Adios, Pastor

There is a more complex legacy that Pastor Maldonado leaves behind in Formula 1 than just being the sport’s most prolific crasher.

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Maldonado Spa 2014 BW
Image Credit – © Lotus F1 Team

If you’re reading this today, you now know that Pastor Maldonado is not racing for Renault F1 Team this season. And you know that we may have now seen the last of Maldonado as a Formula 1 driver.

We knew that before Renault could officially confirm Kevin Magnussen as his replacement at their team launch, because Maldonado confirmed it himself in an open statement on Twitter this Monday. A statement which almost reads like a full-on retirement speech, not just an announcement of missing one F1 campaign. He even said he’d try to come back next year, but I’m not optimistic about that.

I’ll admit that I’m way more of a fan of Pastor Maldonado, the F1 driver, than a lot of people who’ve followed the sport for any length of time into today. So for me, quite frankly? It sucks. A lot.

You see, there’s a much more complex legacy that Maldonado leaves behind in Formula 1, if this is indeed his bowing out of the sport – which is highly likely – than that of being the modern-day crash king of F1.

It’s true that unflattering nicknames like “Crashtor” and the “Maldozer” are not earned without an iron-clad reputation for chucking a Grand Prix race car off into oblivion at a high frequency. And Maldonado sure did have a lot of crashes over five seasons. His first Grand Prix meeting saw him spin off into a gravel trap in the third practice session at Albert Park. His last Grand Prix meeting ended with a lap-one collision with Fernando Alonso‘s McLaren. Some were fairly spectacular, most were horrendously clumsy, some were unbelievably bone-headed. He crashed in races, qualifying sessions, practice sessions, even in demo runs back home. I don’t need to dig up, dissect, and examine every single solitary crash Maldonado had along the journey because I know someone else will have already done so before you’ve taken the time to read this.

And it’s true that Maldonado, for the last several years, has had a whole lot of money to offer teams to offset the extremely high-risk decision of employing him as a full-time racing driver. Over $46 million USD per year, in fact, of discretionary income through the Venezuelan state-owned oil giant PDVSA, who own a brand more familiar to America’s heartland, Citgo. $46 million a year, one of the five largest sponsorship deals in all of Formula 1 in terms of annual value – behind only companies like Red Bull, who own and sponsor not one but two teams and a circuit, and Philip Morris, a billion-dollar enterprise built on other people’s addictions and failing health.

The sort of money many other talented young drivers wish they had at their disposal as they’ve been barred entry into the Formula 1 grid. The money that PDVSA doesn’t have any more, with Venezuela’s economy now on the brink of total collapse. Which is why Maldonado is now out at Renault, with his sponsors not coming forward on payments, and Kevin Magnussen is in alongside rookie Jolyon Palmer this season.

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Image Credit – © Lotus F1 Team

It is true that Maldonado can never be compared to the likes of Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, and Button for consistent greatness in Formula 1. But you don’t win at every level of racing you’ve competed in, up to and including F1, and you don’t get scouted by one of the most respected team principals and talent scouts in modern F1 history as a teenager, and you don’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder as peers with some of the greatest drivers of our time, even if only for a brief period of time in a career spanning five largely fruitless seasons, without being pretty damn good at driving a race car. And Pastor Maldonado was good. Better than a lot of people want to give him credit for.


 

The day I became a fan of Pastor Rafael Maldonado Motta was May 13th, 2012. This was the fifth race in Maldonado’s second season of F1. Going into the season, I had expected his new teammate Bruno Senna to thrash Maldonado. I mean, by this point, Maldonado’s reputation as a clumsy crash-prone maniac was already solidifying after just one season. Bruno Senna, on the other hand, was deemed by his great uncle Ayrton as the driver who’d be better than him. He was special. He hailed from racing royalty. And early in the season, that pick was looking good.

Then came Barcelona, home of the typically dull Spanish Grand Prix. Maldonado qualified a sensational second for Williams, who had scored only five points all last year. That P2 effort became pole position after Lewis Hamilton was excluded from qualifying for not being under-fuelled. It was a sensational story. But many Formula 1 underdogs had fallen short before. And with Maldonado’s reputation for throwing away results, I was thinking, not if it would all go wrong for him, but when. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Hell, he threw away a top five finish on the last lap of the Australian GP months before, and now we were expecting him to drive 66 perfect laps to actually win a race?

Home town hero Alonso got the jump off the line at the start of the race. But Maldonado hung in there with him. A gutsy strategic call would see Maldonado needing to drive the last 26 laps on one set of notoriously finnicky Pirelli tyres, with Alonso putting on the pressure. This, surely, was where Maldonado should have cracked. Instead, he resisted the charge of Alonso for several laps, even with the Spaniard’s home fans backing him. He protected his tyres like a smooth-driving, cerebral assassin along the way. He did not break. He did not throw it away.

