Formula 1 might talk regularly about trying to break America, but just over the border there’s a bit of a renaissance taking place.
In 2020, two Canadian drivers will be entering a race for the first time since 1981, when Gilles Villeneuve and his younger brother Jacques both tried to qualify (Jacques unsuccessfully) for the Caesars Palace Grand Prix. Nicholas Latifi becomes the 15th F1 driver from Canada, having been confirmed at Lance Stroll’s former team Williams next season.
There are of course parallels between the two, with both the Stroll and Latifi families featuring high on rich lists. Unsurprisingly, that has led to immediate judgment on both’s abilities behind the wheel.
But that does a disservice to drivers who have shown the ability to win races in the immediate classes below F1. However you gain the experience and develop your skills, all that matters is if you can perform in a grand prix car.
So what is Williams getting in replacing Robert Kubica with Latifi?
By modern standards, at 24 Latifi is a late arrival in Formula 1. Born in Montreal, he only started racing karts at 13, stepping up to Italian Formula 3 at 17. But it has taken time for Latifi to start to look capable of performing at F1 level, with this year — in which he ranks second in the Formula 2 championship standings with four wins to his name, ahead of this weekend’s final rounds in Abu Dhabi — by far his most successful.
That success has come in his fourth full year in F2, but in his second year he had a top-five championship finish. The new car in 2018 stunted that progress as the rookies shone, and Latifi admits he needed more development time in order to have a chance of a succeeding at grand prix level.
“For sure I think if I had gone into Formula 1 two or three years ago, I wouldn’t have felt as ready and prepared as I do now,” Latifi said. “A lot of people don’t realize that I started racing quite late in terms of karting, so my motorsport age, I only started racing karts at 13 years old, compared to guys like, in extreme cases, (Max) Verstappen, Esteban (Ocon), I think they both had a kart at four years old.
“When you take that into consideration from when I started to when I’m in F1, it’s about 12 years. It’s the same for a guy like Max — 17 years old, 13 years from when he started driving. It’s about right, let’s say. Compared to the more recent rookies, I’m definitely on the older side, but in terms of my experience level in motorsport, I think it’s right for me. I feel the most prepared and ready than I’ve ever been, and ready to make the step up.”
But Latifi faces a tough task. Not just in terms of trying to perform, but also to shake off a pay driver tag that inevitably comes when a driver has wealthy backers or family. Deputy team principal Claire Williams admits there are more aspects in play than raw pace when it comes to picking a driver for her team at this point in its journey, but that doesn’t necessarily mean money.
“I wouldn’t say inexperienced, because I think Nicholas, as he just said, he’s been racing for half his life, he’s got a huge amount of experience from a racecraft perspective in the junior championships,” Williams said. “And likewise in George, they’ve both had great careers moving up the ladder into Formula 1.
“When you are a team that isn’t necessarily doing so well, you have to consider the personalities of the drivers a whole lot more than maybe you would otherwise. George and Nicholas have the type of personalities that we’re looking for, that truly understand the importance of playing their role in the development of the team and in motivating and inspiring the team.
“I think we’re very lucky that we’ve got two drivers that can do that. It’s always the case that with a rookie, which Nicholas will be next year, it’s going to take him a couple of races to get his head around things; but we know that he’s a quick study, and that he’s going to be there pretty quickly.
“We know that George has talent, and it hasn’t been any way a detriment to us putting George in as a rookie this year. In fact it’s been probably one of the best decisions that we’ve made over a handful of years. I don’t think it is a distraction in any way that we have two younger drivers in the car, because we know what they’re both capable of.”
Stroll leapt into F1 straight from winning the European Formula 3 Championship, and has been trying to develop in the spotlight. The podium in his rookie year shows his potential, as does six top-10 finishes this year in a less competitive Racing Point car than recently, but the jury remains out. Latifi has gone a different way in taking longer to prove himself at a lower level, but this year he was one of the strongest F2 drivers.
It hasn’t been a classic F2 season, so whether that translates into F1 performances remains to be seen, but that doesn’t mean he’s not the right driver for Williams right now. Latifi has gained experience with the team this year, brings funding, the right personality, a mature head even as a rookie, and in FP1 appearances has looked capable of exceeding Kubica’s performance level.
Plus, he’s one of few realistic candidates currently not racing in F1 to hold an FIA Super License, and Nico Hulkenberg already said he isn’t the right fit for Williams at present. Latifi ticks plenty of boxes.
In Russell, Williams has a driver who has impressed massively and appears ready to step up to the team leader role, one that you could argue he has taken on already this year. Williams can therefore afford to take a chance on a rookie alongside him.
Take someone like Stoffel Vandoorne as an example of a stunning junior career that didn’t translate into F1 success. Similarly, someone like Sergio Perez was “only” GP2 runner-up to Pastor Maldonado — and not as a rookie — before moving up but has duly proven himself as a more than worthy F1 driver.
That’s not to say expect great things from Latifi. It is to say he deserves the chance to try and prove himself behind the wheel of an F1 car, as he has done it in F2 even if it took time. If it works out on the track, great, but if it helps the recovery of one of the most iconic teams in F1 history through the multiple other facets Williams wants from her driver, then that’s a success, too.