Nicholas unlucky in Monaco

The 21-year-old Canadian came close to taking the first F2 win of his career at Barcelona earlier this month, but the likelihood of a repeat performance on the streets of the Principality went up in smoke on lap seven of Friday’s 41-lap Feature Race, when his car coasted to a halt in Monaco’s famous tunnel with a burned-out battery.

Starting Saturday’s Sprint Race from the back of the grid, Nicholas bided his time, saving his tyres for an impressive attack in the second half that enabled him to gain seven places on his start position by the chequered flag.

“Overall, you’d have to say it’s been a disappointing weekend. In this championship it’s important to score good points consistently. I feel I could have done that here if luck had been on my side,” Nicholas said.

Starting the Feature Race from P9, Nicholas’s pre-race strategy was working perfectly until trouble struck.

“My qualifying laps had felt good, but the times weren’t, and P9 is not where you want to be starting a race like Monaco. So we adopted a risky strategy and switched to the option tyre on the grid – something that would benefit us if there was an early safety car,” explained Nicholas, who is supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina.

“The main goal was to finish the race, which I hadn’t managed in Monaco to that point, and move up at least one position to benefit from the reverse grid on Saturday. Unfortunately, the battery ended up exploding. I felt the issue two laps before, with a loss of power on throttle in some corners. I knew this wasn’t going to end well.

“It’s just one of those things. The team has never experienced it before, it’s nothing we could have foreseen. At the time I stopped I was in front of [Luca] Ghiotto and he went on to finish P5, and I think that was a realistic finishing position for us.”

Monaco’s notoriously twisty and narrow 3.3km circuit wasn’t going to be the easiest place to stage a fightback in the 30-lap Sprint Race that was held today.

The DAMS Racing driver said: “It is the worst track to have a DNF in race one and then start race two from the back. It’s very difficult to overtake, and every time you try it is risky, and I still wanted to get that full race distance under my belt.

“For the first half of the race everyone’s tyres were good and it was next to impossible to overtake, so I sat back and saved my tyres. In the second half, I was quicker than everybody and I made quite a few attacking overtakes.

“They felt pretty exciting and I really enjoyed it – it was good fun. In the end of course, it was all for nothing – at least in terms of points – but the experience was valuable, and I now have a full race distance to look back on and analyse. I want to bounce back strongly at the next round in Baku.”

Monaco pressure awaits Nicholas as he returns to FIA F2 Championship action

The 21-year-old, who came desperately close to taking the first F2 win of his career at Barcelona earlier this month, will lock horns with his rivals on the 3.33km Monaco track when Free Practice gets underway on Thursday afternoon.

Then, only a handful of hours later, Nicholas will do battle in a frantic Qualifying session that lasts only 16 minutes – but will almost certainly determine whether he can fight for the podium places once again.

“Qualifying in Monaco is the most high pressure moment of the season because, with overtaking opportunities so limited, where you line up on the grid invariably dictates the whole weekend you’re going to have,” he explained. “It’s not a session where you can leave any margins. You have to be flat out everywhere because everyone will be on the limit.

“When you look at the qualifying in recent years and the mishaps that some drivers have had, the session can easily be disturbed by a yellow or red flag. That means you have to make every lap count. If you don’t qualify at the front of the grid, it’s much harder to recover in the race.”

At any of the other ten tracks on the 2017 F2 calendar, Qualifying lasts for 30 minutes and the drivers and teams have two sets of ‘option’ super soft Pirelli tyres that they can use to stake a claim for pole position.

But, because of the unique nature of the track in Monaco, the F2 field is divided into two separate Qualifying groups to limit congestion – each running for 16 minutes – and there’s only time for one set of super soft tyres to be used. Monaco therefore presents the drivers with a unique challenge.

Nicholas, who races for DAMS Racing, said: “The good thing about Monaco is that because of the way the qualifying is, we end up putting one set of our super soft option tyres on during Free Practice and save the other set to qualify on later in the day. Running a set in Free Practice gives us a good idea of the grip that’s on the track as the track evolution is big in Monaco.

