the company behind zak o’sullivan’s motorsport rise

Go through the list of promising, upcoming racing drivers, and Formula 3 driver Zak O’Sullivan sits high as a talent to watch.

After success at the Autosport BRDC Awards at the start of 2022, O’Sullivan received an outing in Aston Martin’s 2021 Formula 1 challenger last month, which provided him with his first taste of the pinnacle of motorsport.

The Williams-backed driver made his debut in the F3 Championship in 2022, finishing 11th having claimed podiums in Silverstone and Zandvoort. He will return to the series in 2023, this time competing for PREMA Racing.

Supported for the last four years by Kokoro Performance coach and former racer Kieren Clark (who founded the company), O’Sullivan secured a pole position in Silverstone with Carlin last season, narrowly missing out on the win to Arthur Leclerc. Another podium appearance followed in the Netherlands, en route to an eventual 11th-placed championship finish.

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In the highly competitive F3 environment, some may view the year as a successful maiden campaign – but Clark and the O’Sullivan camp were left slightly unsatisfied, highlighting the tremendous ambition possessed by the driver and coach.

“I think if he hadn’t had the success that he had in the other championships, you’d say it was a good season,” was Clark’s candid reaction. “We knew what we were going in with, we knew it was going to be a hard season. We didn’t expect to jump in and start winning, purely because the competition is high, but also the level of competition with the teams and stuff like that.

“But, I think by the end of the season, we expected to be there or thereabouts, but for numerous reasons, it just didn’t work out.”

Drivers have limited time to prepare before they are thrust into the F3 season, and with no time in-season to tune their set-ups, finding success throughout the venture is a monumental task.

“It’s a hard championship, because there’s just no testing,” Clark said. “There’s no running, you can’t run with the team, you can’t run in the car. I wouldn’t say anyone did a bad job, it’s just hard. You’re learning every weekend, and although you’ve got a 45-minute practice on a Friday, you’ve only actually got 12 laps.

“So, you’ve got 12 laps to get your install laps done, you’ve got to do a tyre run, get your base lap, see where you’re at, and then work on the car for your next run. And then you’re into qualifying.

“So, there’s a lot of work that’s going in behind the scenes to try and evolve the set-up and move in the right direction, and sadly, we just ran out of time. I think what we can do is take away the positives. He had a pole at Silverstone and a podium in Zandvoort, which is fantastic.

“Zak will definitely disagree with me, but I think we could have had a win at Silverstone. He’ll disagree with me until the cows come home, but that’s fine! Then obviously he had the podium at Zandvoort which was quite good, and we were top 12 in a lot of qualifyings, which put him onto reverse grid poles and stuff like that.

“It definitely wasn’t a bad season. I think it’s just when you compare to some of our competition – which I always say you shouldn’t compare – but looking at it in hindsight, we’d have liked to be a little bit closer. It is what it is. You can look at it and say it wasn’t an amazing season in terms of his results, but I think in terms of a character-building season, it was very good.”

the company behind zak o’sullivan’s motorsport rise

O’Sullivan’s junior category experience prior to F3 was highly successful – second in the 2019 Ginetta Junior Championship, second in the 2020 British F4 Championship before taking the title in the 2021 GB3 Championship.

The step to F3 was his biggest leap yet, and the challenge was made all the more evident when analysing his results across the opening stages of the campaign.

“I think it’s always easy to be happy and work well when you’re winning, and that’s what Zak’s had the luxury of over the last few years,” Clark said. “This is the first year it’s been a real, real challenge, and I think he definitely needed that before he goes to those next steps, which is not long before he gets to that Formula 1 step.

“And, when you look at the F1 grid, you can’t always be in the best car, and sometimes you have to accept that and just work with what you’ve got.

“So, it’s definitely been a character-building season for him, and for me to be fair, because I hate losing. I am a really sore loser, not in a way that I throw my toys out the pram, but I can’t let it go. I spend the next week analysing it to understand what we can do better.

“I think that’s why Zak and I get on really well, because he’s much the same. If there’s something he needs to work on, Monday morning we’re working on it.

“It’s like, ‘let’s go, what can we do? How can we capitalise on this?’ So, character-building I would say, but it sounds really bad, doesn’t it? Because we’re poo-pooing the results he did get, but that’s just sadly our nature. That’s just how we work, and I think that’s why we get on so well.”

O’Sullivan overcame the challenges of Oliver Bearman, Louis Foster and Jonny Edgar to earn a priceless go in an F1 car in Towcester at the end of last year.

The drivers competed in an MSV Formula 2 car, a Garage 59-run Aston Martin GT3, and a BBM Sport Ginetta LMP3 challenger, putting their skills to the sternest of tests.  Informed by his aforementioned philosophy, Clark’s preparation with O’Sullivan was no different to what they have become accustomed to.

“It was [the same],” he affirmed. “Again, the fundamentals were there. Nothing really changed in terms of what we trying to work on in how he needed to drive the car and what he was looking for from each car.

“I’d say that’s what we spent time doing, understanding, ‘right, you’ve got an Aston Martin GT3 car, you’ve never driven one of those. What can you expect? What’s it going to feel like?’

