Home Featured Why Nicholas Latifi’s rise to F1 is more remarkable than you think

Why Nicholas Latifi’s rise to F1 is more remarkable than you think

by Elliot Wood

Photo: Carl Bingham / LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

Nicholas Latifi’s six wins from five years in the step below Formula 1 may not have set the world alight, but it’s a lot of hard work that has taken the Canadian all the way from a reluctant racer to a Williams F1 seat

Going into his fourth full season in Formula 2, it was clear to then-23-year-old Latifi that 2019 would be his last honest shot at earning himself an F1 seat, and therefore the more important year of his career when it came to on-track performance.

He had already secured a reserve driver role with Williams – his third F1 team in three years as a tester – the previous December before securing his F2 future via a continuity deal with DAMS, which he had raced at exclusively since 2016.

Latifi’s second season with the team resulted in an impressive fifth in the points and only one less podium than Prema’s dominant champion Charles Leclerc. Over the season’s second half, he was only outscored by Russian Time’s Luca Ghiotto and finished just 13 points short of pre-season title favourite team-mate Oliver Rowland.

The next year got off to a bad start though, with Latifi contracting an infection that hospitalised him and meant he missed his first F1 tests with Force India and more importantly the first pre-season F2 tests with the new Dallara F2 2018 car. He did recover in time for the second three-day test, and also tasted the car in the snowy shakedown day at Magny-Cours. However, he was still at some disadvantage going into the season.

Latifi attributes this specifically to not knowing what changes he needed to make to his driving style to match the demands of the car, with Magny-Cours and Bahrain not entirely representative of most F2 circuits. Given the extremely limited running time for F2 on F1 weekends, the missed test equated to several rounds’ worth of knowledge his rivals had in hand too.

Latifi was on the podium by the fourth race of the season, but he was scoring small points and when his pace did improve in the second half of the season – outpacing F1-bound team-mate Alex Albon – he was not getting the finishes to show for it.

Ninth in the standings was a disappointment, but it set Latifi up for a stronger 2019 and ultimately his own promotion to F1 this year. Had Dallara’s last-generation GP2 car been used in F2 in ’18, Latifi believes he could have been champion and made it to F1 a year earlier. However, racing the replacement car better prepared him for racing an F1 car with similar characteristics. His logic: a better-prepared F1 rookie has an increased chance of making it to a second season in the series.

Winning the F2 title was therefore firmly on Latifi’s mind going into 2019; a stark contrast to the Canadian’s younger self.

His motorsport interest did not extend beyond his wider family visiting their country’s grand prix every year when he was at the age that most future professionals start karting, and it was his wealthy father (who has had the financial means to fund his son all the way to F1) who got the thrill for speed first when he booked track experience days in sportscars. The instructor there also had an indoor karting track within a commutable distance of Latifi’s Toronto home, and when the younger Latifi got behind the wheel it was still only as a bit of family fun.

As he entered his teenaged years, Latifi took karting on as a hobby and started setting laps at a more local track. He was talent spotted by the track owner, who repeatedly pushed him to take up the racing bug properly. There was a surprising amount of resistance to this from the adolescent Latifi, who karted solely for fun.

Eventually his stubbornness broke, and he transferred to four-stroke karts on outdoor tracks. His first big race in these karts took place on slicks in the rain, and despite multiple spins this was how he got hooked to racing.

Aged 14 he took on national competitions and was runner-up to future car racing rival Lance Stroll in Rotax Junior karts. A year later he was racing in the USA too, and after that he was old enough to make the switch to junior single-seaters in Europe.

He made his single-seater debut at the start of 2012 in the Skip Barber Winter Series, winning on his debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway, then banked some experience in a GT car at Daytona before heading to Italian Formula 3.

At the same time he remained in karts, wanting to add to the three years of competitive experience under his belt and try to add some trophies before embarking on a single-seater career. By sticking with his passion for one more year he did just that, winning the Florida Winter Tour in Rotax DD2 karts. To this day, Latifi still has a KZ kart that he uses for training.

The late start was a disadvantage in karting, and even more so in single-seaters according to Latifi. An analogy Latifi regularly uses is that early-starters in karts (such as Max Verstappen) learn how to drive and race as if it were their first language, and that it is a notably more difficult and slower when learning those skills at a later age when everyone else is already fluent.

In effect, Latifi literally learned much of what he practices on-track from paper and theory-based work rather than racking up mileage from a young age to build up the understanding of the intricacies of car control and mechanical sympathy.

For context, while no F1 driver now started as late as Latifi, it was a very different picture in the past. F1, rally and sportscar legend Sir Stirling Moss began his motorsport career aged 19. Emilien Denner, currently competing in the Toyota Racing Series, is 17 years old and like Latifi had only three years of competitive karting experience prior to stepping up.

