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Latifi, Kellett make big-league debuts in F1, IndyCar

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

Two Toronto race-car drivers are making their big-league debuts this weekend and both say they plan to take it not-necessarily slow but certainly easy.

Nicholas Latifi will make his Formula One debut Sunday, driving for Williams F1 alongside second-year driver George Russell in the Grand Prix of Austria. By the time you read this, Latifi will have participated in Friday’s practice sessions in preparation for qualifying Saturday (he’ll line up 20th) and the race Sunday.

Meantime, Dalton Kellett (picture, above), who is more GTA than city – he’s officially from Stouffville – will make his first start in the NTT IndyCar Series Saturday. The GMR Grand Prix, which will be held on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, will mark Kellett’s debut with A.J. Foyt Racing and he’s practicing and qualifying Friday with the race starting at noon Saturday.

The IndyCar race is part of a double-header with the NASCAR Xfinity Series, which will also race in the road course later Saturday. The NASCAR Cup Brickyard 400 will be held on the oval at Indy on Sunday.

Much has been written already this year about Latifi, who was expected to make his first F1 start in Australia back in March. When that race, and all others since – including the Grand Prix du Canada – was cancelled because of the first wave of COVID-19, Latifi’s debut was put on ice.

Kellett, meantime, raced in the Indy Lights series in recent years and when the opportunity to move up to IndyCar with Foyt came along, he grabbed the opportunity. He’s driving the road and street races for Foyt, while veteran Tony Kanaan is winding up his career by driving the same car during oval-race weekends.

In an interview I had with him this week, Kellett said he’s not planning to go out there looking to set speed records.

“I’ve had a lot of time to prepare for this so I think I’m ready,” he said. “For me, this first weekend is about learning, to maximize my track time and getting the most out of it. For me, it’s more important to focus on process rather than results.”

Kellett, a veteran of the Road to Indy ladder system (Pro Mazda, Indy Lights) and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, said he was pleasantly surprised when he met the legendary Foyt, who’s mellowed as he’s gotten older but had a reputation of being somewhat gruff.

“We had spring training at COTA (Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, Tex.) and he came out and he was at Sebring when we had a day of testing (his son, Larry Foyt, runs the team),” Kellett said. “We had a debrief and a talk later. He offered lots of advice. It was great to be able to tap into his experience.

“He was very humble. When you meet a personality like A.J., you never know how it’s going to go. He was very down-to-earth, very talkative. He didn’t present himself as this big name, which he is, but just as a guy who wanted to go racing. He was very supportive of chipping away at it progressively and his advice was more along the lines of, ‘Don’t go out there and try to be a hero and wad the car up. It’s better for us and you if we build slowly and then you go out there and attack.’

“That kind of caught me off guard as I knew his reputation and I figured he’d be all gung-ho. He brought up Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) when we were talking and he said it was one of his favourite tracks.”

Kallett will be driving IndyCar No. 14, a legendary number made famous by Foyt throughout his career (except when he carried No. 1 when the Indy car title was considered the U.S. national championship), which is not lost on the Canadian.

“To be given the keys to that legacy is an honour,” he said. “Obviously you’re going to do your best to prepare yourself for any race, regardless of the car you’re in, but it kind of ramps things up when it’s the 14. There’s some mental pressure and an increase in expectations. But I’m doing my best to be ready and to put on a good showing for the team.”

Twenty-six cars will start the race Saturday, “so there are many variables but if I could get a top 15 finish, that would be great. To be more specific, we’re going to be benchmarking our performance against the other rookies and that should give us an idea of where we stand.”

The forecast for Saturday in Indianapolis is that it will be an oven. The high will be 93 degrees Fahrenheit and drivers will be inside the new aeroscreen safety shield that will deflect airflow away from the cockpit. Veteran observers are suggesting the drivers will really be challenged.

Kellett has been preparing all week. “Lots of hydrating and preparing with an electrolyte and endurance hydration mix. The guys at Pitfit (a gym devoted to the development and implementation of motorsports-specific training) prepared hydration plans for us. That gives me targets for water intake and when to be using which drink mix. I’ll be keeping up good hydration going into the weekend.”

Latifi should not have the same problems. The forecast for Friday said rain, with sun and cloud Saturday and Sunday with a high of 85 on race day. But, like Kellett, he’s not planning to set the world on fire in his first race in F1.

“My plan is to finish every session, every lap and to minimize the mistakes. Then we can see where we are.”

As is the case at Indianapolis, no spectators will be allowed in and Latifi thinks that will be an advantage because he won’t be distracted. “No friends or family are here – at least I don’t think anybody will have family here and if somebody does, I’ll have to talk to them about how they did it,” he said, laughing. He added that his parents will be watching from home and that it’s too bad because they’ve been behind him all the way in his quest to make it to motor racing’s pinnacle.

