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Montreal native Nicholas Latifi off to solid start on Formula 2 race circuit


Practice makes perfect for Canadian Nicholas Latifi.

The 23-year-old Montreal auto racer has started his third Formula 2 campaign impressively with a win and third-place finish from the season-opening event last month in Bahrain. But better consistency remains Latifi's biggest goal and that means improved practices on a circuit that is part of the ladder up to Formula 1.

"With limited track time in F2, it's important to set yourself up nicely for qualifying," Latifi said in a recent telephone interview. "Qualifying was probably my biggest weakness last year, even the previous season.

"Being able to start at the front just makes races so much easier."

Latifi won the season-opening event after qualifying fourth. He was second behind teammate Sergio Sette Camara in practice.

"The simplest reason (for wanting to start up front) is you're less likely to get involved in an accident," Latifi said. "The start is the most unpredictable part of the weekend.

"Starting near the front most of the time you're racing with quicker, more experienced and smarter guys who're going to be (vying) for the championship so they might not risk or be as silly at the start. And obviously you're around less cars so you should have a clear track in front . . . it's a bit safer."

And easier on tires.

"When you can run in clean air and not have it disturbed by cars ahead of you, it makes a big difference in tire management," he said. "When you start in the middle or near the back, to go forward you have to use the tires and slide a little bit more than you want whether it's for passing or defending.

"That just makes it much more difficult to manage tires properly. Starting at the front, most of the time you're not attacking or defending as much and can be just a bit more patient."

The second stop on the F2 circuit is this weekend in Azerbaijan. Latifi stands second in the drivers' standings with 35 points, just two behind Italian Luca Ghiotto.

Latifi has three wins and 14 podium finishes in 47 career F2 races. He was fifth overall in his rookie campaign before finishing ninth last season.

"Experience is definitely a big advantage in this championship," Latifi said. "Especially having familiarity with how tires react . . . tire management is really what F2 is about.

"Having familiarity with the team (DAMS) I've been with since coming to F2 also helps. Just understanding and being comfortable with the whole flow of the weekend itself, how it goes from free practice to qualifying to the actual races."

Latifi has also spent time in Formula 1 cockpits. He served as a test driver with Renault in 2016-17 then as a reserve driver last year with Sahara Force India. This season, he's a test-reserve driver with Williams Racing.

There's plenty of differences between the two vehicles.

"The main difference is engine power," Latifi said. "The Formula 2 car, on average, could be like a 12-second difference in lap time, which is very big considering Formula 2 cars are already quite quick.

"Obviously it's really fun to go fast in the straights (with F1 cars) but to me that's the least impressive difference. The biggest thing, really, is the amount of downforce Formula 1 cars have and grip because of the bigger tires and wider wings.

"Although I've driven Formula 1 cars and have quite a lot of seat time in them, whenever I jump into one it's like, 'Wow, this is insane. This is amazing.'"

Latifi's driving style depends on which car he's in.

"Formula 1 cars have so much grip that you have to be more aggressive with the brakes and utilize the downforce," he said. "Whereas in Formula 2 you have to be quite smooth because the car still has a lot of power but it's relatively under-powered for the amount of downforce it has.

"And because our tires are more sensitive, you can't slide on them as much. I think an important trait of any driver is being able to adapt specifically to what the car needs."

For Latifi, being an F1 test driver serves two purposes.

First, it gives him the opportunity to show team officials he's ready to make the jump full-time to Formula 1. But there's also getting much-needed extra driving time.

"In Formula 2, you really get very little track time," he said. "Even on race weekend, you get 45 minutes of practice where you only get one set of tires so you're really only doing two meaningful laps with good grip.

"Then you have one 30-minute qualifying session, which is like three pushing laps, and then a 45-minute race. So to have track time with a Formula 1 team is a huge benefit. And considering that (F1) is my goal and what I'm trying to achieve, it's kind of a good head start."

Latifi feels he's prepared to make the jump to F1.

"I see it as a much more realistic and achievable target," he said. "The biggest thing that will make that goal become a reality will be my performance in F2 in the end.

"I know that's a cliche . . . but it's the reality."

Latifi wants to earn an F1 spot on his ability and not the family name. Last year, Latifi's father, Michael, invested 200 million pounds (C$347.782 million) through one of his companies into the McLaren Group, the McLaren Formula 1 team's parent corporation.

That prompted suggestions the junior Latifi could be headed to a prominent role with McLaren's Formula 1 team, but company CEO Zak Brown said that was never discussed.

"It's no secret I come from a privileged family, that's just the situation," Latifi said candidly. "Motorsport, in general, is an expensive sport regardless . . . my racing is not only supported through my family but I have corporate sponsors as well.

"The financial backing will always come from somewhere, no one races for free. That's the harsh reality and hopefully that changes sometime soon but it's been that way and will be for the foreseeable future.

"I've always said if I do one day arrive in Formula 1 and earn a seat, I want to earn it based on my performance on the track. Obviously doing that at Formula 2 is the best opportunity for me to showcase that. That remains the goal but I think regardless there's always going to be a stigma."

Although there are no Canadian F2 dates, Latifi tries to return to Montreal annually for its Formula 1 event. Latifi's immediate family still lives there so it's a terrific opportunity to catch up with them but last summer Latifi also drove in the free practice session at the Montreal event.

Latifi expects to return to Montreal this year but hasn't been told if he'll drive there again.

"It's an opportunity to go back to Canada, which I don't get to do often during the year," he said. "If the opportunity is there to drive (in a practice session), 100 per cent I'll take it because last year was one of my most memorable and favourite driving experiences.

"Even if I don't drive, it's always one of the highlights of my year to go back."

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press