It was with a sense of bittersweet disappointment that I read of Pastor Maldonado’s likely replacement at Renault yesterday. Bittersweet because I would be relieved to see Kevin Magnussen make the 2016 F1 grid before his career goes the same way as those of other recent Formula Renault 3.5 drivers Antonio Felix da Costa and Robin Frijns. Disappointment because it could have been so much more for Maldonado.
I was always in the small minority who believed Maldonado to be a driver of underrated quality. In my opinion he had the potential to be a more than decent Formula One driver, a view that was vindicated by his 2012 Spanish Grand Prix victory. On that balmy May afternoon he achieved something that precious few “mediocre” (the kindest description of Maldonado I have seen) F1 drivers have managed to do. He beat Fernando Alonso in a straight fight.
In the face of immense pressure from a double world champion, Maldonado produced a flawless drive, successfully nursing his tyres and maintaining a strong pace until the chequered flag fell, and took a deserved victory. Yes his Williams was probably the quicker car, but against a driver like Alonso that isn’t always the advantage it should be. Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel, Robert Kubica and Jenson Button have all lost races to Alonso that their respective cars should have seen them win.
Just three races earlier Sergio Perez had failed to use his Sauber’s pace advantage against him in the Malaysian Grand Prix. With a simple DRS assisted pass seemingly all that stood between him and his first grand prix win and at least a second per lap in hand over the Ferrari, Perez choked, took too much kerb at turn 14, and lost around 6-7 seconds in the excursion that followed. It almost certainly cost him the race. Yes, Maldonado’s was a rare achievement, one that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Natural speed took Maldonado to the top step of the podium in Barcelona. It is his greatest asset, one that would often carry him into strong grid and race positions, like 4th place in Valencia in 2012, or 7th place in China in 2015, only to be squandered with a clumsy mistake. His propensity for error was always Maldonado’s biggest weakness, one that saw him ridiculed at best and reviled at worst. Some of the online disparagement verged on bullying and was referenced with disappointing frequency in Sky F1’s “fair” and “balanced” coverage.
Admittedly, the nature of “Crashtor’s” mistakes didn’t help. They were often absurd, like the pitlane entry lock-up that cost him that 7th place in China last season, or flipping Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber in Bahrain in 2014, but I always felt that his reputation preceded him and led to harsh judgement from fans, media and drivers (for example Bahrain 2014 was caused by a small error – one that Sebastian Vettel repeated in 2015 against Sergio Perez but with less spectacular results). Maldonado became a scapegoat, an easy target for blame in any incident that occurred near him.
Did hasmaldonadocrashedtoday.com care that his first corner exits in Australia and Abu Dhabi 2015 weren’t his fault? They were other people’s accidents, ones that he became an unfortunate victim of, but as he was involved they were readily attributed to him. Jenson Button even tried to blame Maldonado after he drove into the back of him in Singapore last year, rudely declaring him ‘mental’ on his team radio. He even tried to blame him for their collision in the Chinese Grand Prix, before admitting it was ‘just a misjudgement’ on his part, an excuse Maldonado would never get away with.
Whether his reputation is fair or not, it can’t be denied that without his mistakes, Maldonado would be close to the finished product as far as F1 drivers go. It is understandable that Maldonado made mistakes in his early career, but it is perhaps less forgivable that they continued to occur in more recent seasons. Why, after five seasons of F1, was Maldonado still as error prone as he was in his debut year?
Mistakes usually occur because of a lack of concentration or because of overdriving. In Maldonado’s case it seemed to be a combination of the two. Often he would ruin his race with a brief lapse in attention and make another mistake by overdriving in an attempt to make up for the first. His lost 7th place in China was a case in point: he was inch perfect for two thirds of the race but overshot the pitlane before his second stop and then spun his E23 trying to recover the lost time. That left him in range of the struggling McLaren Hondas of Alonso and Button, who then of course hit him.
Struggling to maintain concentration is a symptom of a driver massively out of his depth but I would be uncomfortable calling a driver who can brake as late as Maldonado untalented. To me, Maldonado was always a diamond in the rough. He was the kind of driver who could have a weekend like Spain 2012 and then go and completely disgrace himself at the very next race, as he did at that year’s Monaco Grand Prix. Over the course of a lap in FP3 he hit Perez at Portier and then crashed at Casino. Both were clumsy and unnecessary errors that cost him a combined 15 places on the grid – ten places from the penalty for the collision and five for the new gear box his car required after his accident – and with them, any chance of points. A self-inflicted first lap exit the following day was the icing on the cake. Still, he had drives like that grand prix win in him, and not everyone does.
However, he seemed equally unable to understand why he had delivered such a perfect performance in Spain as he was able to understand what caused his error strewn weekends, a problem which was reflected in his “improvisational” driving style. Like Felipe Massa when he first arrived in F1, Maldonado likes to aggressively dominate the car, especially in slow corners, and seems to rarely use the exact same line twice. While a year of polishing from Ferrari allowed Massa to consistently show his talent behind the wheel, a similar transformation has not taken place for Maldonado and therein lies his biggest problem.
Most drivers keep improving after they reach F1 but Maldonado appears to be untrainable. It is notable that while he was happy to leave Williams at the end of 2013, they seemed to be equally pleased to see the back of him. A team can only take so much frustration before they lose patience. Maldonado came across as arrogant in his assessment of the situation, claiming ‘I delivered more to the team than they did for me’ and that perhaps speaks of his pig-headed approach to his development as a driver. Williams have enjoyed an upturn in performance since Maldonado left and together Massa and Valtteri Bottas have performed at a similar level, scoring a combined 577 points and 13 podiums over the last two seasons. Even as a staunch Maldonado defender, I cannot believe that he would have contributed such impressive numbers.
Diamonds are rare gems of significant value, but some come out of their rocks unusable. Perhaps Maldonado is one such diamond.