Pastor Maldonado finally returned to the top ten of a grand prix, breaking a non-scoring run that stretched back to his historic victory in May's Spanish Grand Prix. However, an even bigger result than either of those may have gone his way on Sunday night.
Despite his lack of results in recent months - his best finish since Barcelona was eleventh at Monza in September - the Venezuelan had been considered a cert to remain at Williams
next season, courtesy of the substantial backing he brings from his homeland. However, with elections taking place while he was recovering from his exertions in Japan, Maldonado's position suddenly appeared weaker than it had at first.
President Hugo Chavez was said to be facing the toughest election opponent in his 14 years at the head of the government, with Henrique Capriles' promise of 'jobs, safer streets and an end to cronyism' posing a viable threat to the 'charisma and oil-financed largesse' attributed to the man in power. Chavez has been an eager backer of Venezuelan talent in recent seasons, with EJ Viso, Maldonado and even Rodolfo Gonzalez benefitting from oil-related funding. The president, however, has only recently overcome a battle with cancer and was thought to be under threat of losing his control in favour of an opponent not necessarily disposed to funding the overseas exploits of his countrymen.
Despite the doubts, however, Chavez prevailed over Capriles when the votes were counted, gaining a six-year extension to his reign by garnering around nine per cent more backing than his rival. The new term will undoubtedly see Chavez build on his current rule over the economy, which has witnessed the decade-long oil boom facilitating social investments as well as sponsorship, making the president particularly popular with the poorer elements of society.
For Maldonado and Williams, the news could come as confirmation of their relationship next season, although it won't necessarily make the Grove team's line-up choice any easier, as Bruno Senna and Valtteri Bottas remain candidates for the second seat.
Both Maldonado and Senna drove a solid race in the Japanese Grand Prix, before finishing eighth and 14th respectively. The Venezuelan moved up four places from his starting position to take his first points in ten races, despite complaining about the lack of passing opportunities.
"It was a good race for me," he confirmed, "The car had great pace and was very consistent, but it proved difficult to overtake, especially towards the end. We felt we were quicker than the cars in front, but the nature of the track makes it difficult to close the gap. But we're back in the points, so I'm happy with that as it gives us great confidence going into the next race."
Senna, having been confined to a lower-than-expected grid position after being blocked by Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne in qualifying, was then caught out by the melee at turn one, clouting the back of Nico Rosberg's Mercedes as both sought to avoid the collision between Romain Grosjean
and Mark Webber. After an unscheduled pit-stop for a new front wing, Senna's race was further compromised by being given a drive-through penalty for the incident.
"We had a good start, managing to overtake two cars but, unfortunately, I ran into an incident with Rosberg on the second corner after taking the inside line," the Brazilian reflected, "The race was slightly compromised from then on, but we still had good pace. The car felt very competitive, which allowed us to overtake quite a few cars and the tyres were responding well."
With both drivers happy with the FW34, Williams
now moves on to Korea looking to build on the four points scored by Maldonado. The gap to seventh-placed Force India
grew slightly in Japan, as Nico Hulkenberg
finished one spot ahead of Maldonado, and now stands at 23.
"Both drivers finished higher than their starting positions and we scored four very important points with Pastor, so we can be happy with the race today," Renault
Sport F1 team support leader Laurent Debout commented, "We introduced new engines this weekend and everything went to plan, so we will look to carry this momentum forward to Korea in a week's time."