We love going out to Japan, and after a three-year break from heading to Suzuka, it was always going to be a memorable trip. For Nicholas Latifi, however, the 2022 Japanese Grand Prix would prove to be particularly special.
Our Canadian took two points away from his first-ever trip to the immensely popular circuit that has undoubtedly gained another fan for life in Nicky.
While the pivotal moment that earned our No6 his maiden top-10 finish of the year was clear for all to see, there was far more than met the eye in making that crucial strategy call on that soaking Suzuka Sunday.
We sat down with Ernesto 'Erny' Desiderio, Nicky’s Race Engineer, who reflected on the Canadian’s positive result and the factors that led to that all-important call to pit when the heavily-delayed race finally restarted.
The understanding of the track's grip wasn't an accident, and Erny detailed that Friday's wet running was crucial for the entire team's wet weather knowledge:
"A mix of things came together. It's a bit of teamwork that started on Friday, where we didn't think we would be running because of the washout.
"We knew that the rain was going to be heavy, but we saw some space in the weather, so we got some experience on the intermediate and wet tyres.
"I think that was really the key to understanding how the track was."
Erny analyses Friday’s wet weather data, which would prove critical to Nicky’s success on Sunday
While anyone who tuned in on Friday or Sunday could take one look at the TV screens and see the wild wet weather, Erny and the team looked further than that with their expert eyes.
"Around there, there's a lot of rain. There are rivers coming down the track. But the asphalt is very peculiar. The agglomerate is really thick, and there is a lot of grip, even in the weather condition.
“It was good for us to learn that on Friday and really add that to our bank of information," Erny explained.
Fast forward to the Grand Prix and the long red flag period after just two laps of running gave the team an opportunity to strategise and assess what improvements we could make to Nicky's car.
However, Erny admitted that it's not a free-for-all on any car modifications: "There are a few things that you can do, but not really too much.
"The regulations specify a few things – around eight or nine things that you can do, like driver comfort, cooling changes... You can change the flap. You can change the cooling on the brakes and stuff.
"The power unit, the brakes, everything needs to be considered when you know it's cold and there is water on track.
"The duty cycle of the car is very different. You've got to make that package suitable for the conditions."
Erny meant business on Sunday
After using the red flag period to improve Nicky's car to the best it could be, thoughts turned to how else the team could turn the conditions to their advantage.
While a dry race can have a handful of tyre strategies with undercuts and overcuts worth a second or two per lap, a wet race throws all of that out the window.
Perfecting the time of a stop can potentially mean a benefit of dozens of seconds and plenty of positions in only a handful of laps.
Together with Nicky, Erny and the team used their FP1 and FP2 running to decide whether or not to pull into the pits at the first available opportunity after the restart:
"It's something that came from Friday. We learned everything that we needed on those two tyres.
"Nicky had the track conditions from Friday really clear in his mind, and that was the key to having in his own mind what the track should be for that tyre."
Erny was quick to highlight that the pit stop wasn't just something decided in the garage, and the team relied on Nicky's feedback from the laps running behind the Safety Car.
"We pre-discussed all of this extensively just before restarting the race after the red flag.
"He knew that if the conditions were in a certain way, there was that possibility to come in.
"In the end, it was a big team effort that started on Friday, and it came together."
"Nicky had the best information, and he saw it coming when he got on track under the Safety Car. It was like, 'Oh this is something that I can do,' and that was a great call from him."
Teamwork was critical to Sunday’s strategy call, with Nicky and Erny influential
Every advantage counts in Formula One, and ensuring that our nine rivals weren't clued in on our plan played a key part in Nicky's leap up the field.
"We didn't really say much on the radio so as not to give competitors too much information about what we were going to do," Erny said, in a demonstration of the secrecy in the sport before continuing: "In the end, we thought more people would come in, but they didn't.
"It was just us and [Sebastian] Vettel at that point. We had big smiles on our faces because we knew that it was going to help us.
"We lost out on Vettel in the pit lane, but that can happen. It's just that they came in and attacked the box a little bit differently, and they came out just on our side.
"Then, with visibility, it's difficult to fight on the first lap. Nevertheless, it was a great team effort. We managed to do something really good there.
"We undercut a few cars there – seven or eight, I think."
Nicky knew all along, didn’t he?
Erny is correct; after most other runners had pitted, Nicky's P19 start had become P15 in the opening melee and then P8 from the pit stop's undercut.
With many cars behind us that often occupy the top positions, only dropping one place from there was a terrific effort by Nicky, who richly deserved his two-point reward.
Yet the points were earned by everyone involved, and Erny explained just how much of a collaborative team effort making that crucial Japanese Grand Prix pit stop was:
"Between Nicky, myself, and the pit wall... if the three of us think that the pit stop has to be done, then it's a chain of decisions.
"With Nicky saying that the conditions were right, then we started discussing between myself and the pit wall.
"And we were all on the same page: Let's bring him in, change the tyres... Let's go!"
The Japanese Grand Prix was yet another reminder of why Formula One is all about the team, and we couldn’t be prouder of ours.
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