To celebrate the fifth anniversary of Pastor Maldonado’s sole F1 victory, also his only podium appearance, we will look at the case for the defence of one of the most maligned characters in recent F1 history. Forget the memes, the crashes and the constant jokes…here is an objective look at what Pastor brought to the sport…besides cash.
The path to F1
All F1 drivers have to earn their spot on the grid right? Just like Lance Stroll at Williams today Maldonado brought with him plenty of backing to gain his seat in F1 with Williams, at the expense of Nico Hulkenberg, who had just put a Williams on pole in Brazil at the end of the 2010 season.
Hulkenberg had soundly beaten Maldonado in GP2 in the Hulks title winning season in 2009 when they were team-mates, so was Maldonado’s promotion just about money? It certainly helped of course, money makes the world go round, and has always been the case in F1. Still, there have been plenty of drivers earning the pay driver tag who had absolutely no right to be in F1 (fans of Pacific Grand Prix F1 may remember such legendary F1 talents as Paul Belmondo, Giovani Lavagi and Jean-Denis Deletraz gracing F1 in the mid-nineties, drivers who really deserved the pay-driver tag).
It may have taken 4 attempts, but Maldonado graduated to F1 as GP2 champion, and a dominant one at that, securing 6 feature race wins in a row in 2010 against the likes of Sergio Perez (in his second season of GP2) and the late Jules Bianchi (in his rookie season). He had also come within a whisker of winning the Formula Renault 3.5 championship in 2006, being denied the title after his car failed scrutineering and he lost a win at the round in Misano.
Looking at the current grid, Marcus Ericsson arrived in F1 after 4 years of GP2 with a best championship position of 6th and only a handful of wins, Jolyon Palmer also took the GP2 title at the fourth time of asking, not to mention Sergio Perez, who graduated to F1 after being soundly beaten by Maldonado in GP2 in 2010. So you get the point, not the worst driver in history to get a shot at F1, not worse than some current driver to get a shot at F1. The money certainly helped, but it didn’t win all those races. So he surely deserved his crack at F1 anyway.
So how did his F1 career stack up?
Maldonado’s F1 career was spent in midfield machinery, and he contributed to his own reputation by constantly pushing too hard to compensate, with plenty of single car incidents during practice sessions in addition to his woes during races.
He started his career with Williams in 2011, alongside respected veteran Rubens Barrichello. The Williams car was a dud, the Cosworth engine a weak link, and both struggled all season long. At the end of the season Barrichello had scored just 4 points to Maldonado’s one.
Like any rookie the season showed a learning curve, but Maldonado was very unfortunate to be bundled out of an excellent sixth position by an erratically driving Lewis Hamilton, whose own 2011 form could have qualified for his own crash counting website. But more of that later! Maldonado put up a respectable performance pace wise as a rookie against Barrichello, just losing the head to head in qualifying 10-9. On pace alone, he merited another season, although his temperament was already coming under question.
He continued at Williams in 2012, and with Renault power he would produce his one magic F1 moment, a memorable win in Spain. Maldonado was perfect that day, but never seemed able to repeat the feat. He dominated team-mate Bruno Senna in qualifying 18-2 (before penalties applied of course, although Senna was handicapped by giving up almost all of his FP1 sessions to Valtteri Bottas).
Maldonado would blow a chance for good points after qualifying third in Valencia when he clumsily rammed Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren off the track while disputing third place, and a sixth place grid slot in Belgium (which would have been third but for a penalty!) would again end in disappointment after Pastor initially jumped the start and then crashed out with a badly judged effort to pass Timo Glock’s Marussia after a safety car restart.
Another front row grid position later in the year in Singapore also failed to yield any points (this time with a hydraulic issue rather than a driver error forcing Maldonado out), but overall his season was littered with indifferent performances and wasted opportunities, the best result after Spain a fifth place in Abu Dhabi after qualifying in third place. Despite his victory in Spain and string of impressive qualifying positions he could only manage 15th place in the championship, just one place and 6 points ahead of team-mate Senna, whowas headed for F1’s exit door.
After showing plenty of unfulfilled potential in 2012, it would all go downhill for the remainder of Pastor’s stay in F1. For 2013 he stayed on with Williams with Valtteri Bottas graduating to the team, but the car was a let-down, and both drivers struggled. While there was not much between them, Bottas got the better of Maldonado over the course of the season (12-7 in qualifying, 4-1 in points scored) and provided the teams highlight with a sensational qualifying performance in the wet in Canada (taking third place while Maldonado wound up 13th). With Maldonado thinking he was not the favoured driver at the team and thinking he was not getting value for his money, he started to eye up a move elsewhere. After the joy of Spain in 2012 the relationship ended on a sour note, with Maldonado accusing Williams of deliberately sabotaging his set up to make Bottas look good at the US Grand Prix, not his finest hour!!
In a move straight from the Fernando Alonso book of career advice, he swapped Williams for Lotus for 2014. With the new PU regulations, the Williams would be the dark horse while the Lotus with its Renault PU would be more like a dead horse. In 2 years with Lotus Maldonado never seemed close to matching Romain Grosjean for qualifying pace, but while he looked closer on race pace he simply wasn’t able to keep it together for a race distance long enough to get results. The race incidents (and practice crashes) mounted, and Maldonado’s stock, just like sponsor PDVSAs reserves, continued to plummet. Over the course of the two seasons he was comprehensively beaten by Grosjean (losing out 32-6 in qualifying, and being outscored 59-29). For 2016, the PDVSA money dried up, and as Lotus changed to Renault, Pastor was deemed not good enough on talent alone to merit a place in F1, losing his seat to Kevin Magnussen. He has not made it back.
Pastor’s Legacy – a reputation for crashes and controversy
OK, it had to be dealt with. Pastor developed a reputation for crashing, causing incidents, and generally losing his cool on track. Was it deserved? While he adopted an exceed the limit to find the limit approach that saw countless off track excursions in qualifying and races, he also had a tendency to either lose control or display poor judgement. He was lucky make it to Formula One at all after he was banned in 2005 for ignoring yellow flags in practice for the Formula Renault 3.5 race in Monaco in an incident which saw him hit a marshall who was on track attending another crashed car. In his F1 rookie season in 2011 he was involved with an incident with Lewis Hamilton in Belgium that saw him lucky to escape a race ban, seeming to take revenge on Hamilton after Hamilton bumped across him on a qualifying lap by weaving across into Hamilton’s McLaren after the session completed!
He would lose the plot in a similar fashion in 2012 at Monaco, swiping across Sergio Perez Sauber in practice, with the resultant penalty running his chances of a follow up performance after his breakthrough win in Spain the previous round, with Maldonado crashing out at the first corner in the race.
Apart from these more sinister incidents were the countless spins, including spinning off in practice while adjusting settings on his steering wheel in China in 2014, and the countless cases of contact with other drivers. Were all these Maldonado’s fault? Of course not, but he became a magnet for such incidents, seemingly always in the wrong place at the wrong time on the opening lap, and being a soft target for drivers who knew in any crash the public perception would be to blame Pastor…although the stewards did hand penalties to world champions Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso for crashing into Pastor at various points in his career, it was the sheer number of incidents involving Pastor that gave him the reputation of F1’s wrecking ball.
We can all clearly remember our favourites, flipping Gutierrez Sauber in Bahrain 2014, clobbering both Force India’s in one corner in Spa in 2013, and don’t forget spinning his Williams and crashing into a kerb on a demonstration run in Venezuela.
One thing is for certain, after sitting through the tedious Russian Grand Prix, Pastor would certainly liven up F1 if he were able to secure a return to the sport!