Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Motorsport prime

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Edition

Global Global

How O’Sullivan FP1 run shows Williams is on right track with young drivers

The Williams Formula 1 team has a long history of supporting new talent, and the team’s faith in its current crop will be demonstrated in Abu Dhabi later this month.

Zak O'Sullivan, Williams Academy

Zak O’Sullivan will drive an FW45 in FP1, while Franco Colapinto will join his fellow F3 graduate in sharing driving duties in the following week’s young driver test.

Sir Frank Williams always had a soft spot for rookies. Just consider that the list of those who made their F1 race debuts with the team includes David Coulthard, Jacques Villeneuve, Jenson Button, Juan Pablo Montoya, Nico Rosberg, Nico Hulkenberg, Pastor Maldonado, Valtteri Bottas, Lance Stroll and George Russell.

The Williams Driver Academy was formed to make the process of bringing youngsters through the ranks a little more formal, and it was the conduit that took Nicholas Latifi and Logan Sargeant into F1.

The programme was only ever going to become stronger when James Vowles came on board as team principal at the start of this year.

At Mercedes grooming newcomers was one of his main tasks, and as such he has a good understanding of the junior categories, and a network of contacts across teams and managers.

Williams now has a roster that arguably matches those of Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari and others in terms of potential.

"First of all, as Williams, but also for me, it's tremendously important to be investing in our young driver programme,” Vowles tells Motorsport.com. “We have an active young driver programme, I think Williams across the history of certainly, probably the last 20 years on and off, has been very good at bringing young drivers through it.

“Obviously my link was directly through George here just a few years ago. And the results can be really, really, positive.”

George Russell, Williams FW43B, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

George Russell, Williams FW43B, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

This year Williams had four drivers in F3, with O’Sullivan and Colapinto joined by Luke Browning and Oliver Gray. The first two were the real standouts, with both drivers winning races and ultimately finishing second and fourth respectively in the championship.

The step from F3 to F1 is a big one, even for an FP1 session, and there were no guarantees that any of them would even be eligible for the practice superlicence necessary to run in Abu Dhabi.

“There were options to put in others that weren't in the driver programme,” says Vowles. “But we very much actually focused on making sure that we put our own in the car, and not others, because that's the investment that we're making.

“In terms of Zak himself, whilst he is coming from F3, he has driven a F1 car before. He won the Aston Martin BRDC Autosport Award, and had a positive result in that. And to actually do this event, you have to do 300kms or so in an F1 car. So it wasn't a Williams F1 car, it was an Alpine.”

Back in 2016 Lawrence Stroll piled huge resources into a test programme in an old Williams that saw his son Lance sampling a huge number of tracks around the world.
Latterly the team hasn’t been able to keep a two-year-old car running for young driver testing, but Alpine sees doing so as a useful commercial project.

Its car is often rented out by third parties, whether they be F2 drivers with a lot of backing and little chance of getting a test on merit, or rival teams like Williams, who need to give someone mileage.

"It is a very odd situation,” Vowles admits. “It stems from the fact that for many years, Williams was very focused on just getting a car racing, rather than what I would call ‘nice to haves’.

“And having a test team is a nice to have. Alpine are very accommodating. We've worked with them for quite a while in this regard.”

So is Williams looking at doing its own thing in the future?

James Vowles, Team Principal, Williams Racing, on the pit wall

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

James Vowles, Team Principal, Williams Racing, on the pit wall

“It's on my radar,” says Vowles. “I'm not worried about the financial side, it's actually just an F1 team can only do so much in one go. And clearly building a fast F1 car is my primary goal. So it's definitely on my radar, but no confirmed plans to do anything in the next few years.”

The downside of putting your driver in someone else’s car is that you don’t get as much information as if they were driving your own.

In O’Sullivan’s case it was more about ticking the mileage box than an evaluation as such – Williams knows how good he is. Nevertheless it was encouraging that the reports that came back from Alpine were positive.

“In terms of the feedback, obviously, you can't have access to the data, it'd be wrong that we had access to the data,” says Vowles. “But we do have very, very sensible race engineers, not our own there, running it, who give really detailed feedback. They have no political game around it.

“Their job is just to tell you, this is where he's strong, this is where it's weak. So strengths are huge mental ability to process what was going on at the time, able to build up aggressively during the day, able to complete all the mileage targets, fitness at the right level, all the targets that you're looking for out of a driver before they step into your car.”

It’s apparent that the 18-year-old already ticks all the boxes.

“He absolutely does,” says Vowles. “So first and foremost to win the Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Award is actually quite a challenge.

“And again, we have two in our programme, one's Luke, one's Zak. Which is unusual. It's not that I'm going there [the Autosport Awards] to particularly hunt for them! But it's a very good proving ground for who is and who isn't on the right level.

