F1 » Pastor Maldonado
Venezuela is not renowned as a hot-bed of international motor racing talent, but Pastor Maldonado aims to buck the trend and be the first since Johnny Cecotto to make a mark on F1.
Surrounded by a motorsport-mad family, and with the nearest kart track just a couple of miles away, it was perhaps unsurprising that the young Maldonado developed an interest in the sport. The early start - he made his regional junior debut at just seven - stood him in good stead, and he was already winning regional and national titles before he was a teenager. With little to gain by remaining in Venezuela, he ventured over to Europe to take on the best the world had to offer, but failed to achieve the same level of success until he made the move to car racing several years down the line.
With no notable single-seater classes running in his homeland, Maldonado chose Europe over South America when it came to moving on up, initially to tackle the UK's Formula Renault Winter Series in 2000, before returning in 2003 to join Cram Competition for the Italian national championship.
Buoyed by three podium finishes and seventh overall, he set his sights a little higher, adding a Eurocup programme to another year in Italy, again with Cram. This time, he swept to the Italian title on the back of eight wins, and scooped another couple of top spots in Europe, albeit only on the way to eighth overall.
Perhaps the key moments of 2004 came at the end of the year, however, when he finished fifth in a one-off outing in the Renault V6 Eurocup at Spa, and was then offered the chance to test a Minardi F1 car at Misano.
His appetite for bigger, more powerful, machines whetted, Maldonado skipped F3 and headed straight for higher rungs on the ladder in 2005. Unfortunately, unable to run a full season in any one championship left with little to show for his efforts, although four starts in the Euro 3000 series netted one win, and seven appearances in the World Series by Renault, at least allowed him to keep his name out there.
Sadly, Maldonado's name was not always remembered for the right reasons, as his mercurial nature began to show through. Either blindingly fast or notably erratic, his WSbR record was blotted by a serious incident in Monaco, when he failed to slow for yellow flags marking a rescue operation and collided with a marshal, injuring him badly. That unsurprisingly incurred the wrath of series officials, who suspended the Venezuelan for four rounds.
Undeterred, Maldonado was back the following season and, with three wins and six podiums, could have taken the title had it not been for a contentious DSQ at Misano that, despite an appeal, left him short of surpassing Alx Danielsson for the crown.
From WSbR, Maldonado decided that GP2 offered the best chance of achieving his aim of an F1 drive, and he was not short of offers, despite his reputation. His first season, in 2007, was spent with Trident Racing, and produced a fine victory on the streets opf Monaco which, since that contretemps
two years previously, had become a happy hunting ground for the Venezuelan.
Although he missed out on a top ten championship position after being sidelined by a broken collarbone, Maldonado joined Piquet Sports for a second crack at GP2 in 2008. A disappointing start to the season, highlighted only by second place in Monaco, effectively scuppered any hope of the title, but Maldonado again showed that he had potential by winning at Spa, and four podiums in the final six races elevated him to fifth ovrall.
Despite the hit-and-miss campaign, Maldonado appeared to have got his big break for 2009, joining ART Grand Prix with rookie Nico Hulkenberg as team-mate. Running with the pre-season favourites should have given the Venezuelan a shot at the title but, instead, it was Hulkenberg who blitzed the season, leaving Maldonado only sixth overall, with sprint race wins in Monaco (again) and at Silverstone as his only podium appearances.
Despite being linked to both Campos Meta (later Hispania and HRT) and the still-born Stefan GP projects for 2010, Maldonado instead found himself back in GP2 - and back at the former Piquet Sports team, now rechristened Rapax. This time the relationship clicked and, having taken two podium finishes in the opening four races, the Venezuelan went on a winning spree. Despite pressure from Sergio Perez, Maldonado was the man to beat, setting a new record with six feature race wins in as many rounds that were enough to secure the crown at Monza, despite a double DNF.
However much his form dipped with the pressure off, he - and his connections with Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA - had done enough to convince Williams to give him his F1 break for 2011, ironically at the expense of Hulkenberg, who had graduated with the Grove team as team-mate to veteran Rubens Barrichello twelve months previously.
Despite his best efforts, things did not go smoothly for the rookie, however, with a mix of lowly finishes and DNFs in the opening half of what was to become Williams' worst ever season. A points finish appeared to be on the cards in Monaco - where else - until Lewis Hamilton rudely nerfed the FW33 into the wall at Ste Devote, and it wasn't until Spa, where he had clashed with the Briton in qualifying, that Maldonado finally put his name on the board.
The single point for tenth place was to be the Venezuelan's only contribution to Williams' disappointing total, but did little to alter his standing within the team, and he was quickly retained for 2012, despite rumours suggesting his funding may not be a secure as first thought.
While Johnny Cecotto may have been better known as a bike racing ace, he made the grade in F1 as team-mate to Ayrton Senna at Toleman and, in a twist of fate, Maldonado found himself paired with another Senna, Bruno, as Williams attempted to return itself to former glory in 2012. The Venezuelan, however, remained a mercurial mystery for much of the season, combining often blinding speed – relative to the car he was driving at least – with moments of madness that maybe should have received more than a slap on the wrist or demotion on the grid.
He was in line for points in Melbourne before crashing out in pursuit of Fernando Alonso, and was denied a score in Malaysia by late gremlins, before finally opening his account in China. His season’s high-point was just two races away, however, as he made the most of an inherited pole position to keep his Williams ahead of both Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen to return the Grove team to the top of the podium for the first time since 2004.
Just as it appeared that Maldonado would be able to kick on, however, he embarked on a nine-race run without scoring, pockmarked by incidents with Sergio Perez in Monaco and Lewis Hamilton in Valencia, and getting caught up in the first corner chaos at Spa having jumped the start. Somehow, the most penalised driver of 2012 avoided the fate that befell Romain Grosjean, but only scored in three of the final six races, allowing his under-rated team-mate to narrow the gap between them in the standings, eventually winding up 15th and 16th respectively.
It was Senna, however, who makes way for Valtteri Bottas in the 2013 Williams line-up, with Maldonado's sponsorship combining with the positive aspects of his ability to guarantee a third year in the top flight.