June, 11, Renault Paddock, Montréal Grand Prix – Nicholas Latifi is blessed and clearly knows it but hasn’t let it go to his head. Indeed, if he weren’t over six feet tall and so skinny that he’d have to run around to get wet in the shower, you could describe the ascending GP2 competitor as cherubic. The dates have yet to be determined but Latifi will test-drive the Renault Formula 1 car later this season. It’s the closest a Canadian has come to competing in the F1 since Robert Wickens sat as back-up driver for Marussia in 2011. And that was closest a Canadian came to competing since Jacques Villeneuve actually competed a decade ago.
Like most race fans, Latifi’s dream is to compete in the F1 one day. Unlike most fans, he stands a very good chance of doing it. So, while most of the racing world thinks Canada is America-Lite™ with Swedish healthcare and fewer guns and fat people (if they think about us at all) by Canadian standards, Latifi’s story is big news. That’s why several writers jostled for position to interview him when he made an appearance last weekend during the Formula 1 weekend in Montreal.
Regularly throughout the interview, the 20-year-old’s charismatic smile utterly split his face, telegraphing to all that Latifi’s never lost sleep wondering if anyone loves him, giddily exuding bonhomie like a freshly injected junkie.
These were his answers to our questions. If you’ve ever read anything by me, you can guess which ones I asked.
How do you balance the fear of dying with the need for absolute performance?
“As a driver you can’t have [the fear of dying] in your head if you want to compete. It’s never something I think about when I drive. And there’s the safety of these cars; they’re always improving. We’ve seen so many big crashes recently and the driver walks away with almost no injury, when you’d think they wouldn’t.
“So, for sure, as a driver, you have to accept that there is an element of danger and risk to it.” Latifi starts to giggle before adding, “Maybe that’s something that appeals to us and it’s one of the reasons why we do it.”
He sobers a tad: “But you can’t think that way while you’re driving because for sure it’s going to hurt your performance.”
What is your usual exercise regime?
This gets a long and detailed set of answers. “On a weekend when I have no racing commitment, I’ll generally train five or six times a week. My program will vary depending on whether it’s pre-season in the winter or if it’s race season. Obviously during pre-season we can’t drive that much.
“Always when you jump back in a car after a long winter break, it’s always the most difficult. Even if on paper, you’re more physically fit – more cardio and strength – you’re always gonna be sore after the first time you jump in a car.” Latifi’s expressive face transmogrifies into a look that could mimic a feeling somewhere between being hoofed in the nuts and a red wine hangover. “So in the winter the training really ramps up to improve and build the base that you’re going to work off of for the next season.”
All the fat guys at the table unconsciously suck in their guts when he says, “For me specifically, because I’m tall, I have to stay very light. It’s a lot of cardio. Which is my least-favourite form of exercise.” He blasts us with more youthful giggles. It’s charming.
When it comes to fitness, “for GP2 specifically? One of the big differences is we don’t have the power steering. The wheel is very heavy, so you need a lot of strength too. Which I think is why a lot of GP2 drivers are heavier than Formula 1 drivers.”
So are you saying GP2 is more physically demanding than Formula 1?
“I won’t say it’s more physically demanding but it’s a different kind of fitness. Obviously you have much higher Gs in F1 but you don’t need as much strength to drive the car.” Now it’s time to make us all feel small: “And I spend a lot of my time doing my physical training is in the Pyrenees mountains. The guy who works with me at the track has a training centre there.”
Is it just physical stuff? “We also do a lot of mental training. So besides the running up and down the mountains and the gym exercises, we do a bunch of computer exercises, but also stuff to work the coordination; the reaction and your ability to focus over long periods of time; multi-tasking; switching from one task to another quickly – because it’s things to do with when you’re racing.” He’s almost stumbling over his words now as the ideas flow.
“Once the season starts, then obviously you still train, but you’re more focused on retaining the level of fitness you’ve already established in the pre-season,” he pauses to LOL as people his age say, “the level of fitness hopefully that you’ve established in the pre-season … and it’s more driver-specific stuff.”
What are your short-term goals?
“Well realistically I think I might be doing another full season in GP2. It’s my first full season in that championship, so history shows that it’s difficult in the first season to win.” He laughs again and rolls his eyes at the obviousness of the point. “So I have a feeling that next year, I’ll go for the championship title.”
And Formula 1?