“That little bit of extra running on the options helps us to make the jump between practice and qualifying. Sometimes between practice and qualifying the gap can be as much as three seconds if you’re using the hard compound ‘prime’ tyre in Free Practice and the super softs in Qualifying.

“You have to make the most of the sessions you have on track because this is the Qualifying session that means the most and is the most rewarding. If you brush a few walls along the way and come back into the pits with the Pirelli writing missing from the sidewalls, it’s not uncommon. You have to push.”

But in order to achieve his objective of qualifying at the front of the grid in Monaco, Nicholas knows he needs to find some improved speed over one lap. His P13 and P9 qualifying performances at the first two events of the season in Bahrain and Barcelona fell short of Nicholas’s high expectations and he’s hoping to do better this weekend.

“The game plan is definitely to improve the qualifying from the first two races as a team,” he said. “For sure, we’re not where we want to be but we’ve been able to come back in the first two races of the season and score some good results. But that won’t be something we can do if we don’t qualify where we should be in Monaco.”

Video: Nicholas’s track guide to Monaco

Nicholas set for latest-spec F1 car test

The 21-year-old joined Renault Sport Formula One Team last year as Test Driver as part of a long-term programme. As well as his team role, Nicholas is a brand ambassador for team partner Infiniti in Canada.

Nicholas will take to the track on the second day of the test, Wednesday, after team race driver Jolyon Palmer has driven on Tuesday.

Cyril Abiteboul, Managing Director, Renault Sport Racing:
“This is an exciting next step for Nicholas. He will drive our current generation Formula 1 car at the same venue where the Spanish Grand Prix took place three days before. This will offer invaluable experience to him and is a crucial element to preparing Nicholas for other opportunities in the future. The test programme he will run for Pirelli relates to development for 2018 tyres so it’s an important duty he has too. We look forward to seeing Nicholas out in action on Wednesday.”

Nicholas Latifi:
“I am extremely honoured to get this opportunity and I can’t wait to get behind the wheel of the R.S.17 at the same venue I’ve just been racing in the FIA Formula 2 Championship. As Test Driver for the team I’ve completed a number of different aspects of my programme so far, but this is really something special. I’m looking forward to working with the team and Pirelli to deliver everything they require from the day.”

NICHOLAS STARS ON WAY TO F2 PODIUM IN SPAIN

The foundations for the 21-year-old’s strongest F2 performance of the 2017 season were laid in Saturday’s 37-lap Feature Race, in which he charged to a P6 finish.

Nicholas started on the hard ‘prime’ compound of Pirelli tyre, with the intention of switching to the soft ‘option’ tyre later in the race. However, an inopportune deployment of the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) benefited the drivers that were on the opposite strategy and Nicholas was unable to climb any higher than P6.

“It was a shame that the VSC caught out everyone who was on the prime-option strategy,” Nicholas explained. “I’m pretty sure I would have finished P3 otherwise, because my pace was really good.”

With the top-eight positions from the Feature Race being reversed to form the grid for the Sprint Race, the DAMS Racing driver filled P3 on the grid for Sunday’s 26-lap encounter. Living up to his pre-event promise to run at the front of the pack, Nicholas made a fantastic getaway to lead into the first corner on the 4.66km track.

Although it was the first time he’d led an F2 race, the Canadian felt comfortable and eased clear of his rivals, crucially moving out of range of the DRS zone and reacting to any increase in pace from those behind him.

Nicholas extended his lead to 3.5sec but on lap 21, as he was on course for his breakthrough F2 victory, the right-side mirror detached from his car and caused him to be distracted at a vital point of the circuit, the braking area for Turn Five.

Nicholas explained: “A lap previously, I thought I hit something quite big on the main straight. It smashed into my helmet. I later realised it was my right mirror, but I didn’t find that out until the braking zone for Turn Five.

“I wasn’t looking in my mirrors too much before that because I had a big gap over the cars behind me, so I had no reason to. But with the mirror being in my peripheral vision, I suddenly noticed something that’s supposed to be there wasn’t there. That threw me.

