Friday 23 February 2018

F1: Maldonado pays his way for Williams in wheel-perfect upset

Venezuela's national hero provided yet another twist in season of shocks, writes David Kennedy

Smoke pours from the Williams's team garage destroyed by the fire at the end of the Spanish Grand Prix
Smoke pours from the Williams's team garage destroyed by the fire at the end of the Spanish Grand Prix

Nearly 500 years after the Spanish colonised Venezuela, Pastor Maldonado returned to do a bit of colonisation himself when he dominated and won the Spanish Grand Prix last Sunday.

It was a wonderful case study in the folly of underestimating the underdog. Maldonado and his Williams-Renault squad were positively wheel-perfect in Barcelona as all the usual stereotypes about so called 'privateer' teams and 'pay' drivers were cast to the Catalan wind along with the torn-up betting slips bearing the names of McLaren and Red Bull drivers.

Maldonado was faultless as he delivered the shock win that Sergio Perez and Sauber went so close to achieving in Malaysia.

Whereas Perez faltered under the laser-like intensity of the glare from Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, Maldonado is clearly made of sterner stuff and it was the double world champion and local hero who wilted late on, dropping back into the clutches of Kimi Raikkonen's hard-charging Lotus.

Frank Williams' 70th birthday bash couldn't have had a more fitting conclusion than a first win in seven years and it was a shame that some of the gloss was taken off the achievement when an inferno engulfed the Williams garage during his victory speech. Maldonado's heroics continued when he helped his 12-year-old cousin to safety as the fire raged.

The Venezuelan delivered a world championship-winning performance in Barcelona. A far cry from the hitherto unheralded driver who took four seasons in GP2 to win the title. Back then, Maldonado showed occasional flashes of brilliance which would remain frustratingly well hidden for much of the rest of the season.

His first oasis of form came in 2007 when he steered deftly between Monaco's unforgiving barriers to a victory of stunning sure-footedness. The next three seasons in the Principality produced either a win or a second-place finish as he showed paradoxical pace at a circuit which demands a cool head and total confidence.

By 2010, he was a well-rounded GP2 driver capable of winning the series but few were in any doubt that his graduation to the Williams team last season was not on talent alone.

Frank Williams freely admits that Maldonado's employment was entirely conditional on the estimated €56m of sponsorship from the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA but is keen to emphasise that they wouldn't have taken him if he had been, as he so colourfully put it, "a w**ker."

Maldonado is a rare breed on several levels: he's a Grand Prix-winning pay driver; a socialist in a billionaire world; the first Venezuelan to win a Grand Prix. As a personal friend of President Hugo Chavez, his win elevated him to status of national hero back home, where sporting victories are a bit thin on the ground.

Williams seems to be reaping the benefits of a staff makeover as a major organisational reshuffle last year. Long-time technical chief Sam Michael has left for McLaren while disgraced former McLaren man Mike Coughlan has earned quick redemption at Williams alongside former Toyota and Red Bull guru Mark Gillan.

Frank Williams and long-time partner Patrick Head have stood down from day-to-day roles in the F1 team, while the company CEO Adam Parr recently departed in double quick time. It's been a period of upheaval for the once-dominant Grove squad but whatever they did appears to be working, and F1 is all the better for it.

Maldonado's win owed a lot to his and his team's management of their tyre allocation. The driver did his bit by going just fast enough to keep Alonso at bay while not wearing out the pernickety Pirelli covers, while the team kept enough fresh tyres on hand for race day.

Certain F1 luminaries, notably Michael Schumacher and Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz, have grumbled of late that the 2012 tyres are very difficult to manage during a Grand Prix, a situation they find irritating but which places them very definitely in the minority.

Schumacher sent us all into somnipathy in the noughties thanks in part to a special relationship Ferrari had with Bridgestone while Mateschitz seems to be yearning for the sort of races that only a crate of Red Bull would keep you awake through.

Next weekend's Monaco Grand Prix will also feature the GP3 series for the first time and it's great to see this professional racing series in the Principality, replacing the late lamented Formula 3 race which was last run in 2005.

The one-make GP3 series is at the same level of racing and one expects that at least some of the team owners will be craning their necks over the pit wall to see what the emerging crop of young racers have to offer them in coming seasons.

The Irish-run Status GP squad had an encouraging first GP3 race of the season in Barcelona last weekend, with a second place in Saturday afternoon's feature race in the hands of Swiss Filipino Marlon Stockinger.

The following day Conor Daly, son of Derek, scored a fine maiden GP3 win for the Art team in his second season in the series. The GP3 series has three female drivers competing this season.

Our own Status driver is English-born Irish national with Limerick heritage, Alice Powell, who sports an Irish flag on her helmet. She is quickest of the trio and in finishing 11th on Sunday impressed many with her pace.

Dubliner Robert Cregan, son of Richard, Abu Dhabi Yas Marina circuit CEO, also adapted well to GP3 on his debut in the category, his first season in single-seaters after racing V8 Supercars in the Middle East last season.

Maldonado's Monaco magic will be called on next weekend in F1's showcase event and he could well be the first driver this season to be a double grand prix victor. But watch out for a backlash from McLaren, particularly Hamilton, and Red Bull, not to mention Lotus who have one of the best cars on the grid at the moment.

If Kimi Raikkonen is truly capable of recreating his world championship-winning form, a repeat of his 2005 Monaco win next weekend would be an excellent place to start.

We've had five winners in five races with five different constructors, so anything is possible.

Sunday Indo Sport

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