Sunday, 27 May 2012

Millionaire man Maldonado answers critics

At the Circuit de Catalunya

The smile on Pastor Maldonado's face dropped in the immediate aftermath of the frightening fire that broke out in the Williams garage after the Spanish Grand Prix, but it soon came back again once he was told nobody had been seriously hurt. You can bet it will stay for quite some time.

Maldonado started this season as a man who owed his place in Formula 1 to the millions provided to his Williams team by the Venezuelan government.

After yet another bizarre and unexpected twist in this most unpredictable of seasons, he leaves Barcelona as a grand prix winner and talking about a possible championship challenge.

Maldonado drove a superb race at the Circuit de Catalunya, mature and controlled in a way of which few in the paddock believed him capable.

He came into F1 with a reputation for being quick but fiery and a bit accident-prone. In his first season last year he fitted the mould.

This season started in the same way - Williams's upturn in form had him battling with some unfamiliar rivals close to the front. But he started the season wrecking what would have been a strong points finish in the first race of the season when he crashed chasing Ferrari's Fernando Alonso for fifth place on the final lap.

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Since then, though, Maldonado has turned a corner with some strong performances. But no-one - not even Williams - expected what happened in Spain.

The Mugello test before this race went well, and Williams knew they had improved their car. They thought they had made a step forward, Friday practice confirmed it, but not in their wildest dreams did they imagine they would qualify on the front row.

Second place, half a second behind Lewis Hamilton, was impressive enough, but it became pole position after the McLaren driver's penalty and, despite losing the lead to Alonso at the start, Maldonado always looked in contention for victory.

Alonso is the most formidable of rivals, but Maldonado kept him in sight in the first and second stints, before Williams succeeded in 'undercutting' the Ferrari at the second stops.

Ferrari almost certainly made a mistake in leaving the Spaniard out for two laps before his stop - nearly all of which he spent behind Marussia's Charles Pic, who was subsequently penalised for not letting Alonso by.

But Maldonado's pace on his first lap out of the pits suggested he might well have taken the lead anyway.

The pressure never relented, though. After the final stops, Alonso came back at Maldonado, but the Williams driver raced like a veteran and always looked in control of the situation.

The win does not change the reality of why Maldonado has his drive - but it certainly proves beyond all doubt that he deserves his place in F1, even if one inevitably has to wonder what the Williams would be capable of with Alonso or Hamilton behind the wheel.

To his credit, Maldonado does not seek to hide the financial support he is given, nor the fact that he is basically a state-sponsored driver who has the personal backing of his President, Hugo Chavez. In fact, he embraces it.

"I'm very lucky to have a country behind me, pushing so hard, to see me here in Formula 1 and especially to be here, between these guys," he said in the post-race news conference, as he sat between Alonso and another world champion, Kimi Raikkonen.

"I'm pretty happy for Venezuela, I'm happy for Williams as well. They did a wonderful job to give me a great car for this race. We are getting better and better, race after race."

There has been no magic in Williams's revival this year after several seasons in which they seemed to be inexorable decline.

There have been changes at the top of the engineering team, and a focus on fixing obvious, major operational and technical problems.

"We made big changes in the factory," Maldonado said. "We have new staff in some of the departments and completely changed the approach to building the car.
"I need to say that this year's car has great performance, great potential to become even stronger than it is and, for sure, this is great for motivation, to motivate the team, the factory, to keep pushing like that. I think this is the way. We are motivated and we need to keep pushing."

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Whether Williams can maintain this form remains an open question - but the same goes for every other team in this incredibly topsy-turvy season.

There have been five different winners from five different teams in the first five races. It is the first time that has happened since 1983, when Williams were reigning world champions and were also, incidentally, the fifth winner.

Monaco could easily provide the sixth winner in six races, as Raikkonen's Lotus team also seem on the verge of a victory.

The 1983 season eventually settled down into a title fight between three teams. This one may well go the same way, but you wouldn't count on it right now.

The new tyres created by Pirelli this year have left all the teams scratching their heads.

One weekend you can be winning, the next you can be nowhere and not know why, as world champions Red Bull found out in Spain, following Sebastian Vettel's victory in Bahrain last time out.

As Alonso put it after the race: "We were 57 seconds behind Vettel in Bahrain, and we were lapping (his team-mate Mark) Webber here. No one understands probably. Not us either."

There is a recognition throughout the sport that this unpredictability is adding to the superficial appeal of F1, especially as the years of Michael Schumacher's domination with Ferrari are not so very long ago.

Nevertheless, there is also a growing sense of unease - largely unspoken publicly until now, apart from Schumacher's comments after Bahrain - that it's somehow not quite real.

The tyres, some feel, are introducing too much of a random element that demeans the sport in some ways. That F1, whisper it, may have gone too far the other way.

Fun, though, isn't it?


Tony Bettenhausen Mike Beuttler Birabongse Bhanubandh Lucien Bianchi Gino Bianco Hans Binder

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