The longest gap between races in Formula One history, on hold since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, ended Sunday with the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.
It was worth the wait for Toronto’s Nicholas Latifi.
In a race that saw nine out of 20 drivers exit early, three safety car restarts and last lap heroics, Latifi made his F1 debut with the Williams Mercedes team and climbed up nine spots from the back of the grid to finish 11th.
“I had wheels flying off in front of me, cars going off in braking zones and cars spinning,” Latifi told CBC Sports this week. “Your first initial reaction is to not get caught up [in the accidents] and then you realize you’ve gained a position.
“Just getting to the end was a good achievement in a race like that especially for someone in my position. It was my first race, and it’s vital to get all that learning in.”
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Latifi, along with Montreal’s Lance Stroll, marked the first time at least two Canadians lined up at a F1 race since the Canadian Grand Prix in 1969 that saw three drivers — Bill Brack, Al Pease and John Cordts — compete. Latifi and Stroll are also set to become the first Canadian drivers to complete an entire F1 season together.
Stroll, with the Racing Point Mercedes team, has been in the sport since 2017. The 21-year-old’s race Sunday ended prematurely with mechanical problems.
“I think it’s something quite cool that we have two Canadians full time now,” Latifi said. “It’s obviously been quite a long time and I’ve always said representing my country on the world stage is something I take quite a lot of pride in.
“When I was in the junior [racing] categories in Europe I was the only Canadian and now too have two in Formula One is very cool.”
Born in Montreal, Latifi and his family moved to Toronto when he was a boy. As Canada’s 15th driver in the sport’s 70-year history, Latifi took the unconventional route to the highest level of single-seater auto racing.
“The biggest challenge for me was that I started quite late compared to most of my competitors,” said the 25-year-old, who began racing competitively at 13. “When I started, I had already been competing against people who had been racing for quite a few years.
“The average age most kids start at is eight but it’s not to say you can’t make it if you start later. I’m a perfect example of that.”
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Latifi went on to compete in Europe’s junior circuits before reaching Formula 2, the penultimate step on the motorsport ladder.
In 2019, he finished runner-up in the competition and earned his seat at Williams where he had previously done work as a test driver.
“All of us at Williams have been immensely impressed at what he has achieved in Formula 2,” deputy team principal Claire Williams told reporters following the announcement. “Nicholas has become an established and well-respected member of Williams as we look to fight our way back to the midfield.”
Jacques Villeneuve has the honour of being Canada’s only F1 champion and was the last to claim the Drivers’ World Championship for Williams in 1997.
Since Villeneuve’s triumph the team has faced many challenges over the years and last season managed just one point in the constructor standings.
Despite not yet having a competitive car to challenge for the checkered flag, Latifi is accustomed to staying patient.
“One of the difficulties I had when I was younger was managing my expectations,” Latifi said. “I’m very competitive and I always wanted to win but then again I was racing against people with so much more experience than me and not getting the results I wanted was quite difficult.
“You have to put in the time on the track — that’s how I caught up for lost time — there’s no other way around it in this sport.”
‘Knock off the rust’
Unsure if he’d get to compete in 2020, Latifi’s debut was previously set for March 15 at F1’s traditional opener in Australia.
“I wasn’t even sure if we would be able to race this year,” Latifi said. “Going into the first race of the season there’s always going to be a lot of excitement and anticipation and then with the race in Australia being cancelled it was obviously a very strange time.
“Having all the time off, of course, made it difficult having to knock off the rust but I’m happy to be back.”
The season continues this weekend in Austria, then moves to Hungary as part of an eight-race European swing in 10 weeks.
The rest of the Formula One schedule remains uncertain.
“My goal heading into the next few races is to build upon performances and learning from the next few ones,” Latifi said. “The beginning of each session I’m going to be learning so much and hopefully taking that step forward. I’m not going to base my success off of results because we know in Formula One so many things can happen with car performances.
“I’ll have to do an analysis of my driving each weekend to judge how comfortable I am in each situation.”