Re-evaluating Pastor Maldonado

Pastor Maldonado’s eventful five year sojourn into Formula One has come to an end, with his seat being taken by talented Dane Kevin Magnussen. Many commentators and fans feel that perhaps the Venezuelan should have been banished from the sport sooner, that he was a liability, a waste of a Williams and Lotus seat for too long and that the F1 paddock is a better place without him. Here’s why I don’t agree.

Maldonado was already unpopular when he first arrived in the sport in 2011, despite winning the previous year’s GP2 title with the unfancied Rapax team, defeating Sergio Perez and Jules Bianchi, as well as more experienced drivers such as WEC and Formula E stalwart Sam Bird and 2013 Caterham pair Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic. The reason he wasn’t in favour was because he had replaced 2009 GP2 champ Nico Hulkenberg, who had stunned everyone at the end of his rookie F1 season by putting the Williams Cosworth on pole in tricky conditions at Sao Paulo. With Pastor came Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA’s prominent sponsorship on both cars, leading to the assumption that he has bought his way into the drive and left a promising young talent in the cold. I won’t divulge into Venezuelan politics, but like any racing driver Maldonado used the resources available to him to make himself a more attractive prospect to teams. Even though Williams pointed to his performances and his technical feedback in the post-season Abu Dhabi test, signing him was only ever seen by the public as a necessary evil by which to gain a cool $30 million. But it is not at all uncommon for today’s F1 drivers to have to bring money to secure seats; that is one of the ways the smaller teams like Williams are expected to survive. To pretend for example that Sergio Perez did not bring Telmex’s pesos to Sauber the same year, or that Alonso’s Telefonica sponsorship was not an incentive for Renault to keep him is disingenuous; the fact that Pastor came with a headline grabbing figure made him by far the easiest target though. Finally, it would become apparent that as a personality in F1 Pastor had broken the mould; he was definitely not the typical media-conditioned stereotype that drivers are repeatedly accused of being.

A brilliant drive at Monaco in the recalcitrant FW33, but Pastor would walk away empty handed after Hamilton pushed him into the barriers.

Maldonado retired in his grand prix debut at Melbourne thanks to a transmission failure; and it was indicative of the rough first season that was to follow, the FW33 lacking in both pace and reliability. But even during this baptism of fire Maldonado was able to occasionally qualify the car into territory it had no right to be in: His first appearance in Q3 was 9th at Barcelona, and he followed this up with a fantastic performance on the streets of Monte Carlo, (a circuit that he had become a specialist at after winning there multiple times whilst in GP2) qualifying 8th and after avoiding a massive pile-up running 6th in the closing stages. Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren had been damaged in the skirmish, but during the subsequent red flag his team was able to repair damage to his rear wing, and come the restart he was all over the Williams. Maldonado described what followed

“It is always difficult to overtake at Ste Devote. You have to be alongside and Lewis wasn’t. I was concentrating on my line and didn’t know he was there until I felt a bang. He was too optimistic.”

I think this was the race where I really became a fan of Pastor. I remember feeling livid at Hamilton’s recklessness during that race, (Lewis was initially unrepentant but after his now infamous Ali G impression he did subsequently apologise for ruining Pastor’s race) and bitterly disappointed knowing Pastor’s brilliant drive that day would go unrewarded through no real fault of his own, and in that terrible car it seemed incredibly unlikely that there would be further chances to score. However, in mixed conditions at Silverstone, and with the temporary reduction to 10% off throttle blown diffusers Pastor was able to qualify in a season best 7th, although the FW33 unsurprisingly faded during the race. A big shock though happened at Spa Francochamps, where Hamilton and Maldonado once again came to blows, this time during qualifying. At the end of his final run in Q2, Lewis ended up pushing Pastor aside before crossing the line to go through to Q3. Hamilton then weaved twice towards Maldonado after crossing the chequered flag, following which Pastor then side-swiped the McLaren on the run down to Eau Rouge, causing minor damage. Hamilton was reprimanded and Maldonado given a five place grid penalty. Despite starting 21st, by the end of the race Pastor had managed to work his way up to 10th to earn his first point after some hard fought battling through the field. However it would prove to be his sole point of the season; there were no further opportunities due to the car’s inherent lack of pace and poor development, the blown exhausts optimised so strongly by teams like Red Bull being a crippling weakness that the team never got on top of.

A difficult weekend in Spa ends on a positive note, with Pastor claiming his first point in F1.

In his first season, Maldonado’s qualifying record held up closely but well against teammate Rubens Barrichello, (Pastor’s best was 7th with an average of 14.58, Rubens’ best was 11th with an average of 14.84) and despite being forced to drive one of the worst performing Williams cars to have ever been produced by the Grove based team, the rookie had shown signs of what was to follow; occasional brilliance but also impetuousness and the odd accident. The Spa incident with Hamilton was the first time that the British media began to label Pastor en masse as ‘Crash-tor’, especially because the TV coverage only showed the end of the incident and omitted Hamilton swerving towards the Williams after the final chicane. Pastor described it as “A difficult moment”, a phrase that he would go on to use multiple times in the future.

