Formula 3 and ended as GB3, but the name at the top remained unchanged throughout, with Carlin’s Zak O’Sullivan dominating the championship from the outset.

The only uncertainty for the 16-year-old ultimately proved to be when, rather than if, he would take the crown, with matters bizarrely decided by the number of cars appearing in race one of the final round.

O’Sullivan is no stranger to unusual championship conclusions, having cruelly missed out on the British Formula 4 title with Carlin in 2020 when the results of the final race were put back by one lap due to a red flag which changed the title outcome.

He decided to remain in the UK for his second season in single-seaters, rather than race in Europe, by stepping up with Carlin into GB3, or what was known at the time as BRDC British Formula 3.

After going on to clinch the title in dominant style, Formula Scout caught up O’Sullivan at the season finale.

“There were three main factors,” O’Sullivan told Formula Scout about his decision to compete in GB3 this year. “Some of them influenced by COVID-19. GB3 wasn’t quite as expensive as other alternatives.

“The competition was still there and it’s a very, very competitive series – in qualifying the top five are covered by two-tenths. And, it was an opportunity for me to stay with Carlin as well. I think the relationship went really well, even if the year in F4 wasn’t quite as good.”

Having kept the same race engineer from his F4 campaign, O’Sullivan hit the ground running in the season opener, finishing third in race one before profiting from a spectacular first-lap collision between Chris Dittmann Racing’s Ayrton Simmons and Hitech GP’s Bart Horsten to take his maiden triumph in race two.

Despite leaving Brands Hatch with the points lead, O’Sullivan admitted he hadn’t been completely satisfied at the time, having felt that he couldn’t extract the maximum in qualifying.

“I think Brands could have been a bit better. We only had one set of tyres, if I remember correctly, in qualifying that cost us a shot at pole.

“Right from the outset, we were strong initially and got one race win at Brands. And then pretty consistent at Silverstone.”

Two more podiums followed at Silverstone in round two, where he was forced to play second fiddle to Hitech’s Reece Ushijima, who starred with two lights-to-flag wins, both from pole.

The third round at Donington Park was where O’Sullivan first really stamped his authority on the season, converting a double pole into victories in races one and two, before retiring in a collision with Ushijima in the reversed-grid encounter. He would add another two wins at the circuit at the end of the season, a surprise to him having struggled there in F4.

“Yeah, surprising. I don’t really enjoy driving it too much. I’ve struggled in the past to get good results. It seems to have worked a bit more with the GB3 car, so it’s gone well. Both times we’ve been here, I’ve struggled a bit on Thursday and Friday but then pulled through for qualifying, and the races have fallen our way as well so, good to get four wins here now.”

Another double podium finish followed at the championship’s traditional annual trek to Spa-Francorchamps, where his team-mate Christian Mansell grabbed the limelight with a dominant wet-weather victory in race one, as did Roman Bilinski, who took a maiden victory for Arden in race two.

An early rain shower in qualifying at the next round at Snetterton prevented a few drivers from getting a quick lap in, with O’Sullivan left with ground to make up from seventh on the grid in race one, which was won from pole by Fortec Motorsports’ Ollie Bearman, making his second appearance of the season.

A second collision of the season with Ushijima left O’Sullivan in 17th after suffering a puncture, but the fact that his rival failed to finish limited the damage to his points lead.

“Two of those accidents [I had during the season] were with my championship rival at the time so they were his fault, so it wasn’t really too costly for me,” said O’Sullivan. “If anyone was going to crash into me, he was the best person. Obviously, it was disappointing to lose the points but, equally, it could have been a lot worse.”

Hitech’s Sebastian Alvarez took his only win of the year in race two ahead of O’Sullivan, who then repeated the result in race three to continue his double-podium streak for a fifth round in a row.

“Every time I had a non-score, the next race was a good result, usually, and I was trying to bounce back as best as possible from any DNFs we had. Consistency is key, and I’ve had that for the most part of the season, but not on other occasions.”

O’Sullivan struggled during a wet qualifying session in the second visit of the year to Silverstone, and another incident with a Hitech driver – this time Alvarez – left him near the back again in race one.

Simmons returned to form after a difficult run of results to take a double victory, while Formula Ford 1600 star Jonathan Browne impressed with a remarkable podium finish in race one on his slicks-and-wings debut for Hillspeed, making its first series appearance of the year.

O’Sullivan salvaged a win in the reversed-grid race after the top three collided in front of him and, helped by a difficult weekend for some of his closest pursuers, went to the penultimate round at Oulton Park within touching distance of the title.

A win from pole in race one gave him a chance to secure the crown with a round to spare. But, while contesting the lead with his 2020 F4 title rival Luke Browning – who was making a one-off GB3 appearance for Fortec after a few tests – he made a rare mistake and suffered his second retirement of the season.

