Joining a Formula One team’s driver academy is arguably the most crucial step in an aspiring F1 driver’s career, but it is not something that many drivers experience. The road to Formula 1 is becoming more and more competitive by the day, so being in an academy is almost necessary to join the exclusive club of 20 drivers at the highest level. F1 Feeder Series sat down with British F4 race winner Ollie Gray, who joined the Williams F1 academy in early 2022.
By Tom Evans
Gray’s single-seater journey started in the 2021 British F4 Championship, for which he lined up alongside James Hedley and Joel Granfors at Fortec Motorsport. Whilst some drivers such as Zak O’Sullivan and Lando Norris have opted for a season in the Ginetta Junior Championship prior to a season in single-seaters, Gray jumped to British F4 straight from a WSK Euro Series campaign, in which he finished sixth.
“British F4 was the logical step after competing in British and European karting the year before,” Gray said about the decision-making behind his move up to cars. “I was 16 at the time, so a year in Ginettas wouldn’t have benefitted us too much.”
But the partnership between Gray and Fortec didn’t work out as initially hoped.
“We had some strong tests with Fortec, so we ultimately decided to go with them for our first season. It was a struggle, to be honest. The car was good, but we were very inconsistent as a team. It was my rookie year so it was always going to be difficult, but I think we let each other down because we didn’t put 100 percent into it.
“We didn’t fall out, but we parted ways on icy terms,” Gray admitted. “But I still appreciate everything Fortec did for me that season.”
Williams, Carlin, and the process behind 2022
In early 2022, it was announced that Gray would take another shot at the British F4 Championship with Carlin and join the Williams Driver Academy. Gray’s fellow academy members Logan Sargeant and O’Sullivan also both raced at Carlin for 2022 in F2 and F3 respectively.
“Williams contacted my manager and it unfolded from there. I was testing with Carlin at the time, who have a good link with Williams, so a few good words were put in, and then we had some meetings and it all went from there.
“I was pretty shocked because it was so unexpected after the average year that we had, so I was over the moon in the fact that such a legendary name had put their trust in me for the following season.”
Before joining Williams and embarking on his second British F4 season, Gray contested the first two rounds of the F4 UAE Championship in January. Despite only competing in two of five rounds, Gray finished 15th overall with five points finishes, including one podium.
“We started the year out in the UAE with Hitech. Obviously we had the new car come in, so that somewhat negated our second-season advantage. But doing the rounds in the UAE was very helpful in terms of learning the car, and as soon as our two rounds were over we came straight back to the UK to test with Carlin and develop the car through the colder months of February and March.”
British F4 in 2022
Like most drivers, Gray had title aspirations for his British F4 season. He ultimately came close but finished the season in second overall behind Alex Dunne after a long battle between the two drivers throughout the whole season. It ended in unorthodox fashion at the final round at Brands Hatch, as Dunne was not present because of a clash with the Italian F4 round at Monza.
“At the first round at Donington we had the best qualifying car, but a small mistake from myself prevented me from getting the pole, so we ended up P2 and P4. The rest of the weekend set the tone for the next few rounds – very consistent, podium after podium,” Gray said of a season in which he achieved two wins and 14 further podiums.
“Brands Hatch [Round 2] was a highlight, getting on it in all three races. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to capitalise on this consistency throughout the year, because when I was ahead of Alex, he was always right on my tail, but when he scored more points I was a bit further away.”
When I was ahead of Alex, he was always right on my tail, but when he scored more points I was a bit further awayOllie Gray on his title battle with Alex Dunne
A prime example of this difference was Dunne’s Race 3 win at Round 3 in Thruxton, where Gray retired. A similar swing in the title race happened on the championship’s next visit to Thruxton three months later.
“I think the deciding moment in our champion fight was Thruxton. We had an engine issue in qualifying, and we were around 15th on the grid. That set the precedent for the weekend, really, and also our championship in a way. But overall we had a really strong year,” Gray said. “I couldn’t ask anything more of Carlin. They were absolutely brilliant throughout the entire season.”
Being part of an F1 academy is always a challenge, as the pressure to deliver results can define your future steps and progression.
“We’ve been keeping in close contact with Sven [Smeets], who’s the sporting director at Williams, and I believe that they’re happy with my progress. I hope that we can continue to work together for the coming years and keep that backing behind me.”
Gray is featured on F1 Feeder Series’ list of possible FIA F3 drivers for next season as a likely candidate for a spot at Carlin. When asked about his plans for 2023, Gray replied, “There’s still a few options in the books at the moment. Nothing is confirmed as of yet, but hopefully moving up to something with a bit more power and downforce.”
Header photo credit: Williams Racing
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