Maldonado was secured by Williams for a second season in which he would be partnered by former HRT and Lotus driver Bruno Senna. He would be driving with a much more powerful Renault engine, which immediately impressed Pastor once he started driving the FW34 in pre-season testing.

In Melbourne it quickly became apparent how much more competitive the car was compared to it’s much lamented predecessor. Maldonado qualified comfortably into 8th but then went on to have a scruffy race, making contact with Romain Grosjean which forced the Lotus to retire, then taking a brief trip through the gravel trap. Despite this the car still showed excellent pace, and on the final lap he was right behind Fernando Alonso’s 5th placed Ferrari when he put a wheel on a curb, had a huge oversteer moment and crashed nose-first into the wall. In China he scored his first points of the season in 8th, after losing out in another close battle with Grosjean.

2012 Spanish Grand Prix - Sunday
Maldonado leads Alonso en route to victory at Circuit de Catalunya

The career highlight of course is Spain, where Maldonado qualified 2nd on the grid, but was then promoted to pole position after Hamilton was thrown out of qualifying thanks to a McLaren fuelling error. Alonso got the jump on Pastor at the start, but an aggressive strategy and some intelligently measured driving (Especially in the closing stages when Raikkonen began to close in on the both of them) saw him take a shock first victory and a first win for Williams in 8 years. Critics of Maldonado dismiss this as a ‘fluke victory’ which was only made possible by dint of the unpredictable compound of Pirelli tyres used during the first half of the season and the 7 different winners in as many races, but Williams gave Maldonado the perfect strategy which he exploited to the full. (Even despite a slow final pitstop) Deciding that a driver’s best result ‘Doesn’t count’ because it doesn’t fit the pattern of the rest of their career is something we’ve seen before: For example, CART champion Michael Andretti’s 3rd place at Monza in 1993 only happened only because everyone ahead of him crashed into one another/retired, and the reigning Formula E champion Nelson Piquet Jnr.’s 2nd place at Hockenheim in 2008 was due to a fortuitously timed pitstop for fuel just before a crash that bought out the safety car. Compared to those two, Pastor had to work much, much harder for his big result. I will admit that Hamilton losing his pole position and being sent to the back made it easier for Pastor, but F1 is a team sport; McLaren messed up that day, and Williams did not. Senna had the same car available to him, spun it in qualifying, dropped out in Q1 and then was rammed into retirement by Schumacher. As a footnote Senna’s car later burst into flames with a thick cloud of smoke emerging from the Williams garage where the team was celebrating, and thankfully Pastor was able to carry his younger cousin Manuel on his shoulders to safety. Although one Williams mechanic was hospitalised he later made a full recovery.

The win at Barcelona would prove to form a large percentage of Maldonado’s points in 2012, as he went on to have a succession of incident filled weekends. Monaco would prove to be one of his worst, with Pastor first clumsily cutting across Sergio Perez in practice and then crashing heavily, copping a penalty which sent him from 9th to the back of the grid, after which Pastor promptly ended his miserable weekend by piling into the back of Pedro De la Rosa’s HRT at the first corner. 

After recomposing himself, at the European grand prix in Valencia Maldonado was able to qualify 3rd, but found himself in 10th during the race after pitting under a safety car midway through the race. He then made his way back up to 4th after passing Mark Webber’s Red Bull and was challenging Hamilton (who was on worn tyres) for 3rd place on the penultimate lap when the Englishman forced the Venezuelan off track and onto the run-off. Pastor attempted to return too the track too early and the result was that the McLaren went flying into the wall whilst Pastor trundled home without his front wing, finishing 10th, but the stewards were unimpressed and chose to demote him out of the points. In the next race at Silverstone Maldonado was fighting for 6th place with Sergio Perez when he made contact with the Mexican going into Brooklands, leaving the Sauber trapped in the gravel and damaging Pastor’s wheel rim as well. After getting out of the car Perez decided to join in the vilification with the media to escalate the negativity:

“Pastor is a driver who doesn’t respect other drivers. It’s just a matter of fact,” Perez told the BBC. “I was already in front, and if not he should have given me enough space not to crash, but he tried to push me all the way to the outside. I don’t understand the way he is driving.

“I really hope the stewards can make something because the last three or four races he has done something to [other drivers].

“It is not the first time he has damaged my weekend. He did the same [to Hamilton] in Valencia, and they gave him a drive-through, which I think is not enough. This guy will never learn if they don’t do something, because he is a very dangerous driver and he can hurt someone.”

