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The Unlikely Rise Of Tolman’s Michael O’Brien

From SsangYong Pick-Up Challenge to McLaren Development Driver

There’s just one round of the 2018 British GT Championship season remaining and with no titles across the GT3 and GT4 classes yet decided, there’s the potential for a memorable and dramatic weekend at Donington Park.

One driver in the midst of a title fight is Michael O’Brien, who with Charlie Fagg is still in the running for the GT4 Drivers and GT4 Silver titles in the #4 Tolman Motorsport McLaren 570S GT4. It’s been a very unusual journey to this point for the 24-year-old, as despite being a McLaren Development Programme driver and a British GT race winner this season, he’s still very new to motorsport. In fact, 2018 is only his second full-season of racing.

It’s in his blood though, as his dad Mike O’Brien, a BTCC race winner, gave him the chance to race once Michael decided he wanted to give it a go back in 2014.

“It’s been quite a ride. My first full-season of racing was last year and I didn’t have an expectation of being here because I’ve always been open minded with what I’ve done,” O’Brien explained to DSC. “Last year I did Historic Formula Ford and the SsangYong Pick-up Challenge. And before that it was just bits and bobs in 2014 and 2015.

“It’s been a wild route, but strangely, the Pick-up Challenge has been a really good route into this. It was under the radar in the SsangYong Challenge but there were good drivers in there, so although nobody really knew about it, there were so many opportunities. The car isn’t relevant to learning how to race a GT car, but they’re fun to drive and the racing was good.

“Aside from that I did some races in my dad’s Merlin Mk.20 Ford in 2014, won a couple of races in that and got the bug. Then in 2015 I had a few BRDC F4 outings, won a race at Rockingham, and didn’t do anything in 2016. Looking back, because I started late it really helped me doing historics, because you learn a lot about the basics of driving, especially in the wet.”

O’Brien, and his fellow Tolman teammates Charlie Fagg, Lewis Proctor and Jordan Albert earned their chances to become a McLaren Development Driver through a series of assessments before the start of the season, which O’Brien says wasn’t an easy process, but one that was more than worth it in the long run.

“When McLaren went through the selection proceess, we all underwent different tests,” he explained. “I was always focused on myself, I wasn’t aware of everyone else. We did all sorts, driving, fitness, sim stuff, to assess where we were at ability wise. I don’t know how they came to the conclusion, but I must have done something right.

“And since I’ve been a part of the programme it’s been a brilliant experience. The support that us four are getting is second to none. It’s things like having a driver coach with us at every meeting, having access to simulators. Being taught too about fitness and nutrition has been a real help. The whole package has given us everything we need to succeed.

The biggest area I’ve had to work on this year has been in Qualifying. The format is not something I’m used to

“Because of this, I think there is a real difference in my performance and my level as a driver. When I look back at how I was at the Media Day before the start of the year, I went quickest of all the McLaren drivers, but I wasn’t what I am now. My race craft is better, I’m more consistent.

“The biggest area I’ve had to work on this year has been in Qualifying. The format is not something I’m used to. Jumping in, doing one outlap and then being able to produce the fastest lap of the weekend isn’t easy. Getting the most out of the tyres is really hard, and something I’ve never had to do before. That’s where I’ve had to improve most.
“The 570S GT4 has been a big help in my development too. It honestly was so easy to get used to. It really has helped me find my limits at a circuit. It’s such a predictable car, that it helps you to keep improving.”

Going forward, O’Brien’s future past the end of this season is unclear. He’s focused on the final round of the British GT season at Donington Park, because he knows that if he wins a title, it will go a long way in helping him progress as a driver.

Looking specifically to 2019, he hopes that if everything goes right he can stay with McLaren and eventually end up being a part of the new 720S GT3 programme.

“I am ambitious, I am keen to take the next steps, and keep pushing,” he said. “There’s conversations to be had after this year, but personally I’d love to stay with McLaren, and do something with the 720S GT3 car, that would be a natural progression for me.

“I want to keep winning with McLaren. But first I know I have to look at the final round. It’s been a really good season so far, except for Silverstone where we didn’t finish and dropped vital points. Hopefully we can come away with the championship.”

Photos courtesy of British GT, Knockhill Circit