Abu Dhabi was an emotional occasion for many inside the Formula 1 fraternity; Sebastian Vettel pulled down the curtain on a 15-year career in the sport, Daniel Ricciardo bid farewell to McLaren after an unhappy two-year spell and Mick Schumacher said so long for now following his departure from Haas.
Yet amongst the emotional farewells and see you laters, another driver who had been in the eye of a storm a year before was saying his goodbye from F1 after three seasons which saw him punch above his weight but sadly run out of time in the piranha club.
The driver in question was Nicholas Latifi, a late bloomer who started karting in his late teens and made it to the pinnacle of motorsport, where he managed not to disgrace himself, unlike some pay drivers with more experience.
Childish nicknames of ‘Goatifi’ aside, here’s why Latifi deserves more respect than some give him.
A frustrating rookie season
After six long and, at times, testing seasons in the second tier of single-seater racing, Latifi was finally upgraded to the top table finishing runner-up to Nyck de Vries in the 2019 Formula 2 championship earning him a spot at the cash-strapped Williams team in place of Robert Kubica.
Latifi had gotten plenty of miles in during pre-season testing at Barcelona as he prepared for his scheduled maiden Grand Prix in Melbourne. But as the F1 circus packed up, events out of the sport’s control put the season opener in jeopardy, and sure enough, the race was cancelled due to Covid-19.
Fast forward to a spring and early summer spent inside on a simulator rig with his fellow drivers, Latifi would finally make his Grand Prix debut in Austria, qualifying last but narrowly missing out on points with 11th, some seven seconds back on Vettel in what was a race of attrition.
Two weeks later, in Hungary, Latifi broke into Q2 and with conditions adverse on race day, the Canadian made a sensational start moving up to ninth with some bold moves. However, all that good work to be flushed away with a spin at the pit exit after an unsafe release into the pathway of Carlos Sainz triggering a puncture.
Latifi would hit the bar twice more, finishing 11th at Monza and Imola, missing out on the points as the team underwent a mid-season change of ownership following Dorilton Capital’s purchase of the team from the Williams family on the eve of the Belgian GP weekend.
Breakthrough in Budapest
2021 promised new hope for Latifi, but the first ten races were frustrating, only managing a best finish of 14th at Silverstone.
However, all the frustration would end at the place where 12 months earlier, he nearly cracked his points duck the Hungaroring.
Despite a miserable qualifying session where he could only manage 18th on the grid, Latifi avoided the Turn 1 pileup, and when the race restarted, he was up to third behind race leader Esteban Ocon and Vettel.
With Russell now telling his team to prioritise, his teammate Latifi was right up there with one of the finest Grand Prix drivers of all time. Although the Canadian dropped back, he came home an excellent eighth on the road before being promoted to seventh, ending his and Williams‘ points drought.
Latifi’s Hungarian heroics may have been his best drive in F1, but it wouldn’t be his last points finish picking up a point at Spa after being classified ninth on a day when the rain stopped play.
Although no more points finishes followed, he continued to impress, producing solid performances impressing the team’s head of vehicle performance Dave Robson who believed Latifi could lead the team following Russell’s departure to Mercedes.
The final trio of races, however, were a disaster for Latifi, picking up three DNFs that included a crash in the season finale at Abu Dhabi, bringing out the safety car and changing the course of the race and the championship. Subsequently, he and his partner received death threats in the days following the controversial event.
Flashes of brilliance as the end becomes nigh
Following an unhappy off-season that saw him briefly consider hiring security guards because of social media abuse, Latifi came into 2022 with a cloud hanging over him and added to his woes with a dismal opening quartet of races that saw him struggle to keep up with new teammate Alex Albon.
Worse was to come in Spain when De Vries, without any testing time, outpaced him in FP1, sparking rumours that Alpine reserve driver Oscar Piastri would replace him midway through the season.
There was one bright spot, and that was at Silverstone; Latifi dazzled in the wet conditions at Silverstone breaking into Q3 for the first time in his F1 career; however, this didn’t translate to points despite some stout defending.
From Silverstone onwards, very little went right, and things got far worse when De Vries replaced Albon just minutes before the third practice session, putting the car in the points and effectively sealing Latifi’s Williams fate.
With his departure confirmed, Latifi produced one more excellent performance as he showcased his talent in mixed conditions to finish ninth at Suzuka, giving him some solace after a nightmare season.
He may not have turned Williams into a front-runner overnight, but considering the dire financial state the team was in when he slotted into the second cockpit, Latifi did precisely what he needed to do: be solid, bring the car home, score some points and not disgrace himself.
Yes, his teammates out-shined him, and near the end, he had a habit of making indefensible clumsy errors, but he managed to do everything his team asked of him and gave his teammates a run for their money, something that not every pay driver could achieve.
Where he ends up next remains a mystery, but Latifi can hold his head high, knowing that he left the sport with his reputation intact and at peace with his spell in the sport.