GP SPAGNA F1/2012
Image Credit – © Ercole Colombo / Ferrari

And for the first time that I can remember, in a battle of Alonso, my favorite F1 driver for much of my time as a fan of the sport, and any other driver for the win, I was pulling for the other guy. I was watching – no, we were watching – something special, the birth of a new Formula 1 hero from a small-market motorsports country, who fought back from ridicule and strife throughout his career to achieve victory in the pinnacle of motorsport. Maldonado was winning me over in just one race, and now we were all hoping like hell that he could finish it in one piece.

And I’ll be damned, he did it. Williams F1 Team, winners of a Grand Prix for the first time since 2004, in a year where I feared they may have started to plunge into extinction. Winners on Sir Frank Williams‘ seventieth birthday. And Maldonado, a winner for the first time, a first-time winner for the nation of Venezuela. Carried on the shoulders of former World Champions Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen on the podium. And when a bizarre fire broke out in the Williams garage after the celebrations, it was Maldonado who was doing the carrying – carrying his young cousin Manuel, who will be making his single-seater debut this year, on his back and out of the danger of the blaze.

Bruno Senna, of course, had a torrid race that ended with a collision with Michael Schumacher. Bruno was Ayrton’s flesh and blood, but as F1 teammates, Pastor Maldonado was closer to Ayrton than Bruno would ever get.

And of course, as we now know, that was the peak of Maldonado’s F1 career. He crashed out of two of the next three races, including a potential podium finish on the last lap at Valencia when he clattered into Lewis Hamilton – gone just like that. Maldonado would record just one top-five finish not only for the rest of the 2012 season, but the rest of his F1 tenure over the next three years.

Be that as it may, Maldonado had accomplished what revered, respected F1 heroes of yesteryear like Chris Amon, Martin Brundle, Andrea de Cesaris, and Nick Heidfeld never could in their lengthy F1 careers – winning a Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix. Maldonado sits in the category of “one-win wonders” that includes another set of revered heroes of the past, drivers like François Cevert, Jean Alesi, Carlos Pace, Robert Kubica, and Jarno Trulli. As much as it pains a lot of people to come to terms with this, in at least one statistical category, Pastor Maldonado, perennial comedic fodder, long-time most hated driver in the sport, meets or exceeds the marks of F1 legends.

For all the accidents that Maldonado’s been involved in, as well, he still has a lower percentage of race-ending crashes than nine of the twenty-five most recent GP winners in F1 history.

And it wasn’t just about getting lucky that day, or in reaching Formula 1 to begin with. Trace back through Maldonado’s history and you’ll find that he could have been, and perhaps even should have been, racing in Formula 1 a lot sooner than 2011.


 

If there’s one thing that helped make Minardi into the beloved underdogs of Formula 1 in their time in the sport, it was their penchant for discovering amazing talent. That was their modus operandi, to give opportunities to drivers that other teams wouldn’t dare touch with a fifty-meter pole.

Just under Paul Stoddart’s ownership alone, they took Fernando Alonso into their wing at age 19, with just three more single-seater races to his name than Kimi Räikkönen had as a rookie in the same season, and unearthed a future F1 legend. They gave Mark Webber a three-race trial run to start, more than most teams would with his lack of budget, and starting with a storybook run to fifth place on debut at his home race, Webber parlayed that into a twelve-year F1 career. They decided that Justin Wilson wasn’t too tall for Formula 1, and built a car for his colossal 6’5″ stature after every other team told him they couldn’t do it for the former F3000 champion.

In November of 2004, Giancarlo Minardi, who had since stepped down from running the team, was overseeing an open test for many young talents at the Misano circuit now named in memory of Marco Simoncelli. Looking for that next breakout star like Alonso, Webber, and Wilson. And in a field of drivers that included the eventual 2005 Minardi lineup of Christijan Albers and Patrick Friesacher, future IndyCar champion Will Power, and future Bathurst 1000 winner Will Davison, the driver who left the biggest impression on Mr. Minardi was a 19-year-old single-seater sophomore named Pastor Maldonado, who had just months before won the Italian Formula Renault 2.0 title in dominating fashion.

maldonado 2004 test
Image Credit – © Minardi

Maldonado was within a half-second of the best time set by Albers, who had way more experience and all but guaranteed himself a Minardi drive going into the test anyway. A feat made more impressive when considering that he was making a leap from a low-power, two-litre Formula Renault car to a fire-breathing V10-engined monster of an F1 car, a jump that no young driver these days would ever be expected to make. In fact, just after Maldonado’s sensational victory in Spain, Minardi himself admitted that he could have, and should have, pushed for Maldonado to get the second seat at Minardi in 2005 after that test.

