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FIA F2 Monaco

Luck or judgement? How O'Sullivan pulled off a Monaco miracle

Williams Formula 1 junior Zak O’Sullivan vaulted from 15th to score his maiden Formula 2 victory on the Monaco streets. Speaking to Autosport, both the driver and his ART race engineer, Amaury Lardon, share the story behind the success

Zak O'Sullivan, ART Grand Prix

If you qualify poorly in Monaco, you will finish in a lowly position unless there is some kind of safety car or weather-related chaos. This is the generally accepted way of things around the streets of the Principality.

But, while Williams junior driver Zak O’Sullivan was the beneficiary of a virtual safety car intervention on his unlikely journey from 15th on the grid to the top step of the Formula 2 podium, labelling it as ‘the luckiest win in the history of luck’ - as it has been daubed on social media - is perhaps unfair.

Although the timesheets show his was only the 18th fastest lap, the Briton had enough pace on his aged starting tyres to make an alternate strategy viable, then reaped the benefits of a well-timed stop and a brief pause in the action that transferred a points-paying result into victory.

For the ART pitwall, there were two vital decisions to make across the 42-lap duration, with one of these coming before the cars left the grid: which tyres to fit.

The options were to start on either the soft or the supersoft – a compound name long dropped by Formula 1 – with the regulations stating that both must be run in the race. While this may seem like a simple decision, on a track where overtaking is difficult to the extreme, playing the long game is a strategy that will only pay off if the race is neutralised at a late enough stage.

On the contrary, starting on the softest option and gambling on an early safety car – something common in Monaco – would allow the driver to stop in this period and drive to the flag. The negative here is that most of the frontrunners would also be running to this plan, thus limiting the chance of progression. This option is also more often than not the strongest for a race where there is no stoppage of any kind.

“The engineers made the call,” explains Amaury Lardon, race engineer to O’Sullivan, when asked by Autosport how much involvement the driver had in the decision. “We spoke with Zak before the race and we just said that we would decide [the tyres] on the grid, we would decide the best thing by looking at the cars around. For sure, Zak – in the car – he cannot see all of the strategy around.”

O'Sullivan crossed the line first in the Monaco F2 feature race, an outcome few would have predicted after qualifying

O'Sullivan crossed the line first in the Monaco F2 feature race, an outcome few would have predicted after qualifying

Photo by: Formula Motorsport Ltd

Having selected the softs, decision two for the pitwall comes in the timing of when to bring the driver in for their mandatory stop. On O’Sullivan’s strategy, it might seem like the obvious option was to run as long as possible and hope for a late interruption – this being the option selected by ART. But this is no guarantee of a result. The driver must still have the race pace over those early stoppers to make any positional gain.

This is where the element of luck comes into play. While O’Sullivan’s win was not entirely down to good fortune, it is also impossible to deny the quirk of fate that fell his way. In order to claim an unlikely victory, a virtual or full safety car was required on lap 40, so O’Sullivan could pit and return to the track ahead of Isack Hadjar's Campos machine, the first of those who had already stopped. 

But since drivers are not permitted to enter the pits to complete their mandatory stop under the virtual safety car, not only did O’Sullivan need an interruption, but he needed one to fall just at the moment he entered the pitlane. Remarkably, this exact scenario occurred.

"The VSC came at the perfect time because, if it had been five seconds or 10s earlier, I would have been disqualified for not doing my mandatory pitstop" 
Zak O'Sullivan

When Joshua Durksen, another of the late stoppers, collided with then-championship leader Zane Maloney upon exiting the pits, it had enormous ramifications. The resulting VSC was displayed at the perfect moment for O’Sullivan, although he conceded to Autosport that he had been unaware of this situation until leaving his stop.

“I was in Rascasse and suddenly got a call saying, ‘Box box box box box’,” he recalls. “I came into the pitlane and it was actually only when I was released out of the pit box that I looked to the timing gantry and I saw VSC.

“At that point, I looked in the mirror and I came out of the pits and there was no one in front, no one behind, and I thought, ‘Oh, I think we're leading the race’. So yeah, pretty crazy circumstances. Of course, the VSC came at the perfect time because, if it had been five seconds or 10s earlier, I would have been disqualified for not doing my mandatory pitstop.”

Lardon adds: “When the VSC appeared, he was just at the beginning of the pitlane and, on the pitwall, we were just happy because we knew we were P1 at this point.

Hadjar was the driver that missed out because of the VSC timing

Hadjar was the driver that missed out because of the VSC timing

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

“But it was not finished because the VSC ended two laps before the end, so we said to Zak that we had to push. Isack was behind so we had to push to warm the tyres, but we were just so happy at this point and it was a good moment.”

Such was O’Sullivan’s pace in clear air that he had held an 18.7s margin over Hadjar before stopping. Although this was not enough to stop and retain the lead under green-flag conditions, he would have likely still returned to the track in the middle of the points-paying positions – a mind-boggling achievement given his lowly starting position.

“Without the VSC, we would have finished in the top five and, starting from P15 in Monaco, that’s already a really good result,” reckons Lardon.

Asked of his surprise at no other drivers pushing the strategy to the bitter end, he adds: “Yeah, but the thing is that Zak was really fast, and all the others were not that fast.

“If you don’t pit, you are losing positions at this point. So for sure, it was a gamble but in our situation it was easy because we were faster than everyone else, so we just stayed on track. But the others [on the strategy] were slow and, at this point, they had to cover other drivers. It was a surprise that nobody did the same as us but, at the end, it was Zak that was the fastest.”

Suggesting a top three was not out of the question even without the intervention, O’Sullivan adds: “I believed wholeheartedly in a good result, that’s for sure. The main focus was actually just getting track position, because even if I came out on cold tyres, I think we were fighting [Oliver] Bearman for P3. I was quite confident I could hold at least a couple of cars off for the first couple of laps before getting the temperature.

“When they started talking about if a safety car came we could win the race, I was thinking, ‘Well, yeah, there’s not gonna be a safety car. It’d be lovely, but I’m sure there won’t be a safety car.’ Of course, the VSC did come, so that part is very lucky, and especially the timing as well. A good result was possible [without it] - but the win, not really.”

O’Sullivan believes a strong result could still have been possible even without a VSC, although accepts it was what won him the race

O’Sullivan believes a strong result could still have been possible even without a VSC, although accepts it was what won him the race

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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