A MONTH after the finale of the Formula 1 (F1) season and Max Vetstappen's controversial safety car win, conversations about the sport have started to enter debates unseen previously - for many racing has become a new sport, but for others it's been a lifelong dream.
Kids growing up around the world aspire to emulate their sporting heroes from a young age.
They look up to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Tom Brady or Serena Williams in the hopes that one day they could follow in their footsteps.
For most young people it’s about the footballers, rugby players, or cricketers.
Fewer go down the racing route to follow a sporting dream.
However one young man who is doing this is 16-year-old Zak O'Sullivan.
I met Zak in a cafe in South London and spoke to the teenager about his goals, dreams and passion for racing.
It turns out his drive to succeed is immense, if you'll pardon the pun.
Was fantastic to chat with Conor from @theirishpost over breakfast this morning!
Loved talking about my Irish heritage and discussing the motorsport industry as a whole 🇮🇪🙌🏻 @conordunny #TheIrishPost pic.twitter.com/4wBaEUPCoY
— Zak O'Sullivan (@ZakOSullivan) December 19, 2021
Zak's Irish background
Zak is the current champion of the GB3 Championship, having competed for Carlin, and was vice-champion of the 2020 F4 British Championship. His roots tie back to Tipperary in Ireland.
He admits he travelled back to Ireland about three or four times every year as a boy, to visit his grandfather, who has since passed away, and learnt much about his Irish heritage from his dad.
“My dad used to always tell me stories about his upbringing and it was the polar opposite of what I was brought up with," he told me.
"It was pretty interesting to hear all the stories. I really enjoyed my time in Ireland. It was an escape I guess."
There is much support among the Irish in Britain for Zak, something he claims has grown even stronger over the years.
Last year, when he crossed the finish line at Donington Park racetrack in Derby, the community was out in force to greet him.
“I think probably half of Tipperary were coming to the track," he joked, "my auntie who owns a pub in Tipperary got all the regular pub customers to come over and support me at the last race."
I asked Zak to tell me the most quintessentially Irish thing he could think of.
"I have a strong recollection of the smell of coal burning in the open fire as we arrived late in the evening at my grandfather’s house to celebrate Christmas," he said.
"London, where I then lived, was a smoke-free zone. Since then I’ve always associated that smell with Ireland and a family Christmas. ‘
Zak also recalls celebrating the big Irish occasions with his family.
In Britain the Cheltenham horse-racing festival coincides with the week that St Patrick’s Day falls in each year.
When Zak was little the family used to have a big party at that time of year.
The house was full with family and friends attending Cheltenham, he recalls, and Zak would come home from school to join the St Patrick’s Day celebrations which lasted late into the evening.
As a result he links horse racing and celebrating his Irish heritage very closely.
Dreams on emulating Eddie Irvine
We also spoke about how Dutch racing driver Max Verstappen recently made history when he became Formula 1 World Champion for the first time under dubious circumstances in the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP.
Zak told me that he read a statistic that 1⁄3 of Dutch people were watching the race, a feat in my opinion that he’d probably easily overtake with the whole Irish population behind him, if he ever reached Verstappen’s level.
Edmund Irvine Jr. was a former racing driver from Northern Ireland. He competed in Formula One between 1993 and 2002, and finished runner-up in the 1999 World Drivers' Championship, driving for Scuderia Ferrari.
“I think it was Eddie Irvine who was last there as an Irishman. So it’s been a while, so hopefully I can at least represent half an Irish background," said Zak.
Zak is conscious that not every country has someone making their way in F1 to look up to in the way the likes of Spain, England or Holland do.
He is hopeful that is something that he could change for the Irish community in the coming years.
“We are so lucky in the UK, we’ve got the likes of Lando [Norris], George [Russell], and [Lewis] Hamilton here in the F1.
"I feel sorry for the fans who don’t have a driver or someone to cling onto. It’s a bit harder to watch, so hopefully I can make that dream come through."
Zak’s racing journey
The teenager's racing journey began by watching racing on the TV at a young age and from a father that had a huge interest in building and watching cars.
Zak told me his first word wasn’t mom or dad, it was in fact, 'car'.
“I think my first word wasn’t mom or dad, it was car. We used to watch buses and cars go past and for some reason my love for racing stemmed from there and then I started watching F4 more and more," he admits.
Zak attended the Autosport International Show in Birmingham at the age of seven and spotted a go kart.
After a year of begging and pleading with his father to get him one, he finally caved and got him one.
He learnt how to drive on derelict tennis courts and soon after decided to take up racing as a sport. He came third in his first race and that began his journey in the sport.
He would then win three out of his first five races. Zak was dubbed 'Rain Man' for his speed in the wet. His short but promising career has gone from strength to strength ever since.
After winning the prestigious British GP Kartmasters Championship at just 14 years old Zak decided to swap karts for cars and moved into the Ginetta Junior Championship.
He secured three race wins and a further 11 podiums, finishing second overall. He went on to become the rookie champion in that series.
