Why Latifi’s F1 career deserved better than becoming an internet meme

Through all the Formula 1 driver market discussions and considerations for 2023, Nicholas Latifi’s future - or, indeed, lack of future with Williams - was always taken as read.

Nicholas Latifi, Williams FW44

As far back as late spring, when the first rumblings of Alpine’s plan to place Oscar Piastri at Williams for next year were starting to emerge, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Latifi.

His on-track struggles meant there was not a huge amount to strengthen his case for keeping his drive at Williams next year, making Friday’s confirmation his contract would not be extended an unsurprising announcement.

But the news gives Latifi the chance to now take the next steps in his racing career and offer some closure. His three seasons in F1 may not have brought about the results he wanted, but they’ve also included some extremely difficult circumstances - a hard pill to swallow after so many years preparing to make the step up and realise your dream of being an F1 driver.

Latifi joined the F1 grid for 2020 with a sizeable amount of testing under his belt, both conducted privately and in official sessions, and proved in F2 he had the pace to make the step up. Yet as Williams found itself still recovering from the disastrous 2019 season, cut adrift from the rest of the F1 pack, it was always going to be hard for him to make an impact.

That’s before you consider the season was complicated by COVID, delaying his debut until July, and the fact Latifi had a talent like George Russell to contend with across the garage. It was not an easy starting point for a rookie.

Latifi's 2020 F1 debut came after the pandemic pushed the start of the year to July

Latifi's 2020 F1 debut came after the pandemic pushed the start of the year to July

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

The first breakthroughs arrived last year as Williams started to find more performance, latching back onto the rear of the midfield. The topsy-turvy race in Hungary allowed Latifi to snare his first F1 points with seventh, marking Williams’ first score for more than two years. Russell’s tears may be the overriding memory of that day, but Latifi’s efforts were also key. Another point followed at Spa when the rain came and cut proceedings short, giving him ninth after a solid qualifying on Saturday.

And then Abu Dhabi happened.

The impact of last season’s finale on F1 as a whole is well-known. But Latifi is sometimes a forgotten man in the story. As the fallout began, he found himself subjected to ridiculous accusations, abuse and even death threats, the severity of which made him fear for his own safety. It was sickening to think a racing driver who simply made a mistake had to be subjected to such vicious attacks from online trolls.

Latifi may have worked to try and move on from Abu Dhabi, but that is easier said than done. It would have a big mental impact on anyone, no matter how strong they may have become in their training as an elite athlete. In a recent interview on The High Performance Podcast, Williams F1 boss Jost Capito said he thought the effects of Abu Dhabi had impacted Latifi’s early-season form.

“It was extremely hard,” said Capito. “Anybody who didn’t go through this has no idea how this feels. Even if you switch off your social media, you are in contact with other people who still see it. You know it’s going on, and you just can’t get away.

“I’m sure it affected his driving after that. I’m convinced about this. I can understand that, and this is why we gave him the confidence and supported him all the season.”

Latifi was subjected to threats and abuse after his crash caused the title-deciding safety car at Abu Dhabi

Latifi was subjected to threats and abuse after his crash caused the title-deciding safety car at Abu Dhabi

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Latifi’s struggle for form compared to his team-mate continued even when Russell was replaced by Alex Albon. He was left baffled by the car, venting his frustration after Canada that there “wasn’t really anything enjoyable” about his race on-track. A chassis change at Silverstone gave him the comfort he previously lacked, and he hoped Williams would judge him from then on - but when Nyck de Vries reached the points at Monza as a late stand-in, it seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for Latifi’s hopes of staying for 2023.

Few can sugarcoat Latifi’s results in the last three years. But he deserved better than his F1 career becoming something of a meme, be it jokes harking back to Abu Dhabi, the nickname ‘GOATifi’, or making fun of some of his qualifying performances all in the hunt of social media clout.

It’s unclear what the future holds for Latifi. He’s enjoyed links to a team in F1 as far back as 2018, when he made his practice debut for Force India while still racing in F2. A big change will now follow if he looks to pursue options in other racing categories. Latifi said back at Zandvoort he was not giving much thought to options outside of F1 until he knew what the future held with Williams. But hopefully he can join the long list of drivers who, after seeing their grand prix careers stall, go on to enjoy success elsewhere, be it in IndyCar or Formula E or sportscar racing. There are plenty of options out there for him.

The focus now will be for Latifi to enjoy the final few races with Williams, soak up the experience of racing in F1, and, if he is still chasing some kind of mental reset or relief owing to the impact of the abuse he faced post-Abu Dhabi, find that peace of mind.

After all, some things are more important than being an F1 driver.

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