It would prove a significant non-score. After climbing to sixth in the reversed-grid race, O’Sullivan thought he had done enough to clinch the title, only to be told on returning to the pits that he was still four points short.

With a total of 26 points available at each round for positions gained during race three – based on a theoretical maximum of 27 cars entering – O’Sullivan would be champion before the final round even started if less than 23 cars entered.

And that’s indeed what happened. 21 cars took the the track for qualifying at the Donington Park finale – a joint-record entry for the series – which meant O’Sullivan had already done enough.

“Quite long, quite odd,” O’Sullivan revealed about the six-week wait after Oulton Park to find out if he was champion. “Some of the celebrations, we already kind of knew that I’d won.”

And O’Sullivan celebrated the crown in the best possible way, clinching the Jack Cavill Cup for best qualifier across the season after taking his fourth and fifth poles, converting them both into victories.

He signed off the season with another solid recovery drive to eighth in the reversed-grid race, also ensuring that he scored the most points for positions gained over the eight rounds.

“We finished in style with two wins in the first two races. Not only has the season gone to plan, also Donington has gone well, so a good way to end the season.

“Very pleased, the season has gone very well. It’s good to wrap it up, nearly a round early, a bit of a non-end to the championship. Nonetheless, I’ve enjoyed working with all the guys at Carlin this year, and it’s gone to plan.”

O’Sullivan’s stellar campaign has led to two great opportunities in recent weeks, the first of which was attending the Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Award assessments at Silverstone, having been selected as one of the four finalists.

“Really excited, really good opportunity with the sim work, the fitness and of course, on the day, actually driving those three awesome cars,” O’Sullivan said prior to the event. “It is a great development for me in person, and, of course, a £200,000 prize is an awesome addition to it. If I win, I win, if not, I’m glad I’ve got the opportunity to compete in it.”

Following that, he headed to Valencia to take part in FIA Formula 3’s official post-season test with Carlin – a prize arranged by GB3 for his title success.

“A cool opportunity to drive [the FIA F3] car, and also learn Valencia, a track that a lot of series test at. I think it’s a good way that GB3 are promoting the series onto an international stage.”

What do the series changes mean going forward?

An enforced mid-season rebrand to GB3 initially resulted in some uncertainty over what the loss of the iconic British F3 moniker would mean for the series’ future.

However, with a new halo-shod car announced shortly afterwards for 2022 and strong 21-car grid competing at the season finale, there is every reason to be optimistic about the series’ health under its new name.

The Tatuus MSV-022 that is being introduced next year will ensure that the series remains relevant, at a time where the halo safety feature has become mandatory in all FIA single-seater series. With the car maintaining some elements of its predecessor, the series has been able to keep the costs of the new car to a minimum, while giving it visual appeal with the addition of a side-mounted air intake to increase horsepower.

A new GB4 feeder series has been ratified for 2022 too, which will run alongside its parent GB3 series at most events. Using the first-generation Tatuus chassis previously run by F4 series in Germany, Italy and Spain, the cars are for sale at relatively low cost now that those series are moving to a brand new halo-shod machine for next year.

GB3 teams Hillspeed, Fortec, Arden, and Elite Motorsport have been confirmed by the new series as intended entrants, as well as JHR Developments, who were absent from GB3 this season, with at least five teams that compete elsewhere also planning to join them. With an annual budget estimated be to half that of the top FIA F4 championships in 2022, driver interest is expected to be high for GB4’s inaugural season.

Listen to Formula Scout’s review of the season with O’Sullivan in our latest podcast, which you can also find on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

https://open.spotify.com/episode/7j7o1T7iHB5waw3Z9GtTP4?si=bd4289d09bf2465f

 

Formula Scout’s Top 10 drivers

10. Tom Lebbon Elite Motorsport
9th in standings, 288 points (1 podium) – Quallfying Pace 100.70% Qualifying Average 7.6, Race Average 8.4

There was little to choose between Lebbon and team-mate Javier Sagrera in the races, competing in their first seasons at this level with single-seater debutant Elite Motorsport. Sagrera scored the team’s maiden podium in the reversed grid race of the season opener, before Lebbon added another at the first visit to Donington Park. Lebbon edged his team-mate in the points, but was the significantly quicker of the two in qualifying.

9. Frederick Lubin Arden
11th in standings (6 rounds), 263 points (2 podiums) – QP 100.67%, QA 9.2, RA 7.6

Lubin made a solid start on his step up from British F4 with Arden, taking fourth places at both of the opening rounds. But he was forced to miss the next two due to a serious illness, myocarditis. On his return, he initially struggled with fitness, but he hit form at the final two rounds by scoring podiums in the reversed-grid races.

