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