I find it slightly ironic that Perez is saying this, given that he has been involved in his fair share of wheel-to-wheel incidents too, (I.E. causing a heavy crash with Massa at the end of Canada 2014) even incurring the wrath of Kimi Raikkonen on more than one occasion. Despite Perez’s spiteful comments I don’t recall him or anyone else calling out Maldonado anywhere near as strongly in the media after Silverstone; I strongly suspect that Perez was merely angry in the heat of the moment and just appealing to the growing public sentiment against Maldonado, particularly within the UK media.

An all too common sight during 2012: Pastor’s wounded car displays battle scars at Spa.

Qualifying at Spa went well but despite ending the session 3rd he lined up 6th after suffering a grid penalty for being deemed to have blocked Hulkenberg in qualifying. Then he jumped the start, and whilst Romain Grosjean started a chain reaction which caused absolute chaos behind, Maldonado’s car got tapped into a spin by a damaged Sauber which sent him to the back of the field, following which Pastor copped a 3rd penalty in two days for crashing into Timo Glock’s Marussia.

By contrast, Singapore and Abu Dhabi were top drawer performances towards the end of the season which weren’t rewarded with the points that they merited. At Singapore Maldonado qualified a brilliant 2nd behind Hamilton, and staunchly defended 3rd from Fernando Alonso in a fantastic battle. Unfortunately mechanical trouble forced him into retirement, robbing him of a certain top 4 position. At Abu Dhabi he was 3rd on the grid after another strong performance when his KERS system failed during the first safety car period, which severely impacted on his pace; instead of challenging Alonso and Raikkonen for victory, he was powerless to stop Vettel and Button from breezing by him, although Pastor did what he could to prolong the inevitable.

Maldonado’s second season had proved incredibly mixed, and sadly it would prove to be his only one in decent, competitive F1 machinery. He ended 2012 in 15th position with 45 points, 14 points ahead of his teammate Bruno Senna in 16th. It was felt that both drivers had under-delivered; Senna rarely got the most out of his car, whilst Pastor accrued far too many penalties, (A whopping 14, with Schumacher being the next highest that year on 9) meaning that a race winning team came a lowly 8th in the constructors championship. For his part it was Senna’s first full season in the sport and he was in the points on 10 occasions compared to Pastor’s 5, although despite this consistency Bruno was not kept on for the following year.

Maldonado holds off an ailing Mercedes of Nico Rosberg for his sole point of an underwhelming 2013 campaign which saw him upstaged by his rookie teammate.

The 2013 season proved to be a re-run of 2011, only much, much worse; Williams somehow managed to build an even slower car than the FW33 and scored the exact same number of points with the FW35 as they did two years previously. (A mere 5) Pastor was only able to score a single point, this time in Hungary, whilst his superstar rookie teammate Valtteri Bottas, groomed by the team for several seasons in a test/reserve role, out-qualified him 12-7 and managed to finish an impressive 8th in Austin. Pastor no longer felt like the favoured son and his driving once again seemed erratic; memorably he made contact with both Force India cars during a battle at Spa which ended dramatically with Pastor T-boning the rear wheel of Paul Di Resta whilst attempting to drive into the pits. Nothing seemed to go right, and Pastor ended the year casually suggesting that the team was sabotaging his car. In the space of 3 seasons at Williams, Pastor had gone from zero to hero to zero again; after his least convincing year, he decided it was time for a change…

When the permanent driver numbers were chosen, Maldonado opted for the dreaded 13. With the move to a struggling Lotus team coming just as Williams were experiencing a long overdue resurgence in their form, it seemed that fate had not been kind to him. Pastor reflected on this at the end of last year:

“Frustrating is not the right word, it’s just difficult. Maybe the decision was not the best one but at the same time as a sportsman you always have a lot of hunger and you always have a lot of expectation in your life. At some point you have to take decisions and wherever it goes you must take it with responsibility and with all the passion you have. That’s what I did.”

Paradoxically though, I think this change in his career direction actually allowed Pastor to improve his attitude, despite his results on paper seeming unimpressive compared to 2012’s highs.

Gutierrez is flipped dramatically into a barrel-roll in a racing incident when Pastor makes contact with the Sauber after exiting the pits.

The 2014 season seemed like it might be Pastor’s first pointless campaign, but he managed to score two points at Austin near the end of the year. However, although Grosjean scored 6 more points and generally out-qualified him, (14-5) Maldonado was able to put in some solid drives of his own to occasionally eclipse Grosjean in the races; the trouble is that these performances A) Didn’t come often enough and B) when they did they came late in the season at places like Monza where the car was so hopelessly off the pace that he could only manage 14th to Grosjean’s 16th; thus even with a new team, the ‘Crashtor’ nickname stuck, as people fixated on dramatic accidents with Gutierrez at Bahrain and Silverstone. It didn’t matter to people whether Pastor was at fault or not; they made fun of him regardless, regurgitating the same old memes until it all just became one redundant self-gratifying echo chamber of polarised opinion where objectivity goes out the window.

