Is Nicholas Latifi underrated?

I am a fan of the Williams team and both their drivers. Nicholas Latifi is often given the unflattering label of one of the least talented drivers in F1. In today’s post, I will try to disprove this by offering evidence to counter two arguments that people use against Latifi’s driving ability and also making a strong point in his favour. Enjoy! 

Nicholas Latifi (middle) with his father Michael (left) and his mother Maria (right) in 2014
  1. Latifi is a Pay Driver 

It is common knowledge to most F1 fans that Nicholas Latifi is a “pay driver”, meaning that his wealthy father has given him an advantage by funding his career. Nicholas’s billionaire dad, Michael, is the owner, Chairman and CEO of Sofina Foods Inc, a meat processing company. However, Nicholas is not the only pay driver on the grid and most certainly not in the sport’s history. Several pay drivers have been massively successful in their motor racing careers. I was shocked when I found out that the phenomenal three-time F1 champion Niki Lauda was an example of a pay driver. According to a Vice article titled. Formula 1’s Strange Relationship with ‘Pay Drivers’, “. . . Lauda took out a bank loan to buy his F1 break. . .”  

As shown above, being a “pay driver” is no reason to dismiss a driver’s talent. Even if their parents are not millionaires (or billionaires) very few Formula 1 drivers come with no commercial benefits to a team. This might be sponsors that they have, or even being of a nationality that has a strong F1 fan base. Sergio Perez is an example because without Carlos Slim’s financial backing, he would not have kept his seats at the Sauber and Force India F1 Teams. My point is that as soon as the drivers strap into their cars every Sunday, how they came to be there, is irrelevant. 

Latifi (left), Russell (right)

2. Nicholas has been outqualified by his teammate George Russell ever since he started racing in F1. 

2020 was Nicholas’s debut season in Formula 1. I do not think it is fair to judge him against George, a driver regarded as one of the best currently in F1. We all saw George’s performance at Sakhir for Mercedes last year. He was 0.02 seconds behind Valtteri Bottas in a car he was unfamiliar with, that he barely fit inside, and in racing boots a size too small. George’s Williams is just unable to match his abilities. Who knows how many skilled drivers are simply in cars that cannot perform well? 

Both Nicholas and George’s highest race finish is 11th place, which they have both achieved three times. Bear in mind that George has raced for the team for one year longer than Nicholas. To my surprise, it was at Latifi’s debut Formula 1 race that he first finished in 11th. While I am not trying to compare the two drivers, the goal in F1 is not only to win races but to also beat your teammate. Both racers have the same machinery, and it is the best way to judge a driver’s abilities. Here are some more teammate statistics from the 2020 season (Russell’s second season at Williams, Latifi’s debut). 

As you can see, driver pairings often have a more successful one of the two racers. Despite his lack of competitiveness against his teammate, nobody would describe Bottas as an untalented driver. It is the same with Vettel. Leclerc beat Vettel in 2020, perhaps he’s not the driver he was, but he is still a 4-time World Champion. I do not see why it should be any different with Latifi and Russell. Why should Latifi be dubbed unskilled when Vettel and Bottas are not? 

Nicholas in F2 racing for DAMS. Source: Sky Sports F1

Now for my point in Latifi’s defence: His excellence in Formula 2  

While Nicholas’s performance in Formula 1 is most definitely not spectacular, it is not entirely his fault. With the performance deficit of the current Williams car, no driver could bring the British team wins and pole positions. Whereas in the broadly equal machinery of F2, Nicholas was a stand-out driver brimming with talent that impressed many. 

Latifi raced in F2 for four seasons before moving to F1. 2019 was his best season and led to his promotion. Latifi had a fantastic start to his season, with three wins in five races, while also being a test driver for Williams F1 Team. While the championship lead soon slipped from his fingers, Latifi ended the season with four wins and finishing in 2nd place losing to Nyck De Vries. Some of the drivers that Nicholas beat that season were Callum Ilott and Mick Schumacher, who placed in 11th and 12th, respectively. It was all enough to finally land a drive in Formula 1, the pinnacle of motorsport, with the historic Williams Racing Team.   

Source: Formula 1

The purpose of this article was to ask you to think before you place labels on these drivers. Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, and even the drivers who start and end their races at the back are immensely talented. Every F1 driver is united in their life-long desire to get into Formula 1, regardless of their career outcome. 

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Cover Image Credit: Getty Images AsiaPac

Check out Nicholas’s helmet for this weekend’s Monaco GP! It’s Williams’s 750th Grand Prix, and the team is celebrating.