“I guess 2018 hopefully.” A brief pause: “Which is when the Renault car should be at its peak, I’m thinking.” He emits another outburst of laughter at his own blessed good fortune.
Is there a rivalry between the test drivers?
“Well there are three drivers who have a role within the team – obviously we all want the race seat. But for me, I’m not thinking about that so much now because I know that realistically I’m not pushing for a seat next year, whereas I think someone like Estaban maybe is. So I’m just focused on my performance in the GP2 and I’m confident that if I perform well and get the results, then I’ll get a chance in the [F1] car.”
You consider yourself Canadian. But where do you live most of the time?
“Good question. I bounce around really. I always say home is in Toronto. I have a place in Battersea, near London. I spend a lot of time in France as well because my GP2 team is based in Le Mans. I do my training in the French mountains. I’m never at one place very long.”
Regular stays in the Pyrenees and Le Mans? A kept flat in Battersea? We’re all reminded how the life of a pro driver is something few other than Russian pornographers and heavy metal guitar heroes can afford.
“As much as I can, I like to come back home to Canada. Since the end of January, I was home for a lot of the winter. Then I started doing my travels to prepare for the season. This is only the second time I’ve been home this year and it’s just a few days.”
So what else fills your schedule in what little spare time you have?
“It depends on what point you’re [talking about] in the season. On Grand Prix weekends, I’m doing the marketing like this, obviously. But there’s all the GP2 stuff.
“I focus on GP2. It’s the priority. It takes precedence over my F1 role because it’s where I’m competing: what’s going to help me further develop and improve my role within the team.”
He stops for a breath. “But when I can, I like to kick back and relax. That’s when I come over to this side of the ocean and spend time with family and friends.”
Is it much harder to drive Formula 1 than GP2?
“Well, the Formula 1 car I drove was the 2012 car. So it was a V8; a race-winning car, which was really nice to drive. But that car, honestly, it was very similar to the GP2 cars. I was actually very surprised how similar it was.”
He starts to compare the experiences. “Obviously the newer [F1] cars – the new hybrid era – they have much more torque; the top speeds are much higher. When they first introduced this new era in 2014,” he says this like it was the distant past, “the cars didn’t have as much down force. Now they’re faster. But compared to the  car I drove and the experience I have, for sure there’s a little bit more power, though it’s really not a massive difference. You get more down force, better braking.
“One of the biggest differences from a driver’s perspective is the power steering. I mean you get a lot of feedback through the wheel. You also feel a lot through your butt,” the easy laughter again, “but you really get a lot of feedback through the steering wheel. When it’s ‘electronically assisted’ let’s say, you lose that. That was the biggest thing I had to get used to.”
How important is preparation before and on race day?
“For each race, we have a specific preparation both from the physical side, but also as a team. [Preparation] is so important for GP2 because you get so little track time. You get 45 minutes, which you have to start on new tires. That’s mandatory. When you’re getting up to speed, your first lap, that’s when your tires are at their best but they don’t last long. So the preparation is really the most important part of your routine because when you do a good preparation it shows for the whole weekend.
“And [it shows] straightaway if you’re on or not. If you start off struggling during the GP2 race weekend, it’s very difficult to climb back to qualifying in the races.”
Since learning your new role as a test driver, have you reached out to F1 drivers for advice?
“Umm.” He’s being careful. “I’m always listening to the whole team, from the driver to the engineers.” Someone finally mentions the elephant in the room, that other Canadian, and he starts laughing again.
“A lot of people ask if I’ve talked to Villeneuve. I haven’t. I don’t know him. I’ve also been busy with GP2. So this is my first opportunity to learn what’s required of the [F1 test] drivers, which is a lot because of these new radio rules: what they’re allowed to be told while they’re driving. There’s a lot for them to remember, especially with all the technology on board.” He delivers the now familiar LOL. “There’s so many switches.”
Your favourite driver?
This was not the first time he’d been asked this question (today) but that doesn’t discount the mature wisdom in his answer. “I don’t have one specific favourite driver. There’s a few things I’d like to emulate from a few different drivers. There’s Schumacher and that consistency [which lasted] for so long!” Latifi suddenly looks like a young fan and it’s easy to remember he’s only been driving for eight years. “All the championships he won! It’s just so amazing!”
Then the fan grows up a little. “But the specific traits that Alonso has; the specific traits that Hamilton has. Wow! In an ideal world, you’d take things from each driver. Those three are the ones that I’d take them from.”
Canadians are looking forward to seeing him try.
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