Returning to the scene of what he described as his ‘worst outing by far’ of 2016, Nicholas immediately demonstrated a renewed sense of confidence as he lapped eighth-quickest during an incident-strewn free practice session.

Qualifying was even more of an interrupted affair, punctuated by three red flag periods, but P3 on the grid behind the wheel of his DAMS Racing machine equalled the Canadian’s best-ever performance in the fiercely-disputed Formula 1 feeder series.

“It was just about putting everything together,” he said. “The car felt great and it was a tidy if not quite perfect lap. I was really pleased, because qualifying has been a bit of a weakness so far this season and we’ve been working hard to improve that.”

Like the majority of the F2 front-runners, Nicholas began Saturday’s Feature Race on the super-soft Pirelli tyres and he instantly stole P2 from Nobuhara Matsushita. He was keeping leader Charles Leclerc within reach when the Safety Car appeared at the end of lap two, and after losing out to Nyck De Vries at the re-start, he settled into a solid P3.

Following his pit-stop to switch to the medium-compound rubber on lap eight, the 21-year-old rejoined in P9 but he moved back up to P4 as the tyre changes played out. After the action was neutralised by a Virtual Safety Car period and subsequent full Safety Car intervention, Nicholas relieved Ralph Boschung of P3 before the race was red-flagged with four laps remaining due to a multi-car accident blocking the track. A second rostrum of the season was just reward for a mature and composed performance.

“While I didn’t have the best speed on the super-soft tyres, after I put the primes on, I was much stronger,” recalled Nicholas. “Once things settled down after the pit-stops, I was running at pretty much the same pace as Nyck so it would have been tough to challenge for P2 but in any case, a podium was a great way to reward the team for everybody’s efforts.”

From P6 on the grid for today’s Sprint Race, Nicholas got away well again to grab a couple of spots on the opening lap, and he opportunistically advanced to P3 when Boschung and Norman Nato made contact directly ahead.

Although forced to give best to the flying de Vries and Leclerc, a brace of retirements elevated the Renault Sport Formula One Team test-driver back to P3. He remained there to the chequered flag to cement his finest weekend to-date at F2 level and to move up to fifth in the drivers’ championship standings.

“I got a really good start today, which continued the trend this year of moving forward at the beginning of each race,” reflected Nicholas, who is proudly supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina in 2017. “It was a more difficult race to manage as I was struggling a bit for grip, which is why the top two were slightly out of reach.

“Overall, I’m very happy with the double podium. The goal this weekend was to bounce back quickly after failing to score in Monaco – and that’s exactly what the DAMS guys and I did. We were consistently up there and we really earned our results.

“Compared to last year, the situation is night-and-day. Race pace was clearly my weak link in 2016, but we did a lot of work over the winter to try to get to the bottom of that and it seems we’ve turned things around. Now we need to keep pushing to improve the car so we can get higher up the podium and win some even bigger trophies!”

Nicholas Latifi optimistic ahead of Baku return

The 21-year-old Canadian, a race leader at the second round in Barcelona, is a big fan of street circuits and is eager to build on his eighth place in the F2 drivers’ championship.

Added to the Formula One and F2 calendars last year, Baku represents unfinished business for Nicholas, who was left disappointed in 2016 when he was bumped off the track and retired from the Feature Race attempting to avoid an accident at the first corner.

Starting the Sprint Race from P22, Nicholas climbed as high as P7, before his lack of experience showed and the performance of his car’s tyres suffered. Twelve months on, with the benefit of a full F2 season under his belt, the DAMS Racing driver feels optimistic about his Baku return.

“This round was probably the worst I had last year, and maybe that should make me worried, but my feelings going into it this time are quite the opposite,” Nicholas said.

“I’ve spent a good amount of time with the team in Le Mans and I feel very well prepared. Last year my race pace was weak, but now I’m much more confident in that area. At DAMS we analysed all the data from last year and we understand why we were slow and what we can do to improve this time. We also know more about tyre degradation at the track and again I’m feeling confident because managing this is an area where I have made a big step forward.” 

Nicholas – who is proudly supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina in 2017 – believes keeping out of trouble on the 6km track will be crucial to success.

“It’s a street track, and that’s a plus in my book, but we saw last year that there were a lot of chaotic accidents and crashes. I’m aiming for a clean weekend and good points in both races. Coming off the disappointing weekend we had in Monaco with battery failure, the goal is to bounce back strongly,” Nicholas said.

The racing schedule begins with a practice session on Friday morning, followed that afternoon by the all important qualifying, which will determine the grid for Saturday’s Feature Race.

“I know from my side the main thing to improve is qualifying. In the first few races, I’ve not been where I want to be be. Like I found in Barcelona, when you start any race near the front it’s much easier to manage the whole situation. And that’s especially true on a track like Baku, which has a 2.2km long straight. You don’t want to be caught up in any risky battles there, with three or four cars drafting side-by-side!”

In the month since the last race in Monaco, Nicholas has kept himself race ready by using the simulator at DAMS Racing. He has also been learning more about race strategy and the inner workings of a top-level F1 team as part of his test role with Renault Sport Formula One Team.

“I joined the team at my Canadian home round in Montréal and it gave me a unique perspective on how the various functions work together,” Nicholas explained. “I got to observe the pre-race and strategy meetings, post-race debriefs and follow all the sessions on the team radio. 

“It was fascinating to follow the communications between the drivers and their engineers, and see how the information was handled and acted on. It was a great opportunity to see how everything came together in a live race environment.” 

Video: Nicholas’s track guide to Baku

Nicholas boosted by test in 2017 Renault Sport Formula One Team car

As part of his test driver duties, 21-year-old Nicholas was drafted in to drive the team’s R.S.17 during a Pirelli tyre test at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on 17 May. The F2 race winner took over from regular driver Jolyon Palmer who was behind the wheel the day before.

Nicholas, who is associated with Renault Sport Formula One Team as a part of a long-term programme, completed 141 laps of the 4.65km track during the test – a distance that totalled more than two Grands Prix.

The test marked Nicholas’s first experience of a current-generation turbo-hybrid Formula One car and he thoroughly enjoyed his on-track opportunity.

“It was an honour and a privilege to drive the R.S.17 in a Pirelli test in Barcelona,” the Canadian said. “It was an amazing opportunity to drive a modern day F1 car. The downforce, the bigger tyres, it was a cool experience.

“I found it quite easy to get up to speed and actually that surprised me. I approached it the same way as I approach any car. I was a bit uncertain before I jumped in, but after two laps I was fine. I had a big grin under the helmet when I drove it out of the pit lane, it was very impressive.

“There was so much grip, I was able to push very early which was good. I had a whole day in the car and I had to get up to speed quickly for the tyre test to get the right data for them. I think I did 141 laps in the end, I wasn’t sure what to expect physically. These new cars have high Gs, I was happy to do so many laps. I admit, my neck was quite sore the next day!”

Nicholas, a driver with the DAMS Racing team in the FIA Formula Two Championship, is proudly supported by Lavazza, Royal Bank of Canada and Sofina in 2017.