Latifi knows how to impress, but 2021 will be the time to go full throttle

Canadian drives the slowest car in the grid, but that doesn’t mean he can’t show his worth

By Yuri Coghe
@yuricoghe
Nicholas Latifi races with car #6 after Toronto, where he grew up (Photo: Williams Racing)

When Nicholas Latifi was named Williams’ second driver for the 2020 Formula One season, he had already made history.

For the first time, Canada would have two drivers for an entire F1 season.

His connection with the country got even deeper when he picked the number six for his car after Toronto’s famous nickname. Latifi is a Montreal native but grew up in Ontario’s biggest city.

Now with his first full season in motorsport’s highest series completed, what does he have to show for it? And since he kept his seat for 2021, what can fans expect from the 25-year-old when he’s back in action this year?

Let’s have a look at what the 2019 F2 runner-up was able to accomplish in his rookie year in Formula One:

Aspirations much lower

Driving for Williams, one of the biggest teams in F1 history but also the worst-performing car in the last three seasons, Latifi can’t compete at the same level as his Canadian peer.

While it’s realistic for Lance Stroll to dream about podiums and even victories while driving for Racing Point, now rebranded to Aston Martin, Latifi’s aspirations are much lower.

Finishing in the points at least once in the 17-race pandemic-affected 2020 calendar would have been a huge result.

And he almost did it. Not once, not twice, but three times.

The son of billionaire Michael Latifi, CEO of Markham, Ont. based Sofina Foods Inc., finished 11th – one position outside of the points zone – in his debut at the Austrian Grand Prix, the Italian Grand Prix, and the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, also held in Italy.

No less than nine cars retired due to numerous machinery issues in Latifi’s maiden race. Amid unusual events, he managed to take his Williams to the end and get his first checkered flag in F1 only 7s105 behind four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari.

A skeptic would over-simplify it and say Latifi was the last driver still in the race to cross the line, and they would be factually correct. However, Williams only managed to do better than 11th place once in the previous season. So, while luck was involved, it was a good debut nonetheless – even if a little bittersweet.

“For sure there’s a bit of frustration knowing how close we were to picking up a point,” he told formula1.com back in July following his first race. “It was a race of attrition – a lot of cars breaking down, drivers making mistakes – so the priority for me was first and foremost to get all the laps done, get the experience and take all the learning from it.”

Nicholas Latifi is the son of billionaire Michael Latifi, CEO of Markham, Ont. based Sofina Foods Inc (Photo: Williams Racing)

To repeat that ‘so close, yet so far’ finish felt like a longshot, but it happened in the most perfect of races.

At the Italian Grand Prix in September, the Williams family was stepping down from the team after selling it to a private investment firm, and Latifi almost paid his tributes on team radio with one point in the bag to sweeten the goodbyes.

He finished in P11 once again in that race, the first with two standing starts since the 2001 Belgian Grand Prix and an instant highlight of the season due to how eventful it was. That’s what Williams needs nowadays to even have a chance of clinching points.

When it happened again at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix with one virtual, and then an actual safety car, Latifi was there to capitalize on it once again. This time, he finished 11th out of 15, ahead of Vettel and compatriot Stroll, and no more than 0s737 shy of the points.

“The Safety Car gave me another chance, but the restart was difficult on colder tyres and brakes. (Antonio) Giovinazzi (who finished the race in 10th place) made a mistake late on, but it wasn’t quite enough, unfortunately,” Latifi wrote on his blog after the race.

“That’s three races where I have been very, very close to a points-paying position and it hasn’t quite happened. In some ways that’s disappointing, but it shows the progress we’ve made as a team.”

No over-the-top silliness

Another point in Latifi’s favour is that his debut season wasn’t full of mistakes.

Sure, he had his fair share of spins in Abu Dhabi, Hungary, and England, for instance, usually at free practices. Also, two of his three retirements in 2020 were due to collisions.

At the Tuscan GP, he had little to no fault in the accordion effect that saw four drivers, including him, out of the race after a bad restart by Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.

On wet conditions at the Turkish GP, Latifi and Romain Grosjean touched when the Frenchman went for an overtake. It’s worth noting Grosjean built quite a reputation of being a reckless, accident-prone driver.

These incidents shouldn’t be placed under a microscope and overanalyzed. While he’ll be held to higher standards in his second season, Latifi is allowed to make a few mistakes here and there as a rookie.

The Canadian certainly did nothing on the track that justifies fans and analysts questioning his ability to function as Williams’ second driver. Especially nowadays, when getting the car from start to finish, being easy on the equipment, and not getting obliterated by teammate George Russel is pretty much all they’re asking for.

Head-to-head

Teammate George Russell beat Latifi in 10-6 in highest finishes (Photo: Williams Racing)

One of the most well-known unwritten rules in F1 is that your teammate is your worst opponent and the one you’ll be compared to the most.

With – in theory – the same equipment, at the very least you should offer the other driver in the garage a run for his money.

For Latifi, who has one of the highest-rated youngsters in F1 wearing Williams colours alongside him, that mission is not that simple.

Russel only had one P11 finish in 2020, so that counts in the Canadian’s favour. However, the Brit finished ahead of car number six 10 times during the season, not including the Turkish Grand Prix when Russell replaced Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes after the seven-time world champion tested positive for COVID-19.

The 10-6 figure is not bad given the public perception of both drivers: a pay-driver who is probably keeping someone more talented than him off the grid versus a Mercedes-backed talent treated as a future world champion.

When we look at Saturday’s action, however, the numbers look very different. Russel boasts a 16-0 record against Latifi in qualifyings. Sure, the Norfolk native looks incredible on a fast-lap and out-qualified experienced Polish driver Robert Kubica 21-0 in 2019. But that info doesn’t make the stat look any better for the Canadian.

What now?

The 2021 F1 cars won’t differ that much from last season’s, so what can fans expect of Latifi in the new season?

Since he finished three races on P11 last year, the dream of scoring his first F1 points is hard but obtainable. With 23 races in the provisional 2021 calendar, he’ll have six more opportunities than in his debut season. This should be his main goal, but not the only target for the new year.

When it comes to Saturdays, the Canadian can treat the 2020 Saturday blowout in favour of Russell as an opportunity to show the F1 world two things. First, that he improved as a driver. Second, and more impressive, that he can keep up with his teammate’s incredible pace on qualifying sessions.

Furthermore, if Latifi can make it to the Q2 a handful of times, it would send a powerful message to the rest of the grid. Last season, his fellow Williams driver participated on the Q2 nine times and even had a go on the Q1 once. Latifi, on the other hand, only took part in the Q2 once.

Although not confirmed by Williams, it’s believed that Latifi’s deal with the team is valid through the 2022 season. In that case, the stress and affliction to put in work in order to keep his seat shouldn’t be around.

With the pressure of his debut season now also off his shoulders and no stranger to everything that involves being an F1 driver, Latifi can focus on one word ahead of the 2021 season: improvement.

He knows what he has to do to impress, now it’s time to go for it.