“In that corner it’s very easy to lock up the inside front tyre and go wide if you miss the braking point by a little bit. I lost concentration for a tenth of a second and hit the brakes too late.”

As Nicholas ran wide and lost momentum, he dropped from P1 to P3. Nevertheless, he recovered his pace to push DAMS Racing team-mate Oliver Rowland hard for P2 in the race.

“When I came back on the track, obviously my tyres were dirty and then I was battling with Oliver,” said Nicholas. “I didn’t have the mirror on the right side of the car, so I couldn’t see where he was on that side and that made the situation a little more difficult to manage.”

Nicholas crossed the line 1.3sec behind Rowland to collect his second podium at Catalunya in as many years, and was philosophical about the incident that cost him the win: “There’s nothing I can do now about what happened, but obviously the win was mine and I feel sorry for the team because they gave their all this weekend. I’m disappointed for myself because I’d earned my position and was comfortable.”

Indeed, Nicholas was delighted with the positive step forward he made in Spain. As well as claiming a healthy 18 championship points across the two races, he proved he is capable of running at the front and dictating the pace in the F2 category.

“I was particularly pleased that I was able to control the pace from the front and managed the gap to break free from the DRS zone by taking the instructions from my race engineers,” he said.

“This year my race pace is much better. That’s a big positive compared to last year. The main thing we have to improve going forward is our pace over one lap in qualifying.”

The brace of points finishes in Spain have elevated Nicholas to sixth position in the FIA F2 drivers’ championship. He will be back in action on 25-27 May at the famous Monaco street circuit.

Nicholas: ‘I have the potential to run at the front in Barcelona’

Nicholas Latifi is eager to build on his strong start to the FIA F2 Championship when the action resumes at Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya this weekend – the scene of his best F2 result to date in 2016.

The Canadian scored a fourth-place-finish at the opening round of the new season in Bahrain four weeks ago and he hopes to be in the leading pack once again when racing shifts to one of his favourite and most familiar circuits for round two.

Last year, Nicholas steered his DAMS Racing car to an impressive second place in the Feature Race in Spain – becoming the first Canadian driver to score points and finish on the podium in the category.

He was back at the 4.6km circuit two months ago for the F2 pre-season test and is eager to put that recent experience to good use.

“I go to the race feeling quite confident because I showed good pace at the pre-season test and have the potential to be at the front – and that’s always good,” Nicholas said. “Since then, I’ve had another test in Bahrain and then a full race weekend during which the team and I have figured out a few more things.

“Things went well for me in Barcelona last year and I feel quite optimistic going back, knowing that we’ve improved on all fronts.”

Currently lying eighth in the championship, 21-year-old Nicholas who is supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina, has pledged to push hard at Friday’s all important 30-minute qualifying session.

“The goal is to qualify near the front because we didn’t achieve that in Bahrain,” he said. “On a track like Bahrain where tyre degradation is high, the qualifying isn’t as important because you can make a difference in the race. But qualifying well will be much more important in Barcelona. I did that last year so I know it’s possible.

“For the races I want to run cleanly with no incidents. I know if I do that in race one I’ll be in the upper end of the points and set well for race two. The goal is trouble-free runs and good points finishes in both races. There’s no reason why we can’t fight for top fives and podiums.”

If he’s to achieve his targets, one of the hurdles Nicholas will need to overcome in Barcelona is excessive tyre degradation. The characteristics of the Barcelona track are unique and require a different approach to other tracks on the F2 calendar where tyre wear isn’t such a critical factor.

He said: “When it comes to tyre degradation a lot depends on the early summer temperature. It’s normally quite hot and that makes it a track with high degradation because the surface is also quite abrasive.

“Unusually, it’s a track that is harder on the front tyres than the rears – and the fronts can be the limiting factor. That presents a different challenge for how you drive in the race and how you set-up the car. I think that given the track surface we can expect another exciting race.”

Video: Nicholas’s track guide to Barcelona