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Extraordinary maiden win for Maldonado in Spain

13 May 2012

Tomorrow morning, Sir Frank Williams will wake up, rub his eyes, and think: "What a lovely dream." And then he'll start getting ready for the Spanish Grand Prix, knowing that dreams are one thing but they can never be confused with the reality of life, especially the cruel version of reality doled out in F1 which punishes dreamers and means you'd never actually get a win like that in million years.

At some point on his way to the Circuit de Catalunya, it will start to dawn on Sir Frank that it's Monday. And that Sunday actually happened. And that pre-race odds of 300-1 don't even begin to accurately represent just how unlikely the spectacle of Pastor Maldonado claiming his first Grand Prix victory in F1 and putting Williams back at the top of the podium for the first time in eight years really is.

Okay, so Pastor Maldonado had started from pole position, after the stunning overnight decision by the stewards to strip McLaren's Lewis Hamilton of his qualifying times for a technical infringement after his car ran too low on fuel after its final flying lap. But even starting at the front seemed no assurance of race success for the midfield team, especially not when Maldonado found himself facing off against the formidable Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari in the run down to the first corner once the lights went out.

It started as most of us in our hearts knew it would: Maldonado got a good start, but Alonso's was better - the work of a seasoned double world champion at the top of his game. Maldonado tried moving over and squeezing him as tight as he dared, but Alonso didn't flinch. As they swept through the first corner, Alonso inched ahead and finally took track position. The deed was done, and the race was won.

Except, Alonso was hardly making a break for it. Maldonado wasn't panicking, and instead was perfectly happy staying with the Ferrari and maintaining a smooth clean line. While it didn't exactly look like he was in any position to wrest back the lead, he certainly looked a solid lock for second place. Sir Frank must have thought that even this scenario was almost beyond his wildest dreams.

The first round of pit stops came relatively early and didn't do much to upset the running order of the leaders, with Alonso resuming ahead of Maldonado who was being followed by the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen. Strangely, however, both Kimi and his team mate Romain Grosjean opted to stay on the short-life soft option tyre, and whatever extra grip they were expecting to get out of this did little to help them with their race pace, and the whole ill-starred experiment flopped quite badly.

As the race entered its 25th lap, Williams were working furiously to see if there was anything they could do on the strategy side to give their man even the slightest edge over Fernando Alonso. They decided on a risky course: bring Maldonado in now, and hope and pray that he could nail a series of blistering outlaps while Alonso was still grappling with slow lapped traffic. The downside was that Pastor would have to push his remaining sets of tyres further than Alonso and could be a sitting duck, but it seemed a risk worth taking and they duly summoned him in.

They got lucky: very, very lucky. Not only did Maldonado deliver on the fast laps they needed right on cue, but Alonso's troubles with traffic went thermonuclear when he found it impossible to get past Charles Pic in the Marussia car for well over a lap. Pic would get a drive-thru penalty for holding the Ferrari up, but that did little to alleviate Alonso's fury. He knew this was a vital moment in the race and that the balance of possibilities had just been given a sharp knock in Williams' favour.

Even so, it was staggering when Alonso exited from his own pit stop a few minutes later to find himself not just narrowly edged by Maldonado, but fully seven seconds behind him. Suddenly the race was turned on its head and it seemed that there was a very real possibility of Maldonado actually pulling this one off.

Now it was Alonso's turn not to panic, but just to keep diligently working away and chipping away at the Venezuelan's lead. A few tenths there, half a second here - and soon that gap was wearing away faster than the Pirelli tyres on the cars. The nail in the coffin for Maldonado's hopes of a dream victory came when there was a fumble on the left rear tyre during the Williams' final stop on lap 41: now it was Alonso's moment to nail it and steal the lead back for himself, and then charge to the chequered flag and claim a famous home victory before an adoring crowd.

It didn't quite work out as well as Ferrari had hoped, and Alonso was still behind Maldonado after the pit stops; but Pastor was on the older tyres and was also being held up behind Kimi Raikkonen who was yet to make his own final pit stop. That allowed Alonso to close the gap, and forced Maldonado into overtaking the Lotus on track rather than wait for the final Lotus pit stop to take its course. He didn't flinch, and lined up the former world champion for a successful DRS-assisted pass.

Alonso was even quicker to realise what needed to be done, and uncompromising in doing it at the first opportunity. That left him 18 laps to cruise up on the back of the Williams and steal the lead, and it didn't look like he needed even half of those. The Ferrari pit radio was crackling with encouragement telling him to go for it; by contrast, Williams' messages to their driver were about being careful with the tyres. It seemed that everyone was resigned to just how this was playing out.

For the next five laps, Alonso closed up within a second of Maldonado, putting him into DRS range. He toyed with the Williams like a cat playing with a helpless mouse, seemingly just biding his time for the optimum moment to strike, but oddly holding back. Surely the Ferrari wasn't having more trouble than expected pulling this one final overtake off?