He would transition into single seaters at the British F4 Championship in 2020 and was engaged in a fierce battle for the title against Luke Browning for the whole year - only losing out in controversial circumstances in the final race of the season at Brands Hatch.
Racing under Trevor Carlin
Trevor Carlin at Carlin Racing, the man who sent Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo, Sebastian Vettel, Carlos Sainz, Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat into F1, spotted huge potential in Zak and decided he should make the grade to British F3.
Carlin has teams in F2, F3, British F3, British F4 and many more. They are arguably the biggest name in lower-formula racing.
“I think Zak has got a fantastic future ahead of him, if he can keep the same work ethic, he has to remember he’s only 16 years old and he is at the very beginning and what he has achieved is massive," said Carlin.
“If he can keep this momentum going, I would say in two or three years he will be ready potentially for Formula 1”, added the racing boss.
The BRDC British Formula 3 Championship or the GB3 Championship, as it’s now called, beckoned for Zak. The teenager got to race at iconic circuits such as Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps.
He became the youngest ever to win GB3. He won the title with the most race wins, the most podiums, the most pole positions and most laps led in a season. It was a complete domination.
Zak confirms how much he enjoyed being part of the Carlin team - adding that he loved hearing stories about some of the ex-drivers who have gone through the ranks under the name.
The 16-year-old has been compared to one of Carlin’s former prodigies George Russell and the racing boss (Carlin) spotted his massive potential. He claimed that if he continues on the trajectory he’s on he could reach the top tier of racing, which is F1.
I asked Zak about the comparisons to George Russell, who also raced in the GB3 championship. Russell is the most recent British driver to come through the ranks and is moving to Lewis Hamilton’s team, Mercedes next year.
“I think as a person’ he’s pretty admirable, he’s pretty mature," Zak says.
"I say in terms of the way I conduct myself it would be George Russell. He’s always very courteous and polite with the media."
He added that in speaking to engineers who have worked with the top drivers, they all have one thing in common and that is raw speed.
“All these drivers have won all their junior categories and it really is the best of the best, and all these drivers over one lap are something special and all the people I've spoken to from within the industry have engineered for some of these F1 drivers and the main thing they comment on is raw speed, whether they want to put a qualifying lap in or really take risks there able too," he explained.
Sacrifices made in racing
Zak is homeschooled and appreciates the sacrifices his family made to get him to where he is today.
He said that he would be away for 40 weeks of the year, which made it impossible to stay in school despite making the best efforts.
“It was manageable, but when I went to Europe at age 11, it became very difficult. I was away for 40 weeks of the year," he said.
"I tried to get the work done. I'd be up at 6am and be at the track by 7am. At the end of the year we decided to take a punt and at the end of the year we decided to go with home tutoring."
It’s fair to say that the punt has paid off in his career. He’s achieved accolades like the title of BRDC Superstar (BRDC = British Racing Drivers’ Club). Previous winners of which include F1 drivers Russell, Norris and Alex Albon.
The teenager, ironically, has not received his full driving licence but his achievements on the track during a short spell in racing, winning awards, being compared to F1 drivers and the likes of George Russell are far bigger accolades.
Driving an F2 car and looking up to his heroes
Zak is one of four finalists for the renowned Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Award for Young Driver of the Year 2021.
Previous finalists/winners include David Coulthard, Jenson Button, Anthony Davidson, Paul Di Resta, George Russell and Lando Norris.
The award process began with the judges picking the ten biggest stars in British racing, before narrowing it down to the four they were most impressed with.
These four (Zak included) traveled to Silverstone in October and were tested in F2 cars, GT cars and more. The judges picked a winner and this will be revealed at the Autosport Awards in February.
I asked the driver what it was like, what it was like testing in an F2 car and also if racing ever made him nervous.
“I’d say most drivers are pretty similar; very few drivers don’t have pre-race nerves," he said.
"I get really nervous but I can control it. It’s only sitting in the car getting ready and once it hits the formation lap it goes away, so it’s the anticipation more than anything."
One thing Zak didn’t lack was belief in his own ability to go up the grades of racing, although he knows how hard it is to get to the top of the ladder.
The teenager cited Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher as big inspirations in achieving his goal.
I asked what kind of legacy he would like to leave behind in the sport.
“It must be hard for some drivers to keep motivation because they have come through so many years, after 15 years in the junior formula, they kinda reach their dream and they win their championship and they think okay I've won everything I've needed to win and that’s what is pretty impressive about Hamilton at the moment given his age and Schumacher back in the day," he said.
“They are able to keep grinding and not really lose motivation.
"I know there are people who would lose motivation and say that’s me done, but the work ethic is admirable."
Talking to Zak - who was cool, calm and collected throughout our interview - it was clear to see that, despite his age, and short yet fruitful career to date, he is level headed, confident in his ability and has an excellent working relationship with the team around him in.
He’s been described as someone who is extremely intelligent, very analytical, articulate in a razor-sharp way and very focused and with that I cannot disagree.
Zak's drive and ambition to climb the ladder in racing is admirable. And, after meeting him, something tells me that he’s going to be a household name for motorsport fans in years to come.
I, for one, will be watching and can’t wait to see what he achieves.