Latifi’s first year in F3 included one win at Vallelunga and seventh in the points with BVM Racing and JD Motorsport.

For his second year of car racing he switched to the British and FIA European F3 championships with Carlin, and warmed up for them with a shot at the Toyota Racing Series. He took the only two pole positions of his career to date in British F3’s visit to Spa-Francorchamps, and his one podium helped him to fifth in the standings.

His European campaign included six top-10 finishes, in a grid packed with talented drivers, and he proved he was a quick learner with seventh place in Zandvoort’s Masters of F3 and ninth in the Macau Grand Prix.

Latifi returned to European F3 in 2014 with Prema, and kicked off the season with his first podium. He didn’t return to the rostrum though and slipped to 15th in the points, but once again redeemed himself in Macau with fifth place.

The desire to speed up his learning curve via extra mileage led to some interesting side-steps in ’14, including an impressive Porsche Carrera Cup GB cameo. He started with four wins in Ferrari Driver Academy’s entry-level Florida Winter Series, then late in the year took on Formula Renault 3.5, grabbing a podium while skipping a European F3 round, and made his GP2 debut.

F3 was dropped for 2015, and while the results never made headlines, Latifi was no slouch. He came 11th in primary programme FR3.5 and Carrera Cup GB, notched up more GP2 starts, raced in Indy Pro 2000’s Winterfest and returned to karts.

At the end of the year he had his first experience of DAMS in GP2’s post-season test, and was fastest of all.

Latifi’s DAMS engineer Antoine Voyet said the Canadian was “a question mark” when he joined the team, but an impression had been set on him in the duration of their first test together, and he was signed for the 2016 season not long after.

Their working relationship kicked off with fourth place in qualifying and a second place finish at Barcelona, which also marked Latifi’s first race weekend with F1 connections after signing to become Renault’s test driver. There were only three other points finishes that season, but he held on to his coveted DAMS seat, and stayed loyal to the team.

Known for being an incredibly calm person, Latifi’s off-track demeanour transferred to the cockpit as his experience grew over the next three years and the number of high-pressure situations he faced increased as he raced more frequently at the front.

Voyet puts these improvements down to Latifi being a good student, and that both parties learned during their partnership. Latifi also identified the championship’s car change and his 11 F1 free practice appearances.

“I definitely think I wasn’t helped that [in 2018] it was a new car I missed half of testing,” Latifi said in an F2 podcast during last season. “Those three full days of testing probably would have accelerated the kind of switch-on in my mind that ‘OK, I need to change [my driving]’.

“I’m happy I made the break [with the F2 2018], as it could have very well been that I continued as I was and never arrive at that turning point. If [the car] had stayed the exact same, I was very confident of my chances to fight for the ’18 title.

“Lets say hypothetically I did win the ’18 title [with the ’17 car], then hopefully I would’ve been in F1. But if I then drive a F1 car that had the same handling tendencies and problems, like I was struggling with at the beginning of 2018, then I would never have been able to overcome that in a F1 situation.

 

“All the track time I have in an F1 car has been really beneficial, also supporting and helping F2. It’s extra track time, and it’s quite a tricky car to drive, so it’s been good to drive something different, adapting. That’s always good for driver development.”

It’s clear Latifi is still making, and needs to make, improvements in his driving. He conceded F2 title defeat early last year, a response based on prioritising earning the FIA superlicence points required to make it to F1, and throughout GP2/F2 he only made the front row three times – his 2019 grid average was 5.4 and over his 51 qualifying attempts he averaged 9.7.

In FR3.5 he also made the front row once, but averaged 10th on the grid. In Carrera Cup GB, where he had the least preparation, it was 5.5 – only bettered by two series with low grid numbers: British F3 (4.0) and FWS (3.5).

Despite these fairly damning statistics, it should be remembered that Latifi started 2019 with three wins in the first five races and was top of the F2 standings for the first third of the season.

It was a start he was particularly pleased with, bar a messy Monaco weekend that marked a switch in momentum to ART Grand Prix rival and eventual champion Nyck de Vries.

His next win came in a consummate feature race performance at the Hungaroring, and there were second place finishes at Silverstone, Sochi and Abu Dhabi. Latifi’s Williams F1 drive was announced prior to the season finale, having convinced the team he was worthy of a race seat from his free practice appearances, but it didn’t make the Abu Dhabi weekend any easier as the Canadian had to win the teams’ title for and say goodbye to the DAMS teams he’d spent several years with, and which had lost its founder Jean-Paul Driot several months prior.

Debuting with F1’s backmarker team will make it difficult for Latifi to make an impact, although 2018 F2 champion George Russell received considerable praise for his pointless rookie season with Williams last year. Russell will remain there as Latifi’s team-mate, and the highly rated Mercedes junior will be the best barometer to measure whether Latifi is deserving of a F1 seat for a second season in 2021.

Further reading
F2: Chasing the Dream series review