MOTORSPORT: Alessandro Latif - the teenage racing driver with no licence
FOR a teenager without a licence, Alessandro Latif can’t half drive.
The Marlborough College pupil, who turned 18 earlier this month, kicked off his Blancpain Sprint Series campaign with the Phoenix Racing team over the weekend, while still revising for his upcoming A Levels.
While he swots up on a brain-aching combination of Maths, Further Maths and Physics ahead of his exams - he intends to go on to study engineering at university - he’s also planning world domination at speeds which most of us wouldn’t dare get near.
Latif is not your ordinary teenager. We meet at a coffee shop in Marlborough and within five minutes it’s apparent that he is eloquent, dedicated and passionate about his craft. He can boast a remarkable absence of angst, too. Perhaps that’s a by-product of living life at around 200mph - quite literally.
The holder of Italian and UK passports, with Indian and Pakistani heritage, Latif’s global lineage is mirrored in his international travel plans. He’s already spent a good portion of the year in the United States, racing at Daytona and Sebring, and over the summer he’ll dart around Europe like an eager back-packer; the only difference being Latif will have in tow an Audi R8, powered by a V10 engine with a top speed of 190mph.
Most young men and women of his age are trundling around the A roads of the United Kingdom in battered Fiat Puntos and Volkswagen Golfs, volume turned up to drown out that annoying but unidentifiable rattle. Not Latif. In fact, the speedster isn’t even allowed to take to the highways in this country.
He says: “When I do get the licence I still have to travel all around the world and they’ll say ‘well you’re not 21 so you can’t hire a car’.
“I need a licence but I’ll still struggle to drive around the place unless I keep a car at every destination.
“I’ll learn the stuff everyone else needs to do, you don’t get road signs on a race track. I don’t think it will be particularly difficult. Just don’t go fast.
“I’ve had a few lessons in London and the guy who’s taken me understands what I do. He’s a big fan of motorsport and he’s been telling me to think through the mind of the examiner – don’t tell him you’re a racing driver.
“I don’t really like going round saying what I do. I like to keep a low key on it.”
Still, given his successes to date it’s hardly a surprise Latif doesn’t feel the need to get behind the wheel and tackle the M25 at rush hour.
His love affair with racing started a decade ago when his father gave him a go in his Porsche. The obsession began almost instantly and only intensified to this day.
Now Latif balances the hectic day-to-day grind of a public schoolboy with international competition.
“I miss the social part of life but I knew that when I signed up for it. I knew it was a sacrifice I’d have to make and, to be honest, I’m really happy I’m doing what I’m doing now,” he says.
“I do have to do a lot of catching up with work and the school is really helping me with my career as well as keeping my academic side up.
“I came back from the Sebring 12 hours and the day back I had a physics exam. That was a bit of a shock to the system and revising for it was interesting. If it was any other exam I wouldn’t have been so happy about it.
“I didn’t actually sleep that night because I was on American time.
“My parents see it as my way of life and it’s what I want to do. My father’s fully on board, my mother is as well and my family is fully supportive.
“I don’t think my friends really know what I do. I don’t go talking to them much about it. It’s a world in itself which maybe you appreciate as an adult but maybe at our age they don’t really appreciate the world I’m in or understand the world I’m in.”
Latif swims for Marlborough, training in the college’s state of the art pool three times a week for around two hours each time. He’s also a regular in the gym, working on the upper body strength required to coax such powerful machines round tight chicanes.
“There’s a lot of cardio-vascular energy that goes into racing and a lot of upper body strength,” he says. “I watched a video of Allan McNish and he said ‘put it this way, we have a marathon runner’s heartbeat the whole race at around 150bpm, we’ve got cockpit temperatures of about 65 degrees, you’re really sweating, your belts are really tight and crushing your lungs and halfway through a corner you’re holding your breath to try to keep your position in the car.
“You have to have huge lung capacity to do that. You’re pulling Gs – not so much in GTs – but you need a very strong neck when you’re racing more downforce cars which pull three or four Gs. It’s a very demanding sport and for a qualifying lap you have to physically hustle a car around. You have to dig within yourself. You train with trainers who have trained boxers and marathon runners and they say it’s one level down from boxing but it’s right there.”
His description makes me breathless. The fact his typical working day behind a wheel will last from around seven in the morning to nine at night makes me tired, too, yet Latif seems to become more and more energetic and enthusiastic as our conversation progresses.
He’s well-read, and counts Michael Jordan, Mohamed Ali and Ayrton Senna as some of his greatest inspirations.
“Any athlete has made it to the pinnacle of what he does deserves respect,” he says. “I really appreciate where they’ve come from and what they’ve had to do to get where they are.”
As the baby of the group, Latif has had to quickly adapt to living and thriving in an adult world.
He says: “I think previously the youngest person in my team was 23 and he was considered the young guy in the team as well. Everyone is around mid-30s and really the veterans who have won Nurburgrings and Spa 24s.
“They know the world is getting younger but they didn’t quite understand my age initially. They know I’m young but they don’t think I’m 17. After a few days they say ‘how old are you?’ I tell them I’m 17 and they’re like ‘oh, I feel old’.
“After a while they realise I am competing with them.
“Sometimes you look at the entry list and think ‘wow’ but I’m not really focusing on that. I’m focusing on what I have to achieve, my own goals and I know I can be one of the fastest there.
“I get in and have to have total belief and not think of anything else. This is what I learnt from the guys helping me when I was coming through the ranks. They taught me a lot of life lessons.”
Having raced against the likes of Alex Zanardi, however, Latif has grown up fast.
He’s thankful to his housemaster, John Carroll, who he says “has been a huge help and he’s really given me that support. I can go and talk to him if I have a problem”, and pays tribute to the work done by Marlborough College to allow him to accommodate both his racing and his studies.
“It’s not manic as such, it’s actually not as glamorous as people think it is,” he says. “It’s about having that single-mindedness to get what you want. You get a lot of alone time and you get a lot of time filling out reports, going to the gym on your own, but it’s not as manic as people think it must be.
“We have to train a lot and do a lot of PR stuff for our own careers and the manufacturers and teams we represent.
“A lot of it is mental stuff. You have to have the talent and motor skills to do it but perhaps 70 per cent, even more is mental.
“Every sport is mental, really. It’s about being single-minded and having 120 per cent belief in your own abilities.”