Canadian Nicholas Latifi’s long-awaited Formula One debut will have to wait.
The 24-year-old Montreal native was scheduled to drive for Williams in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Sunday. But Formula One organizers cancelled the race Thursday in the wake of the growing COVID-19 outbreak.
Earlier, McLaren Racing withdrew from the race after a team member tested positive for the virus.
Formula One’s next stop is the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 22. That race is scheduled to go ahead minus spectators due to the novel coronavirus situation.
Formula One had already cancelled next month’s China Grand Prix and the inaugural Vietnam Grand Prix on April 5 faces a similar fate. But Latifi is taking all of the uncertainty in stride.
“It’s certainly not ideal,” he said in a telephone interview from Melbourne on Wednesday. “It’s definitely a challenge the whole world is facing so we just have to deal with it day by day.
“I think right now as a driver, the biggest thing we can do is just follow the advice of the professionals … and take the necessary precautions. I’ve definitely been washing my hands a lot and trying to keep as many personal interactions to a minimum as possible.”
While the World Health Organization has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, Latifi admits he hasn’t lost sleep worrying about the growing crisis.
“(I’m) thinking about it literally in the sense of just taking the precautions,” he said. “I’m not actually worried about catching it.
“There are so many things in life that can happen, you just kind of have to live your life as you normally would but with something like this just take precautions to be as safe as possible.”
When Latifi makes his F1 debut, his car will don the No. 6 — a nod to Toronto’s area code, the city where he was raised.
Latifi gained promotion to F1 after enjoying his best F2 campaign in 2019, finishing second in the drivers’ standings with four wins.
Latifi already has spent time in F1 cockpits. He served as a test driver with Renault in 2016-17 then with Sahara Force India in 2018 before doing so with Williams Racing last season.
Latifi said last year’s experience has helped him make a more seamless transition to Williams’ F1 operation.
“From the driving point of view nothing has really changed from last year because I was already so comfortable with the environment,” he said. “Everything else around the actual driving — the media, fans, travel and time commitment — is definitely a big step that kind of makes you realize how it is to be an F1 driver.
“I don’t think it (being in F1) has sunk in 100 per cent, but to be honest not really any nerves yet. Everything feels normal in terms of working with the team … it’s kind of business as usual. I’m sure it will be until the lights go on on the grid, then it will all kind of start to sink in.”
Latifi joins a Williams team that struggled in 2019. Robert Kubica and George Russell were second-last (one point) and last (no points), respectively, in the drivers’ standings while Williams was last in the constructors race.
This year, Latifi will partner with Russell, the ’18 F2 overall champion.
“I think he’ll be a good reference, a good benchmark to push me and kind of fast-track my development and learning as much as possible,” Latifi said of Russell. “On a personal level we get along very well, which is great for the team atmosphere, team morale and the working relationship.
“We have the same feelings, the same thoughts about what we need from the car to go quicker, which again is very important. I think we’re going to make a great pairing.”
However, one of Latifi’s 2020 goals is besting Russell.
“In terms of pure outcome targets, it’s difficult to know until we have the first few races and see where we are,” Latifi said. “On a personal level, for sure, I just want to see improvement and development race to race, just getting more comfortable in the environment that is Formula One.
“Obviously in F1 your biggest reference is always your teammate because you know he’s the person who has the same equipment as you. You always want to beat your teammate, that’s moreso in F1, but it will definitely be a big challenge.”
One race Latifi has circled on his calendar is the Canadian Grand Prix on June 14 in Montreal, where Latifi still has family living.
“It will be the first car race that I actually take part in my home country, let alone the fact it’s going to be on the biggest stage in Formula One,” Latifi said. “That has a big red X marked on my calendar.
“As I get closer to that date, the anticipation will be building towards it because, for sure, it will be very special.”
Latifi becomes the second Canadian in F1, joining Lance Stroll. The 21-year-old Montreal native is entering his second season with Racing Point — he was 15th in last year’s drivers’ standings — and was previously with Williams (2017-18).
“I get along well with Lance but we don’t necessarily have a close relationship,” Latifi said. “That’s only because we were never in the same (race circuit), the same paddock, and kind of went our separate ways to Formula One.”
The two drivers do have something in common, though: Their fathers are wealthy businessmen.
Not everyone was thrilled with Latifi’s promotion. Former F1 driver Giedo van der Garde has been very critical of Latifi replacing Kubica.
“I don’t think he (Latifi) is good enough and he will have a really tough time with Russell,” the Dutchman said. “Latifi is in Formula One now, but we also know that he is bringing a lot of money that will ensure Williams’ survival.
“I am not blown away by Latifi as a driver.”
Latifi said he hasn’t read Garde’s comments and thus politely declined comment. But as he patiently awaits the start of his F1 career, Latifi relishes the challenge of trying to prove he belongs in auto-racing’s upper echelon.
“The first goal, for sure, was to get to Formula One,” Latifi said. “But obviously there are no guarantees that just because you’re there that you stay.
“Definitely, it will be a long road and there’ll be many difficulties but I’ll take it race by race and learn as much as much as I can. I’m definitely not under-estimating what will be my rookie season in F1 and hope to be here for a long time.”