x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Patriotic Pastor Maldonado ignores his critics and dreams of F1 title

The Venezuelan driver's backing from state-owned company has come under scrutiny, but he is still basking in the glory of his first grand prix win.

Pastor Maldonado, a close friend of Hugo Chavez, received a phone call from the Venezuelan president after Sunday's race. Mark Thompson / Getty Images
Pastor Maldonado, a close friend of Hugo Chavez, received a phone call from the Venezuelan president after Sunday's race. Mark Thompson / Getty Images

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Pastor Maldonado has gone from fighting a fierce blaze in Barcelona to being the subject matter of an increasingly heated political battle in his home country.

The Venezuelan won his first Formula One race at Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix, but saw his special moment marred by an explosion in his Williams team's pit garage that left seven team members hospitalised and a further 24 seeking medical advice.

Images showed the 27-year old driver carrying his young cousin, Manuel, out of a smoke-filled building as mechanics and engineers fought to get the fire under control.

The surprise result at Circuit de Catalunya, as well as being Williams's first race win in eight years, saw Maldonado become the first Venezuelan to triumph in Formula One and such an achievement, followed by his heroic actions after the race, have resulted in his profile increasing substantially worldwide, yet none more so than in his home country.

Maldonado, a vocal supporter and close friend of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, revealed yesterday that Chavez called him on Sunday evening to deliver a "clear message for the team in the name of Venezuela".

The president, who is campaigning for re-election in October's polls, "congratulated our guys because we did really good, especially after the results of last year" and, according to Maldonado, said his compatriots have taken the win "pretty personally".

Replays of his victory in Barcelona set to patriotic music are being played in Venezuela, but not everybody is happy with the amount of money Chavez's government has allocated to funding Maldonado's career.

PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, is understood to provide Williams with £46 million (Dh267m) through sponsorship.

Opposition politicians have questioned why the money is not being spent on building schools or improving roads.

When asked what he would say to these critics, Maldonado, speaking by telephone from the team factory in Oxfordshire, England, replied: "This is something political. We are in the middle of an election and they are free to say whatever they want. But this is a sport and at the moment we are getting the most important results for Venezuela.

"That means the government is pushing so hard and the sportsmen are doing their best in a different way than before."

Maldonado returns to the track next weekend in Monaco, a circuit that has suited his driving style in previous years.

During four seasons in GP2, he won the Monaco race twice and finished second once. In his rookie Formula One season last year, in an uncompetitive car and having failed to finish higher than 15th in the opening five races, he was sitting sixth in Monte Carlo with five laps remaining when he pushed too hard and crashed out.

Following last week's victory, he will arrive in the principality full of confidence and aiming to become the first driver to win twice in what has evolved into a wholly unpredictable season.

Five drivers from five different constructors have won the first five races; the antithesis of last season when Sebastian Vettel won six of the first eight races.

Yet some sections of the sport have argued that Pirelli's quick-wearing tyres are ruining the racing.

"It has become like a GP2 championship," said Maldonado, who won the feeder series' title in 2010. "The drivers can make the difference and the teams can still work on the strategy and the car.

"It's a bit boring when you see one car winning. The season is more competitive. [Managing the tyres] is part of the race and it's the same for everybody. There are no easy races.

"We need to adapt to the tyres, to the rules, to the car."

Maldonado, visiting the Williams factory yesterday for the first time since Sunday's race, has gone from being spoken of as a lamentable risk taker to being likened to Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso, both world championship winners.

Sir Frank Williams, the team owner, believes the Venezuelan has what it takes to win the drivers title himself, and Maldonado is equally optimistic.

"I feel really good. It was not my first time starting from pole. In the past I spent a lot of time starting from pole and I won in all categories I've been in and have been the strongest driver in the grid," he said.

"As you can see, all the teams are so close, the championship is so close, the gap is so close as well and we are getting better and better.

"At he moment, we don't have the quickest car in the field, but we are doing our best, so why not? F1 is changing all the time. It is going to be difficult, but we will try."

There are just 20 points separate the top seven drivers in the championship standings, which are lead by Vettel and Alonso on 61. Maldonado, following his eventful Sunday in Spain, has 29 points.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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