Like Kellett, who’s very familiar with the road course at Indianapolis because of Indy Lights races he drove over the years, Latifi has raced at Austria’s Red Bull Ring, site of Sunday’s Grand Prix, every year since he went to Europe to further his career.

“What should help me is the fact that Austria is a track I know well,” Latifi said. “It’s the only one I’ve competed at every year since I’ve been racing.”

You can watch qualifying on TSN Saturday at 8:55 a.m. ET. Race day airs Sunday at 9:05 a.m. F1 races on TSN feature Sky Sports’ extensive F1 broadcast coverage with pre and post-race content. For the first time in the history of the world championship, two Canadians will be on the grid at the same time. Lance Strohl will race for Racing Point and F1 and Latifi will line up in his Williams. Latifi said that over the years, they only raced each other twice and each of them won once.

IndyCar qualifying can be seen on NBC Buffalo at 12:30 p.m. Friday and the race comes on Saturday at noon, also on NBC and Sportsnet Ontario as well as Sportsnet360. NASCAR Xfinity Series racing can be seen Saturday at 3 p.m. on NBC and TSN. The NASCAR Cup Brickyard 400 will be on TSN Sunday at 4 p.m.on NBC and TSN. Sorry, it’s not the Brickyard any more. It’s the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400.

OTHER RACING NEWS

The late Rod Campbell will be honoured this weekend for his contributions to motorsport (see my tribute here). In F1, Lance Stroll and Sergio Perez will honour Rod with decals on their cars. Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher in NASCAR Cup, Colton Herta in IndyCar and Jack Hawksworth and Townsend Bell in IMSA will also salute him. Well deserved. The initiative was started by Otmar Szafnauer, Team Principal for Racing Point F1 team.

Rod Campbell

Sebastian Vettel, one of the two best racers and legitimate superstars in Formula One, Lewis Hamilton being the other, told reporters in Austria he was never offered a contract for 2021 by Ferrari and that they just told him he was free to go. This is where Ferrari is so screwed up. They told a four-time world champion to take a hike in favour of a kid who has made 43 starts in F1 and won exactly two races. Whoopeee. If Chase Carey is as smart as Bernie Ecclestone, he will not let Vettel retire.

By the way, the IMSA WeatherTech 240 race at Daytona will be seen on the Discovery Velocity channel Saturday at 6 p.m. Now, when the deal was made to show the IMSA races, Velocity was part of my cable package. But last summer I tuned in to watch the Six Hours at the Glen and Velocity told me if I wanted to watch the channel I had to contact my cable provider. That’s Rogers for you. They add and subtract channels whenever they feel like it, apparently. Once, I was watching a channel and I went into the kitchen to get a coffee and five minutes later I went back to the Family Room and the channel was off and there was a notice that if I wanted it, I had to call Rogers. I never did see the end of the movie I was watching. I hate monopolies.

Pfaff Motorsports has announced it will run the six-race Canadian Touring Car Championship schedule this year. It will field an Audi RS3 LMS TCR for 17-year-old Canadian Zachary Vanier with sponsorship from H.J. Pfaff Audi (Newmarket) and Pfaff Audi (Vaughan).

Devlin Defrancesco of Toronto, who has been racing single-seaters in Europe for a number of years, will race in the Indy Pro 2000 Presented by Cooper Tires Road to Indy series this season with Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport. If things go well, Devlin will contest the Indy Lights championship in 2021.

Ebullition Brew Works has joined Canadian Karl Thomson’s Compass Racing as strategic partner in the Team’s quest for the 2020 IMSA WeatherTech Sprint Cup, beginning with the season-opening round this weekend at Daytona. Ebullition, one of San Diego County’s premier craft brewers, has created a unique hard seltzer specifically for the team. The new Compass Racing POG is part of a new line of beer alternatives available from Ebullition.

The 60th annual Knoxville Nationals for 410 sprint cars has been postponed until 2021 because of COVID-19. It is most prestigious sprint car race in the United States. The richest sprint car race, the King’s Royal at Eldora Speedway in Ohio, also won’t happen because of the virus. At Indianapolis, meantime, the city has made the wearing of masks mandatory. And they still think they’re going to hold the Indianapolis 500 with 150,000 spectators in August?

Speaking of Eldora, IndyCar had to fire its starter (flagman) because of stupidity (racist Tweets) and I don’t know who they got to replace him but they should have hired Roger Slack, the Canadian who runs Tony Stewart’s speedway. The best starter CART ever had was Nick Fornoro, who had the knack. He was a short-track guy and short-track guys are the best when it comes to refereeing races. Roger Slack knows his way around and should have received a call.