8. Roberto Faria Fortec Motorsports
5th in standings, 360 points (1 win, 4 fastest lap, 9 podiums) – QP 100.66%, QA 7.3, RA 6.6

Faria was often found near the top of the timesheets on pre-event test days, but couldn’t quite replicate that in qualifying, where his average was seventh across the season. After a mixed start to the year, he did find form at the halfway stage. He became the final driver to win a British F3 race by taking a maiden victory in the third encounter at Spa, the last before the series was rebranded to GB3. A run of four podium finishes from the next five races moved him to second in the standings but a number of incidents late in the season – not all of his own making – resulted in him slipping back to fifth.

7. Bart Horsten Hitech GP
6th in standings, 333 points (2 poles, 4 fastest laps, 3 podiums) – QP 100.37%, QA 5.6, RA 7.9

Horsten’s average qualifying pace was only bettered by Bearman and O’Sullivan across the year. A car issue prevented Horsten from making it out in qualifying at Snetterton, and luck deserted him several times in the races as well across the year. A double pole in the dry at Spa was the Australian’s season highlight, but he couldn’t convert them into victories. He briefly claimed a maiden win in a red-flagged race two at Oulton Park, only to have it taken away an hour later after officials declared Browning as the victor on countback.

6. Roman Bilinski Arden
7th in standings (6 rounds), 313 points (3 wins, 1 fastest lap,7 podiums) – QP 100.90%, QA 8.5, RA 5.3

Bilinski was rescued from a difficult British F4 campaign at Carlin to race in GB3 for Arden – which made its series bow this year – from round three onwards, and some fine form ensured the switch paid off.  He took five podiums from six races, including two wins, across the Spa and Snetterton rounds, but two Silverstone retirements prevented him from adding to that tally. A dip in form followed for Arden at the last two rounds, but the Pole triumphed for a third time in the reversed-grid race at Oulton Park.

5. Christian Mansell Carlin
3rd in standings, 371 points (2 wins, 1 fastest lap, 5 podiums) – QP 100.64%, QA 7.6, RA 7.1

Mansell was the only driver to finish every race during the season, that consistency earning him third in the championship and helping Carlin secure the inaugural teams’ title. He made arguably the start of the year at Brands to win from seventh in the reversed-grid race before taking his second win at Spa in the rain.  He made the podium three other times, including another strong wet-weather drive to third during the final round, but incidents in the other two races that weekend cost him a chance of being title runner-up.

4. Reece Ushijima Hitech GP
4th in standings, 366 points (2 wins, 3 poles, 3 fastest laps, 7 podiums) – QP 100.74%, QA 6.8, RA 7.1

Ushijima had a strong second full season in car racing, his double Silverstone win putting him into early title contention. But a double retirement at the next event at Donington halted that momentum and he only rediscovered his best form at the final two rounds. A puncture in the final race left him fourth in the standings, but he finished as the top driver from a strong Hitech stable.

3. Ayrton Simmons Chris Dittmann Racing
2nd in standings, 381 points (4 wins, 3 poles, 1 fastest lap, 5 podiums) – QP 100.57%, QA 8.6, RA 7.1

Simmons was many people’s pick for the title pre-season, a reputation he cemented in the opening round at Brands Hatch by taking two poles and race one victory. But the collision with Horsten in race two changed the course of his season, with chassis damage discovered at the following round. Despite changing the tub, the reversed-grid win during round two was his only podium in the next four meetings. A late-season return to form however helped him salvage second in the standings.

2. Ollie Bearman Fortec Motorsports
14th in standings (3 rounds), 163 points (1 win, 2 poles, 1 fastest lap, 4 podiums) – QP 100.17%, QA 1.3, RA 4.9

Bearman only appeared at three of the eight rounds, with his main focus on the ADAC and Italian F4 championships, but it was enough for him to make his mark. He outqualified O’Sullivan at each of those rounds, setting the second fastest lap at Brands Hatch, before claiming poles at Snetterton and Silverstone later in the year. He managed to win once from nine starts, but his victory tally could easily have been more with reliability issues putting him out from strong positions on two occasions.

1.  Zak O’Sullivan Carlin
1st in standings, 545 points (7 wins, 5 poles, 7 fastest lap, 14 podiums) – QP 100.21%, QA 3.1, RA 4.3

Despite such a dominant points haul, O’Sullivan wasn’t untouchable every race weekend, with others able to get the better of him on occasion. But even when he wasn’t winning, he was still racking up podium finishes. By the end of the 24-race season, he had stood on the podium an impressive 14 times, with seven of them being on the top step. But his title was about more than just consistency. Having taken three more wins than anyone else, as well as more poles, fastest laps and points for positions gained in the reversed-grid races, O’Sullivan’s advantage in every area helped him seal an emphatic triumph.

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