Venezuela doesn’t have much of an F1 history, with just two drivers hailing from the South American nation having contested grand prix. The first was Ettore Chimeri, who competed in one race in 1960. He fancied more, but tragically lost his life in a sportscar race two weeks later. The other was Johnny Cecotto, a demon on two wheels but less impressive on four, who started 18 grand prix and scored one point between 1983 and ’84.
In 2010 there’s another Venezuelan looking to break in to F1. His name’s been mentioned a lot lately, with his superb form in GP2 making him a favourite for promotion to the pinnacle of motorsport in 2011. He is of course Pastor Maldonado.
With his likely GP2 title triumph and a generous sponsorship cheque from his chums at PDVSA (a Venezuelan oil company, in case you were wondering) Maldonado should find himself in F1 next year. How good a drive he’ll secure we don’t know: rumours suggest it could be at Sauber, but it’s equally possible he’ll join Hispania. Either way there’s a solid chance he’ll be a fulltime F1 driver next year, so we thought it a good idea to get to know him a little better.
First off, it’s worth saying that he doesn’t look like a racing driver. Not a modern racing driver, anyway. Pastor looks more like he should be wearing a cloth cap and goggles and duking it out with Fangio and Ascari on the high banking of Monza. We’re not saying he’s in the same league as those guys, but he has that look- something about him is a throw back to a different time.
If you wanted to give his driving style a decade it would have to be the seventies- wild, ragged and with bits hanging off at dangerous angles. Until recently Maldonado seemed to be driving every lap like it was his last, as if he may never get another chance to circulate a race track at breakneck speed, and so he was going to make damn sure he enjoyed this last fling. That might sound great, but it often resulted in collisions, trips in to the barriers, even multi-race suspensions.
But that was until this year, when something suddenly clicked in Maldonado’s head. He wasn’t one of the madmen who raced those primitive grand prix cars in the fifties; he wasn’t driving every race like it was his last, as they did in the seventies- man, it was 2010 and he was standing on the wrong side of 25 (practically geriatric in modern F1 terms). It was time to shine.
And so it passed that in 2010 Maldonado began a new chapter, one of maturity, caution and, not coincidentally, unmatched success in F1’s premier proving ground.
A brief history. He first tested a Formula One car five years ago, getting a run in a Minardi at the tender age of 20, having impressed in a title winning Italian Formula Renault campaign. In 2005 he got a chance to compete in the World Series by Renault, but encurred a four race ban for failing to slow at the scene of an accident, seriously injuring a track worker. He continued in the series for 2006, finishing third, before making the leap to GP2 in 2007. He’s been there ever since.
Before 2009 his career was on the up. His debut year in GP2 saw a stunning win at Monaco for tailenders Trident, before he switched to the Piquet Sports team for ’08 and took a further win (at Spa) and five more podiums. Yes he was still erratic at times, but that would go with experience. When he was confirmed as a driver for series powerhouse ART Grand Prix for the 2009 season some tipped him for the title.
But they hadn’t reckoned with his new teammate, a young German by the name of Hulkenberg. Nico blazed a trail to the title whilst Maldonado had a troubled run to 6th in the standings. If anything he was more erratic than before as he tried to keep pace with the prodigious Hulkenberg, and ended up going in to his shell. He looked for an F1 driver over the winter, and was strongly linked with Stefan GP, but nothing came of it (or them for that matter). So he elected for another year in GP2, back with the old Piquet team, who now go by the name Rapax. 2010 is a fresh start for them as it is for Pastor.
From the first turn of a wheel Maldonado was on fire. He dominated pre-season testing, and the GP2 drivers Badger spoke with earlier this year all said the same name when asked who the man to beat was in 2010: “Maldonado”.
“He can be a bit of a kamikaze,” rival racer Giedo van der Garde told us, “but he’s got the experience and knows what to do”.
Six months ago that sounded like a fair assessment. But ‘Kamikaze’ Maldonado seems to be all but gone. His driving is now more considered, more thought out. Bar a clash with Romain Grosjean in the German sprint race Pastor has kept his nose clean throughout 2010.
And he’s also been quick. An average opening round in Spain was followed by a good second place in the Monaco feature race. Since that day in May Maldonado hasn’t been defeated in GP2’s main event: victories have followed in Istanbul, Valencia, Silverstone, Hockenheim and Budapest. Five straight wins, a series record, which, quite amazingly, he’s achieved without taking a single pole position. He enters the final three rounds 26 points clear of second placed Sergio Perez, and has every chance of sewing up the title with a round to spare- as Hulkenberg did in 2009.
So how does he rate with F1’s other GP2 graduates? It’s fair to say no one’s looking at him in the way they did Hamilton, Rosberg or Hulkenberg, all of whom claimed the title in their debut season. Pastor’s taken four years to get here, which counts against him.
But then he’s also proved more dominant than any of those drivers, and displayed real maturity in 2010. He’s not dissimilar to Vitaly Petrov, who also took a few years to get to the front of a GP2 grid, and who also comes armed with big financial backing. Petrov has proven himself capable in F1 this year, and there’s no reason Maldonado wouldn’t do an equally good job in a Renault.
Of course, he’s not going to get a Renault drive- the best he can hope for is Sauber- and so if he does make the leap it’ll be tough. Because Pastor can suffer a bit of the red mist, and has a history of tangling with cars in the pack. That’s not been a problem this year, when he’s tended to be on the front few rows and in the lead by lap 5, but it would be in a Sauber or Hispania, where he’d almost certainly be qualifying down the grid. A fraught debut year, complete with a slew of broken front wings, wouldn’t be a surprise.
And that might prevent wise old Peter Sauber from hiring him. But in a just racing world Pastor would graduate to F1 next year and get his shot, even if it is with a tail-end team. He’s slogged away, worked many of the kinks from his driving, and emerged a stronger and better racer. He’s been top class in 2010, and is now ready for F1. Hopefully F1 is ready for him, dangerous angles and all.