Williams have driver dilemma with champion racer waiting in the wings

If you think Max Verstappen has had it rough at the start of this new Formula 1 season, spare a thought for Nicholas Latifi.

The defending champion may have failed to finish two of his three races so far, but they have been caused by mechanical failures beyond his control. In the Williams racer's case, his issues have been more fundamental – a struggle with keeping his car pointing in the right direction.

Out of contract at the end of the year, this is make-or-break for the Canadian. This is his third season in F1 and, while we have seen occasional glimpses that there is a real racer there somewhere, so far it's hard to argue that he has done enough to justify being kept around for a fourth.

So far this season the picture hasn't looked all that great. After a relatively quiet race in Bahrain, Latifi crashed twice over the course of the weekend in Jeddah – the second coming in the race which caused the ninth DNF of his relatively short F1 career so far. He admitted himself afterwards that he was struggling with the balance of the car.

And then there was his latest repair job, needed after an almighty mix-up with Lance Stroll in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix. Both Canadians failed to cover themselves in glory as a misunderstanding saw them crash into each other and, once again, the Williams mechanics were left with a huge repair job.

All this comes after the most high-profile crash of his career – the one that changed the outcome of the 2021 title race. Had he not lost control and planted his car into the wall in Abu Dhabi last December, we would most likely refer to Lewis Hamilton as an eight-time world champion and Verstappen still as a challenger.

Latifi is a prime example of this current generation for F1 stars in the mid-20s – fast, ambitious and very likeable as a person. He and Stroll will also no doubt be helping the sport's owners Liberty Media in their quest to increase its profile in the North American market, so in that sense he remains very valuable.

But this is a Williams team with ambition – after years without being competitive and the focus being on simply keeping this historic constructor afloat, the plan is once again to start pushing back up the order and securing results worthy of the team created all those years ago by the late, great Sir Frank.

New chief Jost Capito has too much at stake to afford too many chances to a driver who is starting to make too many mistakes. And there are plenty of extremely talented and hungry young racers waiting in the wings for their shot in F1 if Latifi is not able to prove that he is capable of pushing the team to where it wants and needs to be.

Losing George Russell to Mercedes was a blow, but an inevitable one. By scoring good points with an uncompetitive car, he did exactly what every young driver needs to do these days just to survive in the sport – prove that they are capable of performing miracles. And he was justly rewarded with a chance with a team at the front of the grid.

His replacement, Alex Albon, has got off to a fine start to his time with Williams, scoring his first point in only his third race with an incredible display of tyre management, as he made his rubber last for 57 laps on the way to a 10th-placed finish. The former Red Bull man still has much to prove, but it was an example to his new team-mate of what needs to be done to survive in a cutthroat business.

Who could replace Nicholas Latifi at Williams?

If Capito does decide that enough is enough, then he is not short of candidates to replace Latifi. Jack Aitken has filled in for the team before and would relish the opportunity of a full-time spot on the grid, while his fellow reserve Roy Nissany has also declared his desire to make the step up. W Series champion Jamie Chadwick is also a contender, and could become the first woman to race in F1 for several decades.

But perhaps the ideal choice just became a possibility. Oscar Piastri has won the world title in each of his last three seasons across different categories, the latest coming in F2 last year. But there was no opportunity for him to step up to F1 for this campaign, and so he is working as Alpine's reserve driver and waiting patiently for his chance.

The French team's chief executive Laurent Rossi admitted this week that, if there is still no room next year, he is open to allowing the Australian to leave with a loan-style arrangement. "If it's a solution that allows me to get him back at some point, I might think about it, yeah," he told reporters.

In any case, you will find it tough to find any motorsport fan who doesn't believe Piastri is ready and worthy of a chance to impress in the premier category. The task Latifi has is making sure that he is not the one making way for the Aussie.

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