The Lockdown Diaries: The F1 debutant-in-waiting

Image by Mark Sutton/Sutton Images

The Lockdown Diaries: The F1 debutant-in-waiting

Formula 1

The Lockdown Diaries: The F1 debutant-in-waiting

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The disruptions caused by current shutdowns reach into every corner of the racing industry. RACER.com is sharing stories of how different entities in the sport are tackling these unprecedented challenges in a special series called The Lockdown Diaries.

Somebody who has worked in the Formula 1 paddock for more than 40 years once told me never to feel sorry for an F1 driver. And usually I follow that advice.

But these are strange times, and with the whole sporting world in lockdown, drivers have largely been relegated to the same level as us mortals: confined to their homes and unable to do their jobs.

Sure, most of them are stuck in very nice homes with a lot more space than many of us probably have, but there’s one driver on the grid who can probably be feeling a little more hard done by than anyone else. Nicholas Latifi should be about to start the third F1 race of his career for a much-improved Williams, but instead he got within 60 hours of his debut before it was postponed.

“It was a big disappointment as I’d put a lot of hard work in during the winter with my coaches, the team and in the sim,” Latifi tells RACER. “We’d also had a good pre-season test in Barcelona and everyone was ready to get going. But it was the same situation for everyone, and I’m sure the whole paddock was feeling the same way.

“Once I realized I didn’t have to go to the track on that particular day, attention turned to sorting out our travel arrangements as quickly as possible so my family and I could get back home to Canada. Everyone was trying to leave Melbourne at the same time, but our travel arrangements proved to be straightforward in the end. The journey home allowed me to complete almost an entire loop around the world in less than a week!”

‘Home’ being Toronto means Latifi has been in lockdown far away from the rest of the F1 paddock. Instead of being able to integrate with his new team and strengthen relationships on the road, there’s an enforced detachment for now that is in part due to F1’s decision to move its mandatory shutdown forward from August to March and April.

“The team’s in the enforced factory shutdown period right now so nobody is working very much,” he says. “I did send the team a personal message from Canada about 10 days ago to wish everyone well and to let them know they’re in my thoughts. It’s important to stick together and support one another during an event like this. I’ve also shared some messages with my engineer, but not much of it is racing-related.

“The situation in Toronto is like everywhere else, I think. All non-essential businesses have closed so there’s no real reason for anyone to leave home. The lockdown has given me some extra time to spend with my family, which is always good.

“While I’m back in Canada it has to be the local government I take my lead from, because each country has its own rules. When I go back to the UK, I’ll be taking my guidance from there. It’s a very fluid situation right now, so it’s important to do the right thing.”

There has at least been some form of racing available to Latifi and he’s jumped at the chance to take part. While many of the current F1 drivers are being slow in warming up to Esports, Latifi is following the North American approach of getting involved and learning on the job, competing in numerous high-profile races including F1’s own Virtual Grand Prix series.

“I don’t have a background in sim racing,” he says. “The virtual races after Melbourne were the first online races I’ve ever done. I have a home sim set-up, but I’ve never used it a crazy amount. My younger brother normally keeps it warm while I’m based in Europe. But since I’ve been home in lockdown, it’s been a good excuse to fine tune and try to improve my set-up. I’m planning to use it a lot more while we wait for the season to get underway.

Latifi went through all of the standard season-opener formalities in Australia – except for actually getting into a car. Image by Mark Sutton/Sutton Images

“There are definitely benefits, because I’m treating this lockdown phase as an extended pre-season. Although I’m stuck in one place, I’m fortunate that I have a home sim and a gym at my parent’s house. That’s allowed me to get back into pre-season training mode so I can feel fit and mentally sharp for when we get going again.”

Aside from setting up a Twitch streaming account to allow fans to follow him more closely during the lockdown, all Latifi can do for now is prepare as best he can for whenever that dream day of finally getting to start an F1 race comes. Rather than feel sorry for himself, he says the best approach is to treat added time to get ready for the season – whenever it may take place – as a bonus.

“To be honest, my sole focus is always on training, preparation and my driving,” he says. “I have to be 100% ready for when we do get the chance to go racing again – and I believe that will happen.

“I’m continuing as if I’m in an extended pre-season. I’m training for a race that’s going to come; we just don’t know what that will be. We’re all waiting for more information about the season, and the outlook is changing week-by-week. One thing is certain, and that’s the next two weeks are pretty quiet because of the shutdown.

“The biggest thing for me right now is to make sure I don’t squander the extra time I’ve unexpectedly been given. I’m viewing this lockdown as an opportunity to work on things and stay sharp. It’s not being treated as an extended holiday, that’s for sure! It would be nice to have a target as to when the season’s going to start, because I’m training blindly right now. But I obviously understand that’s not possible.”

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