George Russell’s emotional response to his long-awaited first Williams points was one of the Hungarian Grand Prix’s more sentimental storylines.
But it was Nicholas Latifi’s “once in your career” opening lap that netted the team’s bigger result.
Latifi gained 11 places in a corner and a half after the first start, ran as high as third after the second, and eventually finished eighth on the road before being promoted to seventh in the wake of Sebastian Vettel’s disqualification – netting Williams’s best finish since Felipe Massa finished in the same position in the 2017 Brazilian Grand Prix (pictured below).
Though Russell completed a double points finish for Williams, Latifi was the team’s unlikely leading man.
“That’s the start you hope for that you get maybe once in your career, so it was just about taking advantage of that opportunity,” said Latifi of the destruction sparked by errors from Valtteri Bottas and Lance Stroll at the first corner.
“We may never get another race like this. We hope to be in points-scoring positions throughout the year, but this could be it.”
Russell has led Williams’s charge since joining the team in 2019 while the lesser-rated Latifi, his team-mate of the past two seasons, has had lower peaks and lower averages. On average Latifi qualifies four places behind Russell and finishes three places back.
His record at Williams, where he has failed to outqualify Russell in 28 attempts, and his unspectacular junior single-seater career, mean his position in the team is set in stone in the eyes of many: there for the budget he brings.
However, Latifi’s far from a no-hoper. He’s just a solid grand prix driver up against a potential world champion. He had difficult circumstances to face in his rookie 2020 season and the Russell comparison does him no favours.
But Williams has recently talked up Latifi’s progress and Russell himself has spoken positively about the Canadian’s unheralded development.
As if to underline that, when the chance arose in the most unexpected fashion, following the first-corner chaos in Hungary, Latifi produced a mistake-free performance to nail down a result that almost certainly guarantees Williams eighth in the constructors’ championship.
Latifi had little to do to benefit from the chaos ahead at the start but in those moments he chose wisely and emerged handsomely rewarded.
After a cautious getaway Latifi kept a short distance to the pack ahead and as one group – Bottas, Lando Norris, Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez – was skittled to the left and another – Stroll, Charles Leclerc and Daniel Ricciardo – tripped up on the exit, Latifi avoided the lot by cutting back tight to the apex mid-corner.
He used the momentum from that line to nip ahead of the delayed Russell, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen as well, which meant Latifi arrived at Turn 1 in 17th then reached Turn 2 in sixth.
“The actual start itself was not the greatest but I stayed clear of the carnage in front,” he said.
“I guess that’s the only thing at the back, you have a front row seat to it all and in the end I was able to take advantage of that.”
A snap through the Turn 3 kink was as hairy as that opening first half-lap got. But then came the restart – taken in the pitlane by everyone except race leader Lewis Hamilton – on slick tyres as the track had rapidly dried.
Latifi was a key beneficiary here as well, as Williams’s position at the end of the pitlane meant he could complete his pitstop without the sort of unsafe release chaos that caught out a few others, and that let him jump Yuki Tsunoda and Carlos Sainz.
So when Hamilton pit at the end of his first, miserable lap on intermediates on the bone-dry circuit, Latifi moved into the podium positions.
The nature of the Hungaroring meant a big opportunity was on the cards as Latifi ran fifth, and he even had in his mind the top-10 finish Kevin Magnussen achieved in a lowly Haas last year at the same circuit after gaining track position.
While Latifi ran in third place for 18 laps, his real focus was not on his peak position but his race time, minimising the losses as faster cars came back through.
“When I was in P3 it felt like a lonely race even though I was up at the front because the cars ahead were pulling away and I was just managing the gap to Yuki,” Latifi said.
“I knew there was probably a massive train behind me but I could only really see Yuki and I think the Ferrari behind me.
“Obviously I haven’t been in a position with the points or a podium or a win for a while now, but it’s all about that rhythm. You just focus on your job.
“Even at this level with an inferior car, I knew I had to get the job done.”
The significance of the situation facing Latifi, and Russell a few cars back, was enormous.
Williams had a point-less 2020 season. It scored just one point in 2019. It was also last in the constructors’ championship in 2018.
This season has been a clear step forward for the famous team after its multi-year nadir but that progress had yet to be rewarded with points. Which meant it was still losing out to Alfa Romeo at the bottom of the championship and at risk of one fluke result dropping it to last (again) behind Haas.
Russell, running behind on-track, told his team to sacrifice his race if it benefited Latifi and helped him bank points
The difference between eighth, ninth and 10th in the constructors’ is worth tens of millions of dollars and an awful lot of motivation. With points in his grasp for the first time in his career, Latifi was determined not to let them slip.
“I knew it was going to be possible and an opportunity was going to be there,” he said.
“I’m just doing my own race, focusing on my tyres, not trying to stay with the cars in front because ultimately we had the ninth quickest car in qualifying, we know we normally slip back in the race.”
Had he needed it, Latifi had a willing supporter in Russell. There were no signs of ego at play in this kind of once-a-season opportunity: Russell, running behind on-track, told his team to sacrifice his race if it benefited Latifi and helped him bank points.
“I knew Nicholas was in third and I knew if he came home with a P3 or P4 those 15 or 12 points would be enough to seal P8 in the championship,” said Russell.
“I’ve always said it, I’ll put the team’s agenda above mine because I’m a team player and I want the team to score as many points as possible.
“Nicholas made a fantastic start. He’s really been making huge progress and it may not seem like it on the face of it, but he’s really been pushing me and as a team we deserve to come away with those points.
“I would have happily stayed out longer to stop the guys ahead from undercutting or box straight away to do the undercut and let Nicholas go long if that meant at least one of us would have scored big.”
In the end, Russell’s gallantry was not necessary. The race played out favourably for Williams and Latifi’s pace compared decently to Russell’s until the last 10 laps when he started to struggle and got quite rapidly caught as his tyres dropped off.
But with Verstappen hobbled by a heavily damaged Red Bull, both Latifi and Russell ended up keeping him at bay to comfortably finish inside the top 10 – enough to give the team a points payday it has not enjoyed for four years.
And Latifi, against the expectations of almost everybody watching, was the spearhead. Which he knows is a huge statement as he bids to secure his seat at the team for next season, whether Russell (who is heavily linked to a Mercedes move) stays or not.
“It’s extremely important,” Latifi said. “My ambition is to stay with the team for next year. I don’t have anything secured right now, so all of this can only really help.
“But this is a one-off result. We took advantage of an opportunity but there’s still a lot of races to go to keep making improvements on my side and show the team I want to stay here and help them push forward.”