The blameless victim caught up in F1 finale controversy

Amid all the fallout in the wake of the controversial ending to the 2021 Formula 1 season, spare a thought for poor Nicholas Latifi. 
Nicholas Latifi (CDN) Williams Racing.
Nicholas Latifi (CDN) Williams Racing.

F1’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was overshadowed by controversy surrounding the handling of a late Safety Car period that dramatically swung the race - and title battle - on its head. 

The FIA is facing intense scrutiny after race director Michael Masi allowed only some lapped cars - the ones between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen - to unlap themselves in order to set up a one lap shoot-out. 

Despite dominating the race, Hamilton was left exposed to Verstappen after the Red Bull driver pitted for fresh soft tyres, while Mercedes felt it had no choice but to keep Hamilton out amid fears of losing track position with a lap to go. 

Hamilton was left a sitting duck on old hard tyres when the race restarted and Verstappen capitalised to overtake his rival on the last lap to clinch his maiden world championship. 

Latifi has found himself caught up in the centre of the contentious conclusion to a classic F1 season after his crash resulted in the Safety Car that would ultimately help decide the outcome of the world championship. 

The Williams driver had been battling Mick Schumacher’s Haas for 15th place before he slammed into the Turn 14 barriers on lap 52 of Sunday’s 58-lap race. 

In an interview with Channel 4 after the race, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner joked that he would ensure Latifi received a lifetime supply of Red Bull for the role he inadvertently played in Verstappen’s coronation. 

Latifi even felt the need to apologise after the race, saying: "It was never my intention and I can only apologise for influencing and creating an opportunity. I made a mistake.”

Nicholas Latifi (CDN) Williams Racing FW43B.
Nicholas Latifi (CDN) Williams Racing FW43B.

The Canadian put his crash down to having dirty tyres after he was run off the road by Schumacher earlier in the lap during their late scrap. 

“We were just really struggling for grip through the next sequence of corners, and especially where I ended up going off,” he explained. 

“It’s been a tricky corner all weekend for me, so dirty tyres, dirty air and I made a mistake.

“I wasn’t aware of the situation of the race up until then. Obviously it was never my intention to inadvertently influence that, but I made a mistake and ruined my own race.”

Similarities were immediately drawn between Latifi and Timo Glock, who played an equally decisive role in the conclusion to the 2008 world championship. 

Toyota’s decision to keep Glock out on dry tyres amid a late rain shower meant Hamilton was able to pass the German at the final corner of the final lap of the final race of the season to secure the position he needed to claim his first world title and deny Felipe Massa in the process.

Glock suffered huge criticism in the aftermath of the unwilling role he played and revealed people even sent him and his family death threats. 

The blameless victim caught up in F1 finale controversy

Latifi has remained silent on social media ever since Sunday’s race and even deleted his goodbye post to outgoing teammate George Russell on Instagram due to hate that had been flooding the comments section under it. 

It served as the latest sad reminder of the toxic nature from some portions of F1’s fanbase in the social media community, something Carlos Sainz highlighted before the weekend even started. 

“Unfortunately, on Twitter and social media, there's a lot of polarisation,” the Ferrari driver said on Thursday. 

“A lot of, I wouldn't say abuse, between both [sets of] fans, but very polarised. And it makes the fight a bit less exciting when you see the two sides fighting each other so much.” 

It even made Sainz refuse to make a prediction on who he felt would come out on top in the title battle. 

“I'm not gonna comment personally on who's been my driver of the season,” he said. “Particularly because of that, if I will say one, then one side will criticise me, and say, ‘Lewis has had a better car.’ Or if I say Max…

“It's too polarised. So I just don't want to take a stance, because it doesn't make sense, looking at how polarised, I'm repeating myself, it is in social media. But I think they've both done incredible seasons to be honest, I think they're both driving at an incredible level.”

Concern of being jumped on by haters may also have been partly behind Lando Norris’s admission after qualifying that he was “nervous” about getting involved in the title fight between Verstappen and Hamilton. 

Norris, who has been refreshingly honest and open about his mental health battles since arriving on the F1 grid, would have been aware that unjust stick would have likely been coming his way had he accidentally locked up a wheel and ran into one of the title contenders at Turn 1. 

Nicholas Latifi (CDN), Williams Racing
Nicholas Latifi (CDN), Williams Racing

It is worth remembering that underneath their seemingly steely exteriors, racing drivers are also human beings. They too are affected by the same emotions and vulnerabilities just like the rest of us. 

Latifi does not deserve to be on the receiving end of vile and disgraceful abuse for an innocent mistake the majority of the drivers on the grid have been guilty of making at some point during their careers. 

He was focused on his own race, battling hard and fairly with Schumacher as any driver would - and should - have done in his situation. 

The fact the fight was over a non-points-scoring position and was ultimately overshadowed by what was going on at the front should not devalue it. For Williams, Haas and both drivers involved, it meant something. 

Latifi wouldn’t have been doing his job, or what comes naturally to him, if he was too busy worrying about the potential implications any incident may or may not have on the championship. It should never have entered his mind. 

He was unreservedly apologetic but has nothing to be sorry for.

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