Feature F1 Unlocked
LIGHTS TO FLAG: Pastor Maldonado on that shock win for Williams, Lotus struggles, and life after F1
Pastor Maldonado emerged as a cult hero to many Formula 1 fans for his aggressive driving style and total commitment to the cause that sometimes resulted in dented carbon fibre. Yet he also delivered a brilliant shock victory for Williams in 2012 – which remains the team’s last triumph to date – and showed stunning turns of pace on other occasions. We sat down with him for a chat about his F1 career, and what he’s been up to since, for our latest edition of Lights to Flag…
From BMX to the kart track
Maldonado grew up in a family involved in the automotive industry in Venezuela, quipping he was “almost born in a car dealership” and received his first bike as a toddler. He raced BMX bikes before “a good client of my family went to buy a car in one of our dealerships – and his son was racing in go-karts, and they invited us to do some laps at the local track”.
The young Maldonado “was smiling, I was so happy” after his first experience and convinced his father to buy him a go-kart. The entire family were already fanatical about racing.
“I was following Formula 1 with my dad, who was always a big fan, especially at that time. Senna was the god of the motorsport,” he explains. “We were following Ayrton’s races, it was a big passion for us. I need to say it's not only my father: the whole family was so passionate! They still are very passionate about the racing and motorsport.”
Maldonado started racing at the age of seven but did so against older kids “because there were not enough drivers in the mini category” – a decision which he feels accelerated his progress.
“At that age, the difference in maturity is big,” he says. “The difference in strength and body development is quite big. It was very difficult and there was a lot of pressure because I needed to perform like the big boys, but at the time I was the younger one. I think it made me stronger and grow up quickly!”
The path towards Formula 1
Maldonado moved to Europe and in 2003 began to compete in single-seaters, beginning with Formula Renault, and at the end of 2004 had his first Formula 1 test with Minardi – but it was early days. “I was coming from Formula Renault 2.0 litre, so the difference was huge,” he recalls of stepping into the Minardi’s cockpit. As his career continued Maldonado also had to cope with budgetary setbacks, meaning private testing was limited – and he had to adapt to life in a different continent.
“I had the speed,” he reflects. “But it's not all about the speed. I was missing experience. I was making mistakes. You are far from your home: different culture, different weather, different situation. For example, the European race driver, they race during the weekend and on Sunday night or Monday morning, they are going back home. And we needed to [spend] months here.
“I remember when I moved here, it was so difficult for me because it's a new life. I wasn't ready to approach that. But that gives you more responsibility and you mature in record time. And you think, ‘okay, all of this is not going to stop me. It's not going to stop my goals: I need to work harder, I need to be focused'. I remember I had no friends, I had nobody to talk, only my team. I needed to learn languages. It very difficult, very difficult.”
Stepping up – and getting a bad rep
Maldonado steadily progressed through the junior single-seater pyramid and in 2010 triumphed in the GP2 Series. That put him on the radar of Formula 1 teams and he signed for Williams for 2011.
“Honestly, I was ready for Formula 1 even a couple of years before 2011,” he says. “And Williams opened the door for me, so it was my dream. I remember that was my dream team when I started to race. Okay, maybe I didn't get to Williams when it was a number one team in Formula 1, but that was enough for me to step into Formula 1, to learn a lot and to get familiarized with the entire environment.”
A financial injection provided by Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA helped Maldonado land the Williams seat, which led to some pointed criticism.
“I had a lot of people against me, especially from the media: Latin guy coming with sponsors,” he reflects. “So I was the bad boy of Formula 1, I was the paid driver, I was the worst of the worst of the worst for Formula 1!
“But at the same time, I said, ‘okay, I don't care about this. I've been always fighting with this since the beginning of my career and it’s time to be focused and time to enjoy it and to live the speed and live the experience in the best way’.”
Unfortunately for Maldonado his arrival at Williams coincided with one of their worst-ever seasons, as the FW33 proved to be a dud, limiting the rookie to just a solitary top 10 finish in a year in which even veteran teammate Rubens Barrichello scored only twice.
THAT shock weekend
Williams returned to the midfield in 2012, with Maldonado on course for sixth in Australia until a late crash, before scoring eighth in China.
The Spanish Grand Prix, though, provided Formula 1 with one of its biggest surprises.
“The potential was there, but we were very honest with ourselves in the team,” Maldonado says. “We knew that the car was okay, very good: but just to be from P8 to P12, fighting for the points, no more.”
Maldonado, though, qualified a brilliant second, which became pole position when Lewis Hamilton was excluded from the session for a fuel irregularity. Pre-race, fellow front-row starter Fernando Alonso was favourite to swiftly overhaul the Venezuelan.