“Second of all, he was runner-up in what was a very tough F3 season where luck could have adjudicated one way or the other. And he suffered with a number of problems in the middle of the year. And so he's therefore worthy of progressing to the next level.”

Zak O'Sullivan, Williams Academy

Photo by: Williams

Zak O'Sullivan, Williams Academy

O’Sullivan couldn’t stay in the Prema camp for his move to F2, as the seats are already taken by Oliver Bearman and Kimi Antonelli.

Instead he’s following in the footsteps of Lewis Hamilton, Rosberg, Hulkenberg and many others by going to ART, another team that has proved adept at preparing young drivers for F1.

“The next level gets tough,” says Vowles. “F2 is in a very different environment to everything else. It's a new car in 2024, and that'll be interesting in its own right.

“And so irrespective of F2, where he was in F3 gave us the understanding that he's able to process what's going on around him and fight for wins, he had more wins than anyone else in that championship in that year. Some obviously were sprint wins, but still nonetheless, he was there. I think he had equal number of poles. So by the metrics you would look at to go, is he a strong performer? There's enough evidence there.”

Colapinto may have missed out on the Abu Dhabi FP1 running, but that weekend will see him make his F2 debut with MP Motorsport, prior to a full season with the team in 2024.
Thus when he takes to the track for his young driver test mileage he will at least already know his way around.

“The rookie test at the end of the year is a really good opportunity to evaluate how your drivers are performing,” says Vowles. “And with Zak obviously you will have more running, he would have been in the car anyway for an FP1 for an hour or so. And Franco will be a little bit disadvantaged as a result.

“But irrespective, for both of them this isn't about lap times. It's about how they perform under that pressure, under that situation.

“The rookie day is actually a really lovely ability to just do a 200kms and get used to what an F1 car does. And for the first 200km, your mind's blown, that a vehicle can do what it's doing.“

The Williams programme had a nice bonus when Browning recently had his first run in an F1 car – and this time it was a freebie as far as the Grove outfit was concerned.

Luke Browning, Aston Martim AMR21, Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Young Driver Test at Silverstone

Photo by: James Sutton / Motorsport Images

Luke Browning, Aston Martim AMR21, Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Young Driver Test at Silverstone

He had a session in an Aston Martin AMR21 at Silverstone as part of his Autosport prize, and acquitted himself well.

“I had a little bit of feedback from various people there,” says Vowles. “He performed the programme very well, I think they were incredibly happy with what he did, given he'd never been in that car whatsoever before.

“There was no other driver, as far as I understand on the day. So the reference that they're comparing to his data from a year ago. Once you start migrating that far away, it becomes really tough.

“But he performed very well, to the extent where Aston were very, very happy and said ‘congratulations’ to us. So I think that gives you a knowledge of what's going on."

The good news for Williams is that there are already others making their way through the ranks, all the way from karting.

“The next one is obviously Sasha Bondarev, who will be moving up shortly into F4,” says Vowles. “You can start to see we're filling in the programme at different levels.

“And there may or may not be a few more announcements across the next few months, as we sort of look to other talents.

“But there's no particular rush on it. I think at these top tier levels, we've got a really good pipeline of individuals, it's more now down at karting level that we need to fill the pipeline.”

Like other F1 teams, Williams has also got to find a driver to represent it in the F1 Academy series next year. Having supported Susie Wolff and latterly Jamie Chadwick, the team has done more than most to support the cause of female racing drivers.

“That's ongoing,” says Vowles. “We're not rushing that decision. Because that's not a one-year investment. I want to make sure we invest properly into that individual to give them the best chance of it.

Alex Albon, Williams Racing FW45

Photo by: Williams

Alex Albon, Williams Racing FW45

“The thing is you use the words ‘got to’, actually it was already on my radar to make sure we did invest in female drivers. It's only a small correction, but it's a really important one. I suspect that there may be teams hindered by this, I'm the other way around. I think actually we have a duty and responsibility to do so.”

Read Also:

Meanwhile the focus is on how O’Sullivan fares in Abu Dhabi, and Vowles is confident that he will shine.

“If you look at his season and how he is as an individual, he's a very intelligent driver who knows how to extract the most out of machinery,” he says. “He knows that actually, he's not here to set a lap time.

“He's here to build his experience base as the result of it. I think he's an incredibly capable driver, and deserving of this opportunity in Abu Dhabi.

“That's the journey we are on. We spent time reviewing to make sure we were making the right choice. But I'm very confident that with Zak, especially given where he is on points, and his experience, that he's the right driver to undertake the FP1.”

Be part of Motorsport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Why Ricciardo's F1 resurgence may have emerged at the perfect time
Next article What Mexico's "Racepect" campaign says about F1's toxicity problem

Top Comments

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Motorsport prime

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Edition

Global Global