He wasn’t growing senile. He knew that he had seen a Grand Prix winner in action years before he got the chance to stand atop a podium in an F1 race. But with Friesacher coming in with hefty backing from the soft drink company that would eventually buy the team out a year later, Maldonado would have to wait for his F1 break.

Maldonado would have to grind through six more years of fleeting triumph and difficult hardship to get there. Along the journey, he was suspended for most of the 2005 Formula Renault 3.5 Series when during practice for their inaugural race at Monaco, he failed to slow down as marshals were tending to a stopped car, striking and injuring a marshal known only as “Gilles”. He was denied a championship-winning redemption the following year when his team’s appeal of a disqualification from a race at Misano was rejected.

Maldonado broke his collarbone in an off-track cycling accident, that prematurely ended a winning rookie season in GP2. And of course, in 2009, there was that matter of him getting outclassed by a rookie teammate at perennial GP2 powerhouse ART Grand Prix. That rookie being Nico Hülkenberg, which made his replacement of Hülkenberg at Williams two years down the road more than a bit irksome for those who were keeping tabs that year.

But he won in every step of the ladder to Formula 1 in his journey, too. He won two races as a spot starter in Italian F3000. He stood on the podium in each of the first five years he raced at Monaco, and won three times. He won a record six consecutive feature races en route to claiming the GP2 Series title in 2010, a feat that will likely never be broken. It was already quite astounding that Stoffel Vandoorne broke his record of ten career GP2 race victories just this past year. And if not for that disqualification in 2006 that stripped him of a win and the points that come with it, Maldonado would have become the only driver in history to have won both the Formula Renault 3.5 Series and GP2 Series championships.

Maldonado 2010 GP2
Image Credit – © GP2 Series

Sure, he sits in the oft-maligned group of fourth-year GP2 champions with his would’ve-been-teammate Jolyon Palmer, in amongst the proverbial wet blankets of the GP2 honour roll of champions. But he was a competitive driver every single year. There are many great drivers competing today who were never that accomplished on their way into Formula 1 in one series.


 

There is a disconnect between the “legend” of Pastor Maldonado that’s better known to Formula 1 fans, and the genuine Pastor Maldonado. Some things don’t line up. A driver cast as the low-down, dirty heel of the F1 paddock for many years has never really been confident or comfortable acting as the villain of the show. Only twice has he ever come close to genuinely acting like the bad guy of legend: In late 2013, when he threw all his toys out of the pram to get out of Williams following an awful season, and accused the team of sabotaging his car in the United States Grand Prix, and in 2015, when he evoked James Hunt’s famous quote about “large attachments” in defending his reputation as a driver.

Aside from that? He never fires off smart-ass verbal bombs at other drivers. He never picks fights. He could have easily, if he wanted to, made it rain hundred dollar bills at every press conference he was ever a part of as a way of flaunting his hefty financial considerations in everyone else’s face. But he’s not that kind of man. He seems almost timid when interviewed on TV. I know I would be with this level of scrutiny thrown at me – I’m easily intimidated at my own, low-wage day job!

Remember that incident in Monaco where he earned a nine-race suspension that I mentioned a while back? German tabloid Bild reported in 2012 that Maldonado was also handed a lifetime ban from racing in the principality, one that, according to the story relayed by reputable news aggregate GMM, Maldonado’s father bribed his way out of on his behalf, offering to pay for injured marshal Gilles’ recovery costs. It’s one of the unsavory tales that always seems to rile up more venom at Maldonado every time it’s mentioned.

The thing is, it’s totally false. Autosport retracted the erroneous report of a lifetime Monaco ban for Maldonado, not in response to the Bild story in 2012, but on the same damn day Maldonado’s suspension from FR3.5 was handed down.

Many laughed when Maldonado, already in the midst of another prolonged slump going into 2014, chose the number 13 as his permanent number in Formula 1. In Western culture, it’s a hex. The superstition is why they skipped the number 13 under the old numbering system, and why many race drivers and teams won’t use it willingly.

In Venezuela, you can almost assemble an entire team of baseball greats, past and present, who’ve worn the number 13 to stardom in the Major Leagues. David Concepcion, Omar VizquelAsdrubal Cabrera, Salvador Perez of the reigning champion Kansas City Royals – all celebrated heroes, back home in Venezuela, a country where baseball is still the king of sports.

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Image Credit – © Lotus F1 Team

Off track, he seems like an upstanding husband to his wife Gabriele, and in a world where racing stars are fodder for the dregs of the paparazzi, Maldonado’s private life remains locked down for the most part.

