Ni­cholas Lat­ifi: Canada’s ‘next big thing’ in For­mula 1?

Re­nault prospect Ni­cholas Lat­ifi is do­ing well in Euro­pean rac­ing, but the road to the top is never as­sured

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The Toronto na­tive has spent most of his mo­tor-rac­ing ca­reer com­pet­ing in Europe, and now Ni­cholas Lat­ifi stands on the thresh­old of both For­mula One and, po­ten­tially, cham­pi­onship glory in For­mula 2. It’s not been the eas­i­est of climbs to the top, how­ever.

Be­hind the hel­met specif­i­cally painted pink for this free prac­tice out­ing at the Cana­dian Grand Prix, there’s an enor­mous smile plas­tered on Lat­ifi’s face. He’s rolling down the pit lane at his home race in Montreal in only his third of­fi­cial test ses­sion for Force In­dia, and about to drive his first-ever laps around the Cir­cuit Gilles Vil­leneuve. In ev­ery grand­stand, the Maple Leafs are al­ready fly­ing for both Lat­ifi and Wil­liams driver Lance Stroll, the first Cana­dian duo to par­tic­i­pate in an of­fi­cial F1 ses­sion to­gether since Gilles and Jac­ques Vil­leneuve Sr. in 1981.

Soak­ing in a mo­ment al­most a decade in the mak­ing will surely take longer than the short drive down into turn one. But Lat­ifi re­mem­bers he has a job to do. The all-pink VJM11 he’s driv­ing is on loan from Force In­dia team­mate Ser­gio Perez for just 45 min­utes. In that time there are two dif­fer­ent tire com­pounds to ac­cli­ma­tize to, as well as the vastly su­pe­rior G-forces gen­er­ated through the cor­ners, through the throt­tle and un­der brak­ing, com­pared with the For­mula Two feeder se­ries he’s used to. He must not let this mo­ment af­fect his con­cen­tra­tion, or he’ll be in the wall.

Given the enor­mity of this oc­ca­sion, there’s only one ques­tion I can ask Ni­cholas Lat­ifi: What is ‘Chocolate Marsh­mal­low’? Don’t worry, he wasn’t ex­pect­ing that ques­tion ei­ther.

“When I was in GP2 with DAMS in 2016, they gave me the task of nam­ing my car,” Lat­ifi be­gins af­ter a quick chuckle. “Dur­ing one ses­sion, I was talk­ing with my en­gi­neer about car set­ups, and asked if we could make the car any softer. He said, with quite a heavy French ac­cent, ‘I’m not sure it’s go­ing to work, be­cause the car will be a bit squishy, like chamal­low.’ So from that day the car was called Cho­co­lat Chamal­low!”

Don’t think I’m at­tempt­ing to be­lit­tle a young driver’s ca­reer to date with this ques­tion, by the way. Motorsport’s lad­der to the top is an in­fa­mously rick­ety one, and like many of his con­tem­po­raries, Canada’s po­ten­tial next big thing in F1 has faced an equally tough climb to­ward the top.

“I think it’s the most dif­fi­cult sport to make it to the top,” he con­tin­ues. “There are so many dif­fer­ent fac­tors sur­round­ing an F1 seat, be­cause you need the right tim­ing and per­for­mance, the op­por­tu­nity, and ob­vi­ously you need money. You can tick off three of those, miss one, and things fall out of place. So it’s been very tough get­ting to where I am to­day.”

Fol­low­ing sug­ges­tions from David Ten­nyson at For­mula Kart­ways — the young­ster’s lo­cal kart­ing track in Bramp­ton, On­tario — a then 13-year-old Lat­ifi would spend three years suc­cess­fully com­pet­ing across both Ro­tax Max and the Cana­dian Na­tional Kart­ing Cham­pi­onship be­fore mak­ing the leap to cars in Europe in 2012. His sights? For­mula One, un­usu­ally for­go­ing the IndyCar route taken by so many of his con­tem­po­raries.

Af­ter a full sea­son in the Ital­ian For­mula Three Cham­pi­onship, Ni­cholas jumped up to For­mula Three, For­mula Re­nault 3.5 and even the Porsche Car­rera Cup, his bur­geon­ing rac­ing ca­reer tak­ing him to Bel­gium, Italy, Ger­many, the U.K. and even New Zealand. Adapt­ing to this new fast-paced life­style so far away from home was es­sen­tial.