And so we come to his last season, although no-one could have known it at the time. After an unlucky and incident filled start to his year, I got to meet Pastor for the first time during a filming day Lotus conducted at Brands Hatch in Kent. If he was feeling down, he did not show it; he was more than happy to answer questions, sign merchandise and take photos: he was genuinely having a blast, and so was I! I didn’t seem to give him much good luck though as in the following two races Pastor was forced to retire whilst running strongly in the points.

2015-04-27 14.43.05
Meeting the man himself at Brands Hatch, April 2015.

Pastor finally got some points on the board in Canada, finishing 7th after teammate Grosjean tripped up over Will Steven’s Manor at a strong track for Lotus. Maldonado then repeated this feat at the following race in Austria, running a generally clean race and making a very hairy pass on Max Verstappen; DRS fully open, the car bottoming out and Pastor having to wrestle the car back under control. The Toro Rosso then ran wide and 7th place was his. However, the usual routine of mistakes and/or misfortune would follow; he was an innocent victim in the first corner melees that eliminated him at Melbourne, Silverstone, Monza, and Abu Dhabi, whilst Jenson Button rammed into his gearbox at China and Singapore, (Where Button accused Maldonado of being ‘Mental’ over the radio shortly after) but in Hungary he failed to leave enough room when Perez was alongside and caused a collision, and at Spa Pastor was running ahead of Grosjean when he clattered the kerbs going off track briefly at Eau Rouge (a recorded impact of 17G) which broke the clutch control system. It was avoidable, and Grosjean’s subsequent 3rd place showed what could have been. Towards the end of the season Pastor was able to string together 4 solid points finishes from 5 consecutive races, and he ended the season in 14th place in the championship with 27 points, his career best championship position. Although it was a better season for Maldonado he was still very much outclassed by Romain Grosjean in the other Lotus. (11th with 51 points and again dominating in qualifying 16-3)

In his final season, Pastor proved that he could hold his own in wheel-to-wheel battles against the likes of Max Verstappen.

With Grosjean leaving for 2016 to join the fledgling Haas outfit, Maldonado was all signed to become team leader with Jolyon Palmer as his teammate. But Lotus were in financial trouble, with ex-driver Charles Pic threatening legal action, the team being locked out of their motorhome and Pirelli refusing to hand over tyres for practice until they were paid. With Red Bull falling out of love with Renault, the French manufacturer was looking to repurchase the Enstone squad that it had won championships with in the past, and so they did in late December. Suddenly both contracts were in doubt, with Renault having a plethora of it’s own young drivers they could sign, now they had technically become a new entity. With a drop in oil prices and Venezuela’s economy in a state of disarray (To put it lightly) PDVSA could not stump up the advanced payments needed to keep Maldonado in F1, and unfortunately Renault considered him nothing more than a washed up has-been. On February 1st Maldonado announced on his own terms that he would not be on the grid for the 2016 season and had amicably parted ways with the team. He has not given up on a drive for 2017 but in all honesty that seems like an incredibly unlikely scenario.

Even amidst the large uncertainty and speculation over his drive, Pastor behaved impeccably, showing that he’d matured from from the paranoid and unhappy driver who left Williams into someone a little more responsible and level headed. Looking back, his slightly philosophical comments when asked about whether Renault would dispose of him or not were quite telling:

“I really wish the best for the team, if Renault comes, they are welcome… If they don’t want me in the team, that’s fine. Life is like this.”

I see Pastor as a driver with a similar attitude to Gilles Villeneuve; always trying to win every single race, developing an unusual swashbuckling driving style which almost looks like he’s about to fall off the road every corner, but is still incredibly fast. Unlike Gilles though, Pastor was put under the microscope in a social media age where every transgression, every imperfection is monitored, magnified and exaggerated for all to see, (Villeneuve didn’t have his credibility undermined by a website devoted to documenting his every crash, jokey though it may be) not just by fans but also the stewards. Still, he gave it a go and in the right environment with a car capable of delivering, he proved he could pull it all together and achieve things no-one believed him capable of. Although I’m not unhappy to see Kevin Magnussen get another shot at F1, I feel sad that Pastor’s own potential will now never be fully realised, at least not at the pinnacle of motorsport.

His career in F1 was not a great one, but despite the mistakes, the misfortune and the bad choices he still had that one moment of unadulterated and fully deserved glory. To quote The Imitation Game: Sometimes it’s the very people that no-one imagines anything of, who do the things that no-one can imagine.

I’ll leave you with an old Venezuelan promotional video I found, which shows highlights of Pastor’s junior career to the score of Back to the Future. Where he’s going, he doesn’t need roads…

Re-evaluating Pastor Maldonado