The Toronto-native has spent most of motor racing career competing in Europe, and now stands on the threshold of both F1 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, there’s an enormous smile plastered on Nicholas Latifi’s face. He’s rolling down the pit lane at his home Grand Prix 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 Formula 1 session together since Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve Snr. in 1981. Soaking in a moment almost a decade in the making will surely take longer than the short drive down into turn one…
The smile is quickly replaced with game face though as Nicolas remembers he has a job to do. The all-pink VJM11 he’s driving is on loan from Force India ‘teammate’ Sergio Perez and for just 45 minutes. In that time there are two different tyre compounds to acclimatise to, as well as the vastly superior G-forces generated through the corners, through the throttle and under-braking compared with the Formula 2 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,” Nicholas 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 Formula 1 has faced an equally tough time tough climb towards the top.
“The all-pink VJM11 he’s driving is on loan from Force India ‘teammate’ Sergio Perez. He must NOT let this moment affect his concentration, or he’ll be in the wall.”
“I think it’s the most difficult sport to make it to the top,” Nicholas continues. “There are so many different factors surrounding an F1 seat, because you need 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.
“I’d say probably the most difficult thing I’ve experienced was getting thrown into the deep end and going straight into Formula 3. For sure it would have been more beneficial for me to start in a lower formula, but in Canada, we didn’t know enough about the European racing scene. I had some flashes and results, and it was a great experience, but it was a difficult transition: I was racing against guys who’d already been in cars for at least two years.
“Plus, my overall motor racing experience only started when I was 12, and you compare that with guys like Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc – who were in go-karts when they were 4 years old – and that’s nine years of development I’ve already missed. So I had a lot catching up to do, and mentally, that was very difficult to overcome.”
Following suggestions from David Tennyson at Formula Kartways – the youngster’s local karting track in Brampton, Ontario – a then-13 year old Nicholas 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 1, the Toronto native unusually foregoing the IndyCar route taken by so many of his contemporaries.
After a full season in the Italian Formula 3 Championship, Nicholas jumped up a rung to Formula 3, Formula Renault 3.5 and even the Porsche Carrerra Cup in the coming seasons, his burgeoning racing career taking him to Belgium, Italy, Germany, the UK and even New Zealand. Adapting quickly to this new fast-paced lifestyle so far away from home was essential.
“For sure it would have been more beneficial for me to start in a lower formula, but in Canada, we didn’t know enough about the European racing scene.”
“Racing in so many different series across different continents for sure provided a wealth of experience that has proven very valuable in my development as a driver. In Europe, it’s a bigger racing culture and that meant the depth of the fields was greater, and a bit more aggressive. It forced me to work and train harder, and makes you adapt to driving different cars quickly. I even did a few Porsche Carrera Cup races.
“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 two-hour 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 the breakout year though was 2016. Having secured a drive in GP2 – Formula 1’s then-feeder series – Nicholas 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 same year, an enormous opportunity at a time when in-season testing for young drivers is so limited.
“In Formula 1 you have eight days of pre-season testing, and another four during the season. In Formula 2, we have only six days of pre-season testing, and then you’re straight into the race weekend. So that test with Renault really helped me get up to speed with the way an F1 team operates at the track. For sure it was a very, very exciting day for me, and every lap was so much fun! The test was to get the minimum mileage required to apply for a super licence, which meant there were no changes to the car. Just go out there, drive and get comfortable. The perfect scenario for my first F1 test!”
“Just go out there, drive and get comfortable. The perfect scenario for my first F1 test!”
All signs pointed towards a strong GP2 season in 2016 too with Nicholas finishing 2nd 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.
“2016 was a big struggle for me. Managing the tyres 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 tyres cool, and that was costing me a lot of time. It was definitely a stressful year, and quite character-building.
“But I knew I was more capable than the results I was getting, and staying with the same team for 2017 helped in terms of continuity. That winter we worked really hard on race pace, the team discovered a few mistakes they’d made with the car, and I made some changes to my driving styles. There was a noticeable difference, and something just clicked in the Bahrain winter test. That’s what ended up transforming the 2017 season for me.”
Save a lacklustre opening round in Bahrain, Nicholas racked up nine podium finishes throughout 2017, just one less 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 Formula 2 win.
“Definitely the highlight of my career so far was that win at Silverstone. It’s my first [victory] at this level and the highest achievement I’ve taken so far. I’m still chasing a feature race win in F2, and I’ve come quite close a few times, but ultimately my goal is to fight for the championship in 2018. That’s would be my next big highlight!”
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 1 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 Maple Leafs are still waving furiously, and at the end of 45 minutes, the all-pink VJ11 cruises back onto pit-road 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, after all.
*Images courtesy of DAMS Racing (Dutch Photo Agency) and Force India (James Moy)
Nicholas Latifi, Career Ladder
Formula 1 – test driver (Force India F1 Team)
FIA Formula 2 – 8 races, so far (DAMS)
FIA Formula 2 – 21 races (DAMS) – 1 win
GP2 Series – 22 races (DAMS) – best result, 2nd
Formula Renault 3.5 Series – 17 races (Arden Motorsport)
Porsche Carrera Cup GB – 8 races (SUHD TV Racing) – best result, 2nd
GP2 Series – 8 races (MP Motorsport)
FIA European Formula 3 – 30 races (Prema Powertrain) – best result, 2nd
Porsche Carrera Cup GB – 2 races (Redline Racing)
Formula Renault 3.5 Series – 6 races (Tech 1 Racing) – best result, 2nd
GP2 Series – 2 races (Hilmer Motorsport)
FIA European Formula 3 Championship – 30 races (Carlin)
British Formula 3 – 11 races (Carlin) – best result, 3rd
Toyota Racing Series – 15 races (Giles Motorsport)
Italian Formula 3 – 24 races (BVM) – 1 win
Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge – 1 race (Rehagen Racing)
5 things you might not know about Nicholas Latifi
- His first ever car was a BMW M3 gifted to him on his 16th birthday by his grandfather.
- Basketball is one of his favourite sports. Unsurprisingly, he’s a big fan of the Toronto Raptors, but try not to hold that against him(!)
- Before “getting hooked” with racing, Nicholas thought he might find a career in the world of business, hence his earlier studies in law, accountancy and economics.
- His surname is of Persian descent, as his father Michael – chairman and chief executive officer of Markham-based Sofina Foods Inc. – was born in Iran. His mother – Marilene – lives in North York with his younger brother Matthew.
- He describes the biggest accident of his career – a barrel roll at the Red Bull Ring in Austria – as “not something that sticks with me.” Check out the incident with Dutch commentary HERE. It’s truly scary.