Fourth win of season for peerless Maldonado
1 January 1901
Pastor Maldonado put the disappointment of retiring in the first race behind him with an important victory in round 15 of the World Series by Renault at Le Mans, the Venezuelan becoming the latest driver to move within striking distance of the championship lead.
In an eventful race with plenty of incidents, the wet to dry conditions continually shook up the results over the course of the 27 laps, although it was Maldonado triumphing with ease from pole sitter Tristan Gommendy, while Borja Garcia kept his foot well in the championship battle with third place.
Although the rain that affected qualifying had since passed, a wet track greeted the 30 World Series drivers lining up on the grid, with each one opting for treaded tyres in a race that was always likely to be dry towards
the end, thus making the timing of their one and only mandatory pit-stop crucial.
Not that it would matter for a number of drivers who saw their hopes of a good result come to an immediate end as they underestimated the grip into the first corner chicane and went off as a result.
Among those who would fail to continue was championship leader Andy Soucek, as well as, crucially for the Spaniard, his closest competitor Alx Danielsson, the Swede rejoining several laps down later in the race having damaged his front suspension in the first corner melee, but unable to take the single point available for the fastest lap.
Gavin Cronje, Milos Pavlovic and Greg Franchi would also find their race over before it began, after colliding with one another and piling into the stricken Soucek.
Up at the front, Gommendy had none of the dramas he suffered at the start of the first race, pushing into the lead, with Garcia getting the jump on Maldonado to move into second place, while Alvaro Barba scythed up from ninth to third as those around him went off.
Maldonado was fourth at the end of a safety car led first lap, ahead of Miguel Molina, Celso Miguez, the very fast starting Ryo Fukuda and Ben Hanley from 21st and 24th on the grid respectively, with Christian Montanari rounding out the top ten.
With the safety car back in the pit-lane, it did not take long for Barba to push beyond his limits when trying to pass countryman Garcia, the Spaniard slipping behind Maldonado and Miguez to fifth place.
With Barba out of the way, Maldonado, having gambled on a dry weather set-up as the circuit began to establish a clear line, set about putting the pressure on Garcia, duly finding a way past on lap nine and taking just a further two laps to pass Gommendy into a lead as they begun lap eleven, going side-by-side down the home straight before Maldonado passed into the first corner. He would go on to extend that lead to two seconds in little more than a lap.
With times tumbling on a rapidly drying circuit, the drivers began to dive into the pit-lane, with Miguez pitting first from fourth, a lap prior to Maldonado and Hanley, while Fukuda, Barba, Gommendy and Garcia would last only another couple of laps on wet tyres before they gave in to fresh rubber.
With the pit-stops over with, Maldonado resumed with an even bigger lead, some seven seconds ahead of Gommendy and Garcia, who were circulating in similar lap times.
However, fourth was now being occupied by Montanari, the podium winner from the first race clearly benefiting from an unusual early pit-stop for slick tyres to jump up from the tenth place he held prior to stopping.
Further back, Miguez led Barba, Fukuda, Steven Kane, recovering from the back of the grid after problems in qualifying, and the Brit's Epsilon Euskadi team-mate Davide Valsecchi.
It was this battle that proved to be the one to watch after Barba spun off from a strong sixth place, but not before Montanari made a mistake and slipped down to seventh place, allowing Fukuda up into fourth place.
The man on the move though was Patrick Pilet, the Frenchman having to recover from problems in qualifying to pass Eric Salignon, then Bruce Jouanny and Montanari in just two laps, for an eventual seventh place finish, the Tech 1 driver having started in 25th place.
Maldonado though was the clear winner, crossing the line an unprecedented 17 seconds up on Gommendy, the Draco driver receiving a further point for fastest lap to put him well in the title fight with only two races of the championship at Barcelona remaining.
"We gambled by choosing a dry set-up," he said. "It was difficult to stay on the track on the last few laps. We had a very good pit-stop and the car was very quick at the end of the race."
Gommendy held off the close attentions of Garcia to pull out four seconds by the chequered flag, the Frenchman doing a superb job for Pons Racing on his series comeback, while the ever consistent Garcia will also be pleased to have recorded another podium having struggled over the weekend up to that point.
Tech 1 Racing are proving they are becoming an increasing force in their rookie season, with Fukuda matching their best result from Donington of fourth place, the Japanese driver having made up 17 places to get there.
Valsecchi was another driver who fought against a lowly starting position to fly in the race, the Italian passing Miguez for fifth place with two laps remaining, having started way back in 26th place.
Miguez was a frustrated sixth having run as high as fourth, ahead of Pilet, who made it a great day for Tech 1 in seventh place. Jouanny managed his best result of the season in eighth, ahead of compatriot Salignon, the four French drivers in the field impressing their home fans by all getting into the top ten. Kane ended a promising but ultimately unfulfilling weekend in tenth place and with a single point.
In the championship standings, there have been big changes following the decision to scrap the results from the first race of the season at Zolder as a result of protests made by Eurointernational and Draco Multiracing, something
that has shaken up the leading championship order up significantly.
As a result, Soucek remains in the lead, three points
ahead of Maldonado, while Danielsson and Garcia are the biggest losers from the late change, dropping eight and twelve points respectively to be tied third overall, nine points off the lead.
Parente continues to hold fifth, having suffered his second double DNF in a row, a result that puts him 18 points adrift with two races remaining and 34 points up for grabs.
The series now heads of Barcelona, the home circuit of Soucek, the Spaniard no doubt determined to put a disappointing Le Mans weekend behind him and take a
surprise championship win in a year that has seen him win just once but finish out of the points only three times out of 15 races. Will unflappable consistency see him take victory in his rookie season?