After four different race winners in four races, it didn’t seem like the 2012 season could get any madder, or more inconsistent, ahead of round five in Spain. Oh, how wrong we were. The pole man being thrown to the back of the grid, the eventual race winner being perhaps the least expected driver on the grid, and a garage going up in flames after the race ensured the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix would never be forgotten.
The madness began on Saturday afternoon. Qualifying saw Lewis Hamilton storm to pole by over half-a-second from a surprising Pastor Maldonado. The temperamental Venezuelan seemed to have his Williams-Renault hooked up to the Catalunya track and had been outpacing team-mate Bruno Senna comfortably all weekend. Nobody, however, expected him to place his car on the front row.
Things could only get better for Williams after it was announced Lewis Hamilton was to be sent to the back of the grid. Hamilton’s McLaren had ground to a halt at the end of Q3 out of fuel, and since the car didn’t have enough fuel left for a compulsory fuel sample all of Hamilton’s time from the session were deleted.
It was a bitter blow for the Brit, who was attempting to challenge for his second world championship. Maldonado was now on pole, his first, and Williams’ first since the 2005 German Grand Prix. Joining Maldonado on the front row would be Spain’s home hero, Fernando Alonso.
Alonso got off to a flyer as the race to Turn One began and managed to leapfrog Maldonado going through the first sequence of corners. Impressively, Maldonado didn’t let his poor getaway cloud his performance, as he kept Alonso in close company all the way until the first pitstops. The Williams peeled into the pits on lap twenty-five. It was a genius call from the team and it allowed Maldonado to ‘undercut’ Alonso after the Ferrari stopped three laps later. People were beginning to believe that Maldonado may just pull off the most surprising win of the decade.
Maldonado began to pull out a steady lead over Alonso before his Pirelli tyres began to cry enough. Alonso had the gap pegged back down to just six seconds when Maldonado pitted on lap thirty-eight. Williams famously sticky wheel nuts made an impromptu appearance and lost Maldonado around three seconds to Alonso, but still remained ahead of the chasing Ferrari. From there on out it was nervy for Williams fans across the world, as Alonso relentlessly kept the pressure on Maldonado, who seemed desperate to preserve his tyres.
Eventually it was Alonso’s tyres which fell off the cliff, as he was forced to back off, leaving Maldonado to take an incredible first win. It was the first win for Williams since Juan Pablo Montoya triumphed ar the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix, and it coincided with the celebrations for Sir Frank Willliams’ 70th birthday. There were few dry eyes at the track as Maldonado was hoisted into the air by Alonso and third placed man Kimi Raikkonen.
Yet the drama wasn’t over there. A fire broke out in the Williams garage around ninety minutes after the end of the race. The cause remains disputed between a fuel leak igniting or a KERS battery exploding, but the fire was severe enough to damage Bruno Senna’s chassis, as well as destroy several pieces of team equipment.
Thankfully no-one was killed, although thirty-one people were injured, including Maldonado’s twelve year old cousin Manuel. Maldonado himself saved his cousin from the fire after the child had broken his foot and was unable to lead himself to safety.
Pastor Maldonado was a hero in every sense of the word on the 13th of May 2012. Perhaps it’s time we all started appreciating that rather than focussing on the less fortunate incidents that littered his F1 career.