5 Years On – The King of F1 (for a day)

This year marks 5 years since Pastor Maldonado secured one of the most unlikely wins in Formula One history, with a mature and masterful drive that seems equally as unlikely when viewed in the context of the reputation he developed as a one man F1 wrecking crew, a ticking time-bomb waiting to take himself and others out of races.

Hell, he even managed to cut short a planned demonstration run in Venezuela as he spun his Williams and crashed into a kerb. But yes, on that fateful day, 13th May 2012, Maldonado delivered a virtuoso performance, and rightfully took an amazing victory, the last time a Williams has tasted victory in F1.

So, how did it happen?

After struggling with Cosworth power in 2011, Williams changed over to Renault power for 2012, and the new FW34 was a much better machine. Maldonado showed glimpses of its potential in the season opening Australian Grand Prix, but had spun out on the final lap while pushing to take fifth place from Fernando Alonso. Team-mate Bruno Senna opened Williams account with a sixth place in the wet in Malaysia, before he led Maldonado home in a 7/8 finish for Williams in China. So the car was clearly a much better prospect than the sluggish 2011 challenger, but hardly the class of the field. 2012 was the year of the great Pirelli tyre lottery, and in the early part of the season especially teams struggled to get on top of the tyre wear, allowing a greater variance in performance from race to race (indeed the opening 7 races of 2012 would see 7 different winners).

In Spain, Williams were one of the teams to get the tyre equation right. But they were still hardly the fastest car on the circuit. In qualifying, Lewis Hamilton set a scorching pace, and looked clear favourite to dominate the race on Sunday…only to be disqualified from qualifying after his McLaren was found to not have enough fuel on-board for scrutineering. This basic error from McLaren would take the fastest man in Spain that weekend out of the equation. Maldonado was promoted to pole position after a magnificent run in qualifying, where he would have home hero Fernando Alonso alongside him. Maldonado’s team-mate Senna could only qualify in 17th place after spinning out of Q1. On the second row of the grid were the Lotus-Renaults of Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen, the black and gold cars looking impressive in hotter conditions.

At the start Maldonado did his best to squeeze out the fast starting Alonso, aiming his Williams across the track and trying to run Alonso out of track on the run down to Turn 1, but Alonso was in determined mood in front of his home crowd, and held his nerve despite being edged onto the grass to secure the inside position and the lead at Turn 1. Raikkonen followed through in third, and these three opened a gap to the rest of the field. With everyone starting on the soft Pirelli, pit stops came early, with Alonso pitting first from the lead at the end of lap 10, with Maldonado and Raikkonen following in on lap 11. Lotus put Kimi on the soft tyre, while Alonso and Maldonado were on the hard. The second Williams of Bruno Senna would disappear from the race on lap 12, Senna, who had been trying to run a longer first stint to make up positions after his qualifying spin, was tagged from behind by Michael Schumacher as Schumacher attempted to get by after his first stop – an incident which would see Schumacher receive a grid penalty for the next race which would deny him a pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix.

At the head of the pack the positions were unchanged, but Kimi would start to drop back, it quickly becoming apparent that the soft tyre was the slower tyre on race day, allowing Alonso and Maldonado breathing space. This time around Williams took the bull by the horns and called Maldonado in to pit early in a bid to get the undercut on Alonso. It worked a treat, great in and out laps by Maldonado combined with Alonso losing time while lapping the Marussia of Charles Pic saw the Williams leap frog into the lead when the stops were completed. Pic would get a drive through for holding Alonso up, but that was scant consolation for Ferrari, as Maldonado now surged clear, opening up a gap to Alonso, while the Lotus of Raikkonen, now back on the hard tyre like the leading duo, started to close the gap back to Alonso, the Lotus looking like a real threat now that it was back on the better tyre.

On this stint it was Alonso who looked to have managed his tyres better than Maldonado, and he began to close the gap back on Maldonado towards the end of the stint, starting to apply psychological pressure on the Venezuelan driver still searching for his first F1 podium. Still, Maldonado had 4 seconds in hand when he came into the pits at the end of lap 41 for his final stop to take on one last set of hard Pirellis. A sluggish stop from Williams didn’t help however, and when Alonso stopped three laps later it was clear there would be a fight all the way to the line. Raikkonen was still on track in the lead of the race, having stretched his tyre stints out longer, but was soon passed on track by both Maldonado and Alonso, before he pitted at the end of lap 48.

Over the final stint Alonso would latch onto Maldonado’s tail and seek to force a mistake, but Maldonado drove flawlessly, doing what was needed to preserve his Pirelli’s to get to the finish and not giving Alonso any opportunity. Despite getting to within a second of Maldonado, Alonso never had a clear opportunity, and would have to drop back to preserve his own tyres. Maldonado held his composure to take the chequered flag for his first F1 victory with a margin of 3 seconds over Alonso. Behind Alonso, Kimi was showing the true pace of the Lotus with a searing run to the end, which saw him close right up onto Alonso’s gearbox at the finish, but despite the late surge it was too little too late, Kimi’s hopes ruined by the slow second stint on soft tyres. That Lotus had the quickest car was underlined by Romain Grosjean (whose own race had been compromised by a poor start which saw him fall behind the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg) setting a blistering fastest lap of the race. The Lotus were clearly capable of being much faster in the race than Maldonado, but he had done a perfect job of getting the laps when he needed them, and conserving his tyres and controlling the race from the front.

It was Williams first win since Juan Pablo Montoya triumphed in Brazil in 2004, although their celebrations were marred by a pit fire which broke out shortly after the race. Pastor was seen carrying his young cousin out of the pits away from the flames, truly the hero of the hour. It might all have gone horribly downhill for Maldonado in F1 after that (he would never return to the podium), but on this day he was indeed a king of F1.

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