If there is something that should be more scrutinized about Maldonado, the person, that isn’t scrutinized nearly as much as his driving record, it is regarding Maldonado, the political advocate. It’s completely understandable for him to support the Socialist party of Venezuela from a professional perspective. They’ve backed him since 2006 and throughout his entire F1 career. In turn, he’s publicly supported the late Húgo Chavez up until his sudden death in 2013. Without the Socialist government of Venezuela that runs the oil company that’s sponsored him in every endeavor for a solid decade, Pastor Maldonado probably wouldn’t have made it to F1 on his accomplishments alone. Not when the sport is now more prohibitively expensive than it’s ever been. That can’t be understated, certainly not to the “keep politics out of motorsport” crowd.

But Chavez’s tenure as President of Venezuela was littered with red flags. Red flags that include repeated threats, censure, and imprisonment of opposition voices in the media, unfair elections, attacks on judicial independence, open embrace of the most notorious of authoritarian governments in Latin America, the Cuban government, and violent, government-condoned anti-Semitism. Under successor Nicolás Maduro, these things haven’t exactly been cleaned out just yet, and Maduro himself has added a dash of vitriolic homophobia to the equation. And keep in mind that this was all before Venezuela’s economy burned to cinders, leaving its citizens angered as their country approaches oblivion.

Maldonado has neither endorsed, nor condemned, these uglier facets of the goverment that’s supported him. He wouldn’t dare, out of fear of his professional career being compromised. But that still doesn’t, and shouldn’t, sit well with a lot of people – myself included, a supporter of Maldonado the driver for many years who’s defended his driving credentials when countless people would not. To put it into perspective, if Alexander Rossi, America’s newest F1 superstar, came out in support of Donald Trump as a political candidate, I guarantee I know of at least a handful of his most ferverous supporters right now that would demand that he never fly the American flag in motorsport for a long, long time.

And I can probably imagine, with as little qualification as I have to comment on the matter, that there are a lot of angry Venezuelan citizens who are furious that all the money that their government doesn’t have is being sunk into a racing driver’s career instead of their own welfare, that couldn’t care less for all the hot takes on Twitter or Reddit about “Crashtor”, so long as they’re struggling to get by with their government having largely failed them.


 

Back to the motorsport side of things. It’s tough to admit, though, but with Kevin Magnussen, Renault is much better off long term. This is a driver who McLaren invested countless resources into propping up as a future star, then quickly discarded at a whim. It wasn’t fair that he lost out at McLaren, and even less fair if he never raced in F1 again because of it.

But with Maldonado exiting Formula 1, the sport has lost a character and a driver who is more complex, multi-faceted, and compelling than many, many drivers who’ve driven a Grand Prix in at least my lifetime of just over 26 years.

Sure, there will be pay drivers who come in with more cash than legitimate racing talent. As people, they’ll be humble and polite, as drivers, they won’t get in the way too much and they won’t really wow fans with their pace. Many more of these drivers will enter Formula 1 so long as it exists. And very few of them will captivate us like Maldonado has, even if for many that captivation is strictly for the warped desire to see him invent new ways to look momentarily clueless in a Formula 1 car – P.T. Barnum described it as “no such thing as bad publicity”.

And for all the years that fans of rival series have poked fun at Maldonado’s reputation as “The Maldozer” – once he hits the open market, there would be top organizations, plural, in the WEC, IndyCar, IMSA, DTM, Formula E, probably even Super Formula, Super GT, or maybe even NASCAR, that would be chomping at the bit to sign a former Grand Prix winner – with or without all the PDVSA/Citgo money. He may not be an F1-caliber driver as Mark Webber firmly believes, but he’s still more than good enough to instantly become a top talent in any rival series.

When the years pass and Pastor Maldonado’s career has ended in motorsport, his legacy may, as it did for several other drivers before him, be painted in a more positive light. His victory in the Spanish Grand Prix is already among the greatest and most unlikely upsets in Formula 1 history – up there with Joakim Bonnier‘s victory at Zandvoort ’59, Peter Gethin‘s triumph at Monza ’71, and Olivier Panis‘ stunning upset at the ’96 Monaco GP. He is a trailblazer for Venezuelan racing drivers, succeeding the great, multi-versatile Johnny Cecotto as their foremost racing superstar, and if one day there is a Venezuelan driver who can consistently succeed, and win races, and championships in the top levels of motorsport – whether that’s Formula 1, the WEC, or some other series that’s yet to spawn, they will likely see Maldonado as a man who inspired them to pursue their passion. He’s the sort of man ESPN would clamor to make a 30 For 30 documentary about a few years down the road.

For now, though, Maldonado’s F1 legacy in the eyes many people sits in a place where he has mainly established his reputation. To them, it sits at a standstill, perhaps beached in a gravel trap, or nose-ended into a tyre wall.

maldonado 2012 podium

For myself, however, I’m keeping the memories of the day that F1’s most controversial driver stood a two-time champion right in the face and backed him down into submission, on his home track, and basked in the glory of a sensational, all-time great victory – the culmination of years of perseverance – that no one amongst a sea of critics can ever deny him.

 

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