“The life­style took a while to get used to as well. It’s def­i­nitely not some­thing to get into if you’re scared of fly­ing! And be­cause there aren’t a lot of North Amer­i­cans rac­ing in Europe, it can get a bit lonely. Most of my ri­vals are Euro­pean, and af­ter a race week­end, they take a twohour flight and they’re home. That’s why when peo­ple ask me where my favourite place to travel is, it’s home in Toronto. It al­ways will be.”

Ar­guably his break­out year was 2016. Hav­ing se­cured a drive in GP2 — F1’s then feeder se­ries — Lat­ifi also joined forces with Re­nault as part of the French mar­que’s young driver de­vel­op­ment pro­gram. The deal ul­ti­mately landed him a test drive in the team’s 2012-spec F1 car at Sil­ver­stone later that year, an enor­mous op­por­tu­nity at a time when in-sea­son test­ing for young driv­ers is so lim­ited.

All signs pointed to­ward a strong GP2 sea­son in 2016, with Lat­ifi fin­ish­ing sec­ond the first time out with DAMS in Barcelona. Iron­i­cally, this would be the Cana­dian’s only podium fin­ish of the sea­son and one of only four points-pay­ing po­si­tions in to­tal. Con­sis­tent speed was enough to save his DAMS seat for an­other year, but once again, the pres­sure to adapt was mount­ing. He said 2016 was a big strug­gle. “Man­ag­ing the tires makes or breaks your race, and I just couldn’t find the bal­ance. I would say it was a 50-50 thing be­tween me and the car setup: for sure I was still learn­ing, but there was some­thing I wasn’t do­ing right to keep the tires cool, and that was cost­ing me a lot of time. It was def­i­nitely a stress­ful year, and quite char­ac­ter-build­ing.”

Save a lack­lus­tre open­ing round in Bahrain, Lat­ifi racked up nine podium fin­ishes through­out 2017, just one fewer than erst­while cham­pion — and Sauber in­cum­bent — Charles Le­clerc. An­other F1 test drive beck­oned with Re­nault in the team’s 2017-spec RS17, as did his first F2 win.

A bit­ter­sweet start to 2018 saw Ni­cholas sign as Force In­dia’s of­fi­cial F1 test driver in Jan­uary, but he would be forced to miss a sched­uled Pirelli test in Barcelona when an in­fec­tion briefly put him in hospi­tal. The goal­posts haven’t moved though, nor has the pres­sure of rep­re­sent­ing his coun­try on a much loftier global stage.

“It’s not some­thing I con­sciously think about dur­ing my race week­ends — I’m al­ready putting pres­sure on my­self to per­form — but it’s for sure some­thing I take a lot of pride in. There’s not a lot of Cana­di­ans rac­ing over in Europe, so to be one of the few at such a high level knock­ing on the door of For­mula One is an amaz­ing feel­ing. Par­tic­u­larly in Montreal, where the city re­ally em­braces the Grand Prix. I know for a fact, among the driv­ers, that’s it’s one of their favourite events.”

Fast for­ward to FP1 in Montreal. The flags are still wav­ing fu­ri­ously, and at the end of 45 min­utes, the allpink VJ11 cruises back onto pitroad and pulls into the Force In­dia garage. Job done, a still-smil­ing Ni­cholas Lat­ifi clam­bers out of the cock­pit, still savour­ing the at­mos­phere of his first home Grand Prix. Po­ten­tially, he hopes, the first of many. It’s been a long tough road since Cho­co­lat Chamal­low.

Tom Boland/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Canada’s Ni­cholas Lat­ifi, from Toronto, gets set to be fit­ted for his Force In­dia seat at the Cana­dian Grand Prix Thurs­day, June 7, in Montreal. Lat­ifi will drive in the prac­tice ses­sion at this week­end’s For­mula One race.

Gra­ham huGhes/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Force In­dia driver Ni­cholas Lat­ifi of Canada drives onto the track dur­ing the first prac­tice ses­sion at the Cana­dian Grand Prix in Montreal, Fri­day, June 8.

ryan remiorz/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Force In­dia driver Ni­cholas Lat­ifi, from Toronto, gets ready for the first prac­tice ses­sion at the Cana­dian Grand Prix Fri­day, June 8, in Montreal.

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