Then traffic intervened. Alonso fell back a little; critically, he exited the one second DRS range off the back of the Williams. And when he tried to reel the gap in once more, it wasn't happening for him. The Ferrari was sliding and struggling for grip in exactly the way that the Williams wasn't. Remember all those radio messages about preserving tyres that the team had shot at Maldonado? All of a sudden they were looking like small works of massive genius.

Even so, who among the spectators can say that they weren't expecting something to intervene and dash this fairytale finish even now? We'd seen Maldonado crash out of a points position at the very end of the Australian Grand Prix just a couple of months ago, after all. Was the same thing going to happen here? Or was Alonso going to find his second win and charge back to snatch away the dream ending?

No, and no. Maldonado drove a perfect end to the race, coaxing the car to the finish line and claiming the chequered flag. A quick check left and right, and it was confirmed: there was no Ferrari either side stealing the limelight. The win was his, as incredible and unbelievable as it seemed. Sir Frank and all the rest of us might wake up in the morning wondering if it had really happened, but it had.

Pastor Maldonado, Grand Prix race winner.

See, it really doesn't sink in, does it? But it was true nonetheless, and a mad scramble ensued behind the scenes to check that the podium celebrations had been issued with the correct Venezuelan national anthem. Alonso had to settle for second place after all, and he was rather lucky to keep hold of that at the rate that Kimi Raikkonen had been bearing down on him in the final minutes.

A lap or two more and it would have been Lotus on the second step, not the Ferrari. If Lotus hadn't tried that experiment with a second stint on soft option tyres, then Raikkonen and his team mate Grosjean - who finished some ten seconds back from Kimi by the end - might have succeeded in shouldering the Ferrari off the podium altogether. Instead, that misstep left the Lotus pair to a fairly quiet run to the finish in the end.

The same couldn't be said for the driver in fifth place, Kamui Kobayashi: after a number of fairly subdued outings of late, the Sauber driver seemed to have rediscovered his banzai spirit with a return of some of the daring, swooping overtaking moves that didn't flinch from banging wheels to move his opponents aside when the moment called for it. Jenson Button was on the receiving end of one such move, and Nico Rosberg also got a tap on the back wheel as Kobayashi excused himself and blazed straight past.

Unfortunately for the team, their other driver Sergio Perez had only bad luck in Barcelona. He sustained a puncture in the opening corners, no doubt slicing his back wheel on the end plate of someone's front wing in that initial period of tight pack running; and on lap 38 his race ended for good after a botched pit stop left him parked on the side of the track a few moments later.

Behind Kobayashi in sixth place at the line was Sebastian Vettel, but it had hardly been a vintage day for the double world champion or for Red Bull in general. A problem with the front wings on both team cars forced mid-race changes on them, which compromised the race strategy. Mark Webber in any case had been struggling for pace and ended up out of the points, so at least Vettel's late race surge up through the positions with neat moves on Rosberg and the McLarens to make up for a mid-race drive-thru penalty for not observing local yellow flags.

Rosberg held on to seventh in a dash to the line with Lewis Hamilton, who had worked all afternoon to recover from that shattering blow of being sent to the back of the grid. Hamilton had been true to his word of fighting back, and while the attempt at a two-stop strategy had its drawback in terms of some terrible fall-off in pace at points, it nonetheless resulted in a not-to-be-sniffed-at eighth place, one ahead of Jenson Button whose form simply didn't materialise all afternoon and who clearly hated every set of tyres he was handed.

Nico Hulkenberg gave Force India a consolation point by finishing in tenth place, but his team mate Paul di Resta could only manage 14th place and finished just ahead of Felipe Massa in the Ferrari that many assume will be di Resta's company car in a year or two; Massa had a decent start on a rare set of brand new soft tyres rather than the scuffed ones used by most off the grid, but like Vettel he was hit with a mid-race drive-thru penalty for not respecting yellow flags that knocked him out of the running.

The yellow flags in question had been the result of a lap 13 accident which saw Michael Schumacher's Mercedes plough into the back of Pastor Maldonado's team mate, Bruno Senna, going into turn 1. The impact shattered Senna's rear wing and left Schumacher beached in the gravel, putting both drivers out of the race.

Was it consolation or torture for Bruno Senna that this allowed him to watch the remainder of the race with the Williams team in pit lane? What mixed feelings he must have had as he watched his team mate Pastor Maldonado - once so casually dismissed as a mere pay-driver, but now confirmed to be something so much more than that - clinch the team's first Grand Prix victory since Juan Pablo Montoya last won in 2004.

That was a very long time ago for Williams; and the halcyon days of world championships upon world championships even further back. So far distant that they, too, feel more like a distant, dimming dream than reality.

When the team rouses itself on Monday doubtless suffering the mother of all hangovers after the night before, there is now another dream living in the hearts and minds of the Williams personnel in 2012. And this one is richly, satisfyingly, sparklingly new and fresh.

Happy 70th birthday, Sir Frank. No, you're not dreaming. Honestly. At least, we don't think we are ...


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