Imagine throttling a Formula 1 car around one of the greatest circuits in the world of motorsport, clambering out, and leaping straight into an F2 car, to perform an identical task for different purposes in different machinery. That’s the reality for a number of young racing drivers, who have earned this priceless privilege through their links to F1 teams.

FP1 sessions have grown into an important tool for young racing drivers on their Road to F1 and this should only increase in the future. But how difficult is it to make the transition from F2 machinery, to F1… And back again?

This isn’t a new phenomenon – the likes of Lando Norris and Nicholas Latifi, to name a few, have enjoyed this experience in the past and it played part in them earning an F1 drive, with Norris joining McLaren and Latifi now at Williams.

We spoke with the Canadian driver, to get the inside track on how it prepared him for F1.

Competitive development

Young drivers have regularly enjoyed time in F1 machinery, new and old, during testing days, and while these are hugely advantageous, nothing quite compares to the competitive environment of an F1 weekend.

FP1 provides an entirely different type of pressure for drivers, explains 2019 vice-champion Latifi: “Running a full-race programme for FP1 has its own kind of challenges. You don't get as many laps, and you are standing in for their usual driver.

“You have to weigh up the risks that you take for them, versus the rewards. You are trying to show the team what you can do, without taking any unnecessary risks which could damage the racing driver’s programme.”

Drivers can learn and grow from this type of pressure and Latifi clearly became more confident in the Williams throughout the year. This was particularly evident on tracks which the Canadian knew well, such as Le Castellet and Spa-Francorchamps. The 24-year-old finished narrowly ahead of Robert Kubica in the other Williams in the timings on both tracks.

Understandably, he was slightly less competitive on the circuits which were more alien to him. “I felt the progression from each one for sure,” he explained. “There are tracks where I am more comfortable and have more experience at, which allowed me to take a little bit more risk.

“In Montreal for example, on a street track, I am not going to be pushing as hard as at a track like Paul Ricard, where you would have to try very hard to hit something.”

Advanced machinery

F2 cars are powerful beasts and competitive with the final few rows of the F1 grid, but that doesn’t mean the leap between the two isn’t still demanding. The more experience a driver can get in the pinnacle of motor racing machinery, the better.

Drivers have to combat the added power, pace and the differences in handling between the cars, as well as the added technical specs which come with it.

“From an actual driving point of view, it is a big difference,” Latifi continued, “Formula 1 cars now are so fast, even compared to Formula 2, which is the quickest thing that you can drive below F1.

“I am happy with the progression though and I was happy to drive in the rain for a bit in Brazil as well because I had never driven the current F1 cars in the wet. That is extremely important and a big benefit ahead of the new season.”

Logistical planning

The most challenging aspect is undoubtedly the time between the sessions. In Le Castellet and at Spa, Latifi had less than half an hour to swap the Williams F1 machine, for his DAMS F2 car.

Despite the challenges this poses and the mental and physical strain this places onto drivers, the positives of undertaking FP1 sessions far outweigh any negatives. It isn’t just a case of placing the driver into the car on a Friday either. The teams will diligently plan and coordinate these sessions to minimise any disruption to their F2 programme.

For example, Latifi only ever undertook FP1 duties on an F2 weekend if the session fell before the F2 Free Practice. This meant that he didn’t have to switch from F2, to F1, and back to F2 and enabled him to focus solely on his Championship charge once FP1 was finished.

This also meant that he didn’t have to switch from practice mode in F1 to qualifying in F2, where he would be required to instantly perform around one lap. By running F2 Free Practice first, this allowed him a re-adjustment period.

Jumping from one to another

This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t without its challenges though. He explained: “It is difficult to get used to the F2 car again - I think it is more difficult than it seems from the outside. I think that only drivers who have had that experience can attest to that.

“The first thing that you have to adjust back to is the ergonomic differences. Straight out of the box, not even driving the car, your seat feels different, your belt feels different, the steering wheel is different, the pedals are different.

“When you are sat for an hour and a half in one car, trying to drive at the limit, and then having to jump right back into another one and do the same thing, all of these little things make a difference.”

“The more I did it though, the more it helped. In the end, I felt that I adapted as well as could have been expected.”

There was a clear improvement from the Canadian throughout the season when making the switch back. In French Free Practice, he ran sixth fastest, 0.6s off the pace of his teammate Sérgio Sette Câmara in P1. However, in Belgium Free Practice, after making the switch back again, he finished second fastest, narrowly behind Nyck de Vries.

He said: “I feel that I have learned from each one. For example, in Paul Ricard, I felt that I didn’t adapt well enough with the high-speed corners when I went back to Formula 2.

“I was anticipating that I wasn't going to have as much grip and I thought that I really had to leave a margin, because there was no way that the F2 car was going to have as much downforce, but, I overcompensated in the end.

“The more I did it though, the more it helped. In the end, I felt that I adapted as well as could have been expected.”