Home Featured How Zak O’Sullivan earned his unlikely Monaco F2 feature race win

How Zak O’Sullivan earned his unlikely Monaco F2 feature race win

by Alejandro Alonso Lopez

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

Monaco looked set to be just another learning weekend in Zak O’Sullivan’s rookie F2 campaign, until he grasped the opportunity of a lifetime.

Zak O’Sullivan’s victory in the Formula 2 feature race at Monaco involved a large slick of luck, but he had to earn the opportunity granted by the virtual safety car.

The ART Grand Prix driver was only eighth fastest in qualifying group A, meaning he would line up in a distant 15th place in both races. Meanwhile, his teammate Victor Martins topped group B, securing a front row spot for Sunday’s race. Post-session penalties upped him to 13th position in the starting grid for the sprint race, which he finished in 10th.

In the feature race, O’Sullivan and ART GP played with the strategy and they hit the jackpot. The Williams junior earned his maiden F2 win and the 2023 drivers and teams’ champions its first of what has been a troubled 2024 season so far.

“I didn’t think it was on the cards after a tricky qualifying,” the Briton confessed to media including Formula Scout after the race.

He only gained one place on the opening lap – that of Martins, who plummeted down the order due to a mechanical issue as the lights went out. After that, he knew he was going long, and there was therefore a lot of management required in substantially different conditions to what he had experienced in previous sessions. He never had a “real laptime target” throughout his 40-lap stint on the soft tyre. Only the pit-stops of Taylor Barnard and Dennis Hauger on laps 30 and 32 of 42 gave the go-ahead to a succession of “quali laps”.

“Each day the track is always evolving, especially on street circuits,” O’Sullivan explained. “Temperature is a lot lower. The fuel load is different. I managed quite a lot early in the race. I was just stuck in a train of cars. A couple of cars on the other strategy, the alternate strategy. So there was no point in me really pushing. There was only when Barnard pitted in front of me and then it was kind of 20 quali laps to try and to make up some advantage. I was touching quite a few walls.

“At some point, I knew I was maybe in the top six, top seven without a safety car. And then, eventually, the VSC ended up gifting us the win. But the pace was really strong. Degradation was good. I think we made a step there.”

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

O’Sullivan was fired up late on in the race and delivered when it mattered. He lapped consistently faster than Martins behind him, increasing the gap between them by over five seconds in eight laps before the latter boxed. And most importantly, he kept the gap with Campos Racing’s Isack Hadjar stable at around 19 seconds. He had the net lead of the race, thus was the man to beat out of the pits should a safety car come out.

He and ART GP were running out of laps, but then Joshua Duerksen stopped on track after making contact with Zane Maloney. The team immediately told O’Sullivan to box, and he made his pit-stop count by entering the pit-lane moments before the VSC was deployed.

“Whilst I was on the pit-lane, I saw the VSC board, so I thought ‘OK, maybe it’s gonna be pretty close’. And of course when I saw no cars in front of me and one behind me coming out of the pits, I knew. But I was aware for the last five, six laps that we were in the fight for the win. For five laps I had been within the safety car pit window. I didn’t even need to take that much risk coming out of the pit lane with the delta time, etc, under the VSC.

“Even without a safety car, we would have had still quite a strong result since the clear air and extended stint really helped out. But I was aware of the situation and we were in quite a good place no matter what.”

Conversely, Hadjar was completely unaware of what was happening ahead of him, which cost him and Campos the victory. Had he known, he would have reduced the gap to his rival. Nonetheless, O’Sullivan admitted that “the timing was kind of perfect for me” and described the situation as “a one in 1000 chance of it actually going your way”.

“We always talk about strategy: imagine if, imagine if and today didn’t have to imagine it.”

Winning at Monaco is undoubtedly “a big boost” for O’Sullivan and his ART Grand Prix team, who have endured “a tricky start to the year”.

In 2023, the French outfit had achieved one feature race win, three more podiums and a pole position with the experienced Theo Pourchaire after five rounds. He sat second in the standings, five points off the championship lead by then and eventually became champion. Meanwhile, rookie Martins made the podium in the first two sprint races of the year and claimed a pole. ART GP was then second in the teams’ championship with a total of 108 points.

Those results contrast with what has been secured this year. Only O’Sullivan has made the top five twice and currently sits seventh in the standings with 40 points to his name, which is half of the points scored by championship leader, Hitech GP’s Paul Aron. Martins’ start has been even tougher with a best finish of seventh in Melbourne’s sprint race and a tally of just 11 points.

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

Formula Scout had spoken with O’Sullivan at the previous round at Imola, where there was “a lot of improve on from my side, and from everyone involved”.

“[It has been] a bit of a learning curve. Not just for me, but for the team and everyone involved with a new car as well this year,” he said.

“On the surface, race pace was the main area to focus on, particularly in Bahrain and Jeddah. And the one-lap pace, either from me or from Victor in Jeddah was not bad. We were there or thereabouts. Melbourne was a bit of a tricky weekend I think for both of us.

“The test, we did learn a lot. It’s nice to go back to Barcelona after the shakedown with a new car, and we had a bit more of an idea of what to do. I think like everyone, it was a bit of a re-baseline. See what we’ve got to from January, and try and find some solutions. Now we’ve got five or six races in a couple of months, which is nice, to hopefully build some momentum and get some consistency again.”

The downforce-power ratio makes the biggest difference between Formula 3 and F2, explained O’Sullivan, who had to adapt his driving style.

“I’d say an F3 car has actually a bit more grip and more downforce, and you can push a lot harder. F2 is a bit trickier, especially in the races. The actual core level of grip is quite low compared to the power we have, which makes for some fun. In Bahrain, our race pace is almost the same as F3. So a bit of adaption in driving.

“Not so much [different] compared to last year’s [F2] car. I think mechanically the cars are very similar, so the driving styles are quite similar. The aero is the main difference towards the new car, and that’s the thing that teams are still trying to work out and get on top of. So not a massive change in driving, but more just requiring bits and bobs here and there and working out how to maximise the car the best.”

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

The support provided by the Williams F1 team on that front has also been useful. “With a new car as well, there’s some queries that you can lean on to ask them.”

O’Sullivan became F3 championship runner-up in 2023 with Italian squad Prema. There hasn’t been a cultural shock in joining French ART GP, which he described as “a very welcoming team”.

“In terms of processes, the way they work, it’s quite similar to what I was used to last year in Prema. So there wasn’t too much different. It was quite a seamless kind of transition in Abu Dhabi for the first test.”

There’s also a “good relationship between Victor and myself, trying to work to improve the car and improve each other and do as best as we can.

“The atmosphere is good. Of course, we both want to do as well as possible and beat each other. But there is a main goal behind that, and that’s improving as a team all around. We’re both working very hard to do that, of course trying to maximise our own sides of things, but there’s no animosity. It’s all very similar and we’re both working to get the best results possible for the team.”

For the remainder of the season, the Briton expects the field to get “even closer than it already is”. His victory in the principality already proved him right, and there should be more opportunities for him to shine.

“There’s maybe less of a pecking order than last year in terms of top teams and slower teams. Everyone seems much closer this year. So I think it’s going to be still very tight and unpredictable, but hopefully a bit more bunched up.

“In terms of expectations for myself, I think I can only maximise what I need to do every weekend and focus on that. Perform in kind of my areas, and hopefully the results will follow.”