“Well, first of all, it’s not going to feel like a GB3 car round the corners. Obviously, we’d been doing GP3 testing, so it’s not going to feel like that. We worked on understanding how to maximise the tyre, what it’s like with tyre blankets, how slow it’s going to feel, how to work around the ABS.

the company behind zak o’sullivan’s motorsport rise

“LMP3 – much of a muchness – it’s the same as a GB3 car, just heavier. So, how are we going to maximise that? I’d say that’s probably the car we struggled with most in the award.

“The Formula 2 car, I’ve got quite a lot of experience with over the years. I’ve coached drivers when it was actually running, so I knew a lot about the car, so we were able to give him a lot of information.

“It was more a case of how are you mentally going to prepare to approach the event? In your first run, what are you focusing on? Are you focusing on learning the car on the first lap, or are you focusing on just ragging the back end out of it? What are you going to try and do?

“And it was about having that mental plan really, and visualising that. When I say visualise, I don’t mean we sit here thinking about what we’re going to do, but lap one, you’ve got to make sure you’re confident and happy with that car. Lap two, you’ve got to put a lap in, you’ve got to commit. You’ve got to deliver.”

As a result of his win, the 17-year-old got the chance to return to Silverstone and jump into the AMR21.

The step up to F1 machinery is a sizeable leap for any junior – with preparation for the drive proving to be difficult due to the mammoth speeds that the cars possess.

“I don’t think you can really prepare, because the step, even for an F2 driver, is so big,” explained Clark.

“I don’t think you can really prepare for it, but obviously we went through the motions and did what we could. Fortunately, because of Zak’s support from Williams, we’ve done a lot of sim – I say we, he’s the one that’s doing the job! – we’ve done a lot of sim work with Williams, understanding the downforce levels and how the car works, and what to expect from the brakes and stuff like that.

“He’d done a lot of that in the simulator, so then it’s the same process. It’s about then controlling the mind. This is going to be probably 50 per cent faster than anything you’ve ever driven before, so what are the things that are going to get in the way?

“Because it’s going so much faster, your vision’s going to be a bit slow, so you need to make sure your vision’s up. Whatever you do, make sure that vision is far ahead, every single corner, every single time. Because that’s what’s giving you the feedback and the information of what’s coming ahead.

“We know that the braking is going to be mega, and we know that you’re going to brake too early initially, so when you hit the brakes, hit the brakes, and accept that you’ve slowed it down.

“Use the correct technique, don’t get on the throttle, just keep focusing on the correct braking technique, and then just apply it later the next corner, the next lap. And then you’ll build up faster, rather than just trying to drive as fast as you can from lap one.”

Naturally, O’Sullivan was ecstatic at the opportunity to drive F1 machinery.

“Driving the F1 car as my prize for winning the Autosport Award was amazing,” he said. “The speed and power were immense, and to be honest just starting the car was complex! In order to hit the ground running I prepared in advance with my coaching team at Kokoro Performance. In particular we looked at the fitness side of things, because driving the F1 is a huge physical challenge. I hope that all the learnings from that experience will help me get even more out of the car the next time I’m offered the opportunity.”

the company behind zak o’sullivan’s motorsport rise

But as is often the case with drivers that have no F1 experience, there was one particular area where O’Sullivan struggled.

“I think the only thing I would say we probably didn’t do enough of is neck work,” Clark admitted. “Lateral was fine, but longitudinal braking with his neck going down, that was definitely the biggest issue. I think he could have gone faster if he could keep his head up.

“But, what I love about Zak is he’s so critical of himself. He’s like, ‘I could have gone faster if I’d sorted my neck out.’ So Wednesday morning, we were like, ‘right, onto neck, let’s go.’ We’ve got a trainer we’re working with now to make sure we’re maximising that, so the next time he gets in the car, that doesn’t hold him back.

“I think, after the install, when he came back in, he got out the car and went, ‘holy cow, that’s really fast!’ When he first went to full throttle, he said he was a bit surprised. He thought, ‘is that it?’ sort of thing.

“What he didn’t realise was that the car was in regen mode, and then he went through Maggots and Becketts, went full throttle and went, ‘oh wow, this is really fast, I actually feel a little bit sick.’

“But then, Zak doing what Zak does, he sat down, processed it and went back out. Then he was absolutely fine, no issues.”

O’Sullivan’s solid performances this year earned him a seat at PREMA for the 2023 campaign, in light of Oliver Bearman’s step up to Formula 2 with the Italian side.

It makes the Briton one of the drivers to watch in the context of next year’s championship, and with the milestone of his first F1 drive ticked off his bucket list, he can now target much more regular outings behind the wheel of F1 cars.

Right with him, as they have been for the last several years, will be the Kokoro team.

“The name ‘Kokoro’ is a Japanese – I really liked the sound of it and what it represents,” Clark said. “It represents bringing all the elements together to have the ultimate health, and for us it’s not about health, it’s about bringing all the elements together to get the best results. When I set the company up, I always wanted to it to stand for something rather than just be ‘Kieren Clark Driver Coaching’, because at the end of the day, driver development is not about one person; it’s about a group of people.”

Keyword: The company behind Zak O’Sullivan’s motorsport rise

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