x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Formula One rookie Maldonado is making the most of his big chance

Pastor Maldonado, one of this season's controversial young upstarts who has had his share of doubters to face down, about his progress and a difficult 2011.

Maldonado’s sizeable sponsorship deal was reportedly a reason for him ousting Nico Hulkenberg as a Williams driver, but he’s since proved doubters wrong.
Maldonado’s sizeable sponsorship deal was reportedly a reason for him ousting Nico Hulkenberg as a Williams driver, but he’s since proved doubters wrong.

There was no denying that Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado had his critics as he lined up as one of five rookies on the grid for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

For starters, he had perhaps harshly deposed Nico Hulkenberg at Williams despite the fact the German had earned the team a surprise pole position at last season's Brazilian Grand Prix and driven well all season.

Then reports emerged over the winter that Maldonado was bringing something in the region of Dh88 million in sponsorship from the Venezuelan government, much-needed funds for the cash-strapped Williams team and perhaps explaining the change in driver line-up.

More than seven months on, the perception has changed of the 26-year-old, who has outqualified Rubens Barrichello, his vastly more experienced teammate, six times this season and only been bettered by him twice in the last six grands prix (due only to DNFs).

As it stands, Maldonado looks set to be kept on at the team while Barrichello increasingly looks like being surplus to requirements at the end of the season.

The F1 rookie may have just one point to his name but he has habitually shone at the circuits where drivers can make a difference despite the capabilities of their machinery - in Maldonado's case an often woefully underperforming Williams.

At Monaco in May, he was running as high as sixth before Lewis Hamilton crashed into him and forced his retirement four laps from the chequered flag, while in Belgium he finished an impressive 10th having started a lowly 21st on the grid.

Looking back on Monaco, Maldonado recalls: "I was so angry after that, so frustrated. At that moment, I was thinking 'OK, we have the opportunity to get into the points, and good points'. It had been an amazing weekend; we'd been competitive from first practice through qualifying and into the race - the whole weekend."

"There were just four laps remaining when the crash happened with Lewis," he adds. "I was so, so disappointed but I had to tell myself, 'that's racing, that's F1'. I just had to move on.

"You can't start taking these things personally at the end because it will only get worse. You just have to look forward and deal with the situation."

Despite the outlook, one imagines Maldonado did take it personally judging by his coming together with Hamilton in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix in August.

Hamilton forced him wide on the circuit following an aggressive passing move after which Maldonado swung across the front of the McLaren on the approach to Eau Rouge, damaging the Briton's front wing in the process.

The stewards relegated Maldonado five places on the grid for the misdemeanour but he made amends with a superb drive for his first point in F1.

"Belgium was so special," he recalls. "It's the same thing as Monaco in that it's a track where the car isn't everything. I had the problem with Lewis in qualifying and served my penalty and that was it. I said to myself that tomorrow was the race and I was going to give it a big push.

"Spa is a very long race so I felt I could still do something. I think I surprised some people. I had ninth for a time but Felipe Massa was just too quick for me."

Agonisingly, Maldonado then twice finished in 11th - in Singapore and Japan.

For a team that once dominated F1 and boasts 113 grand prix victories, nine constructors' championships and seven drivers' titles, the 2011 season has been a poor one.

The team is languishing in ninth place in the constructors' race with a mere five points and Maldonado admitted it had been more of a struggle than he expected.

"It's been a big season for everyone here at the team, especially because of the results," he says. "It's been tough. Everyone has worked so hard all season to solve many of the problems that we had from the beginning, many of which were bigger than we expected."

Maldonado can vividly recall lining up on the grid for his first F1 race at Albert Park, Melbourne; the realisation of a childhood dream. But there were no butterflies in his stomach or, for that matter, an allowance for the magnitude of achieving his lifelong ambition.

"To be honest, I was quite OK. I wasn't too nervous. I felt ready. I just took it like any other race. OK, I'd only done like 800 kilometres in winter testing so I wasn't entirely ready for it but I was quite surprised by my qualifying pace and felt I did OK."

Unfortunately for him, his car fared less well and he retired with transmission failure after 15 laps. An engine problem led to a similar race retirement at the subsequent Malaysian Grand Prix.

"For me, it wasn't until I got to Europe until I felt happy as these were tracks I was familiar with," he adds. "At the first races, I was concentrating on the circuits while, by Turkey, I was finally able to concentrate on improving the car and working with my engineers.

"I'm still optimistic for the future after this season. I believe in the team and I believe in my guys. For me, I think I've done a very good job as I've improved race by race. I did my best to put the team in good places - sometimes it was good and sometimes not."

As it stands, Maldonado readily admits that 11th place at Yas Marina Circuit and at the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix is realistically the best he can hope for.

There, he will be driving with 2012 in mind. "We'll be driving there with new things on the car," he admits. "Always the target is the points and it will be the same for Abu Dhabi."

As an F1 rookie, the past glories of Williams were what first attracted him to the team last winter. It's hard not to fall in love with the British manufacturer from the moment you walk into its Grove headquarters in Oxfordshire and are greeted with photographs, trophies and cars of champions driven by the likes of Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill.

He describes Grove as a "special place" and, for his part, Maldonado dreamt of driving for McLaren and Williams as a youngster who was just beginning his own racing career in go-karting.

"At the time, Alain Prost was on his way to winning his third world championship with Williams," he recalls, "and then Ayrton Senna drove for the team the next season. I then remember Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya, lots of drivers in the team.

"So, when you come here, you expect to win here. That's what I want to do and that's the aim for the team. I want to stay here and to win."

While Maldonado's sponsor keeps on topping up the Williams' coffers, he looks certain to stay at the team, but he argues that he now warrants his drive on talent alone, not just because of the money he brings in.

"I feel after winning the GP2 championship and the way I did it, I think I deserved my place in F1, that I was ready," he says. "And Williams are not a team that just sign up drivers for money. "The season might not have been great but I believe, at Williams, we have one of the best driver pairings in F1. Unfortunately, the car is not competitive but, to have Rubens as a teammate, for me, is great because he has helped me with everything.

"He's an incredibly talented driver and is still so incredibly motivated. He's helped me to improve my time and technique out there."

How Maldonado fares for the final two races of 2011 and into next season remains to be seen. But he hopes to do himself, his team and his country proud.

"When I get in the car, I am not just me, I am Williams and I am Venezuela," he says. "I want to achieve all I can for those people."