“Everyone in the team was like ‘okay, P2, P3, a podium is enough for us: P5 is going to be mega for the team, so be careful. And I said to myself, ‘okay, this is my chance. I need to be focused. Maybe it's going to be the only one. I need to get the chance and to deliver 100 per cent of myself just to beat Fernando’.”
And that is exactly what Maldonado did, as he and Williams out-raced Alonso’s Ferrari, and Lotus’ Kimi Räikkönen, to score an astonishing victory.
“It was not easy – they had the quicker car,” he says. “But in the strategy we saw some weakness in their tyre management, and that was an area where I was good.
“It was not a lucky victory, because it was raining or something, that was a pure performance. We were quick. I managed to fight with Fernando at the time. And that was amazing for me, to stand up in the podium. And then they, Fernando and Kimi, they carried me on the shoulders.
“That was a dream, you know, just to share the podium with my two idols. You know, I was following them when I was young. I was following their careers. And that was when I said to myself, ‘okay – we did it’.
“Frank gave me the responsibility of representing this amazing and historic team in Formula 1. And I feel very proud to have delivered the last victory of the team until now and the last victory of Frank Williams.”
Spain was the high point but when the FW34 found its sweet spot Maldonado was able to put himself and Williams in some strong positions: he qualified third at Valencia, second in Singapore, and third in Abu Dhabi, and made Q3 in over half the Grands Prix.
But opportunities went begging: Maldonado clashed with Hamilton in Valencia, the car packed up in Singapore, and while fifth in Abu Dhabi was his second-best result of the season a KERS issue slowed the FW34.
“We missed a few podiums that year,” Maldonado says. “One podium I missed because it was my mistake: I was still in the learning process, let's say, because I was pretty young, it was just my second year in Formula 1. Maybe I was very anxious to win another race and to show everybody I was ready, you know? So it's a thing of maturity. But at the same time, we hadn’t the car to perform every week. In some races, I placed the car in top three in qualifying, but we had a lot of failures, especially from the KERS or gearbox, and that was breaking the confidence in the team.
“After the victory we had some ups and downs, changing people inside the team, and every time you change and change, the team suffers.”
Maldonado stayed with Williams for 2013 but, after 2012’s progress, the year unfolded in dismally similar fashion to 2011.
“From the technical point of view, we took some bad decisions,” Maldonado says. “Aerodynamically, the car wasn't performing as expected in the wind tunnel. We saw numbers that we had never seen on the track: the correlation between the track and wind tunnel and simulator were completely different.
“We spent a lot of time to try to balance the correlation. By the time we balanced the correlation, we were fighting for the last places. The car was very slow in the straight line and very slow in the corners! So, no chance to make a lot of points, and always fighting for the last place.
“Everyone in the team was expecting to have a more stable car, a more consistent car in 2013. I remember the first day in the track we were motivated, [we] expected to have… maybe not a world champion car, and we knew that, but at least solving all the problems that we had the previous year.
“And it wasn't like that. And that was frustrating for all the team. I saw everyone very sad, everyone from the beginning. Everyone was losing confidence in the factory. And the problem is when the things are going bad, it's always the fault of someone else. So the race team: the car was bad. The factory: the race team is not managing the car.”
Maldonado ponders that it was “maybe the worst year of Williams’ history” up until that stage and that “so many things were going on in the team that people were focusing on other things and not only delivering performance on-track.”
A new start and demise
Maldonado’s sponsors began scouting alternatives and for 2014 landed with Lotus, which had performed strongly in 2013, and which had a vacancy after Raikkonen moved to Ferrari.
“That was very, very hard for me to leave Williams,” says Maldonado. Unfortunately for Maldonado his new and past employers encountered vastly divergent fortunes under new engine-focused regulations for 2014.
Williams were “very smart on choosing the Mercedes engine” and vaulted from ninth to third in the standings, scoring regular podiums, while Lotus’ novel but flawed twin-tusked E22 was hamstrung by Renault’s lacklustre power unit, and they fell from fourth to eighth. Maldonado made the top 10 only once.
“We had a lot of problems from the engine, but at the same time the car was not there,” Maldonado says. “There was no money at the team, we were using the same aero package through the year – nothing new, and at some points it became even a bit dangerous.”
Lotus’ E23 Hybrid returned the team to the midfield in 2015, aided by its switch to Mercedes power, but off-track the company was plunging into a crisis.
“I remember we got to a few races without having the hotel because of delays on payments,” says Maldonado. “I remember there was no hospitality in Japan. And in the end, while it’s a competition, Formula 1 is a family, and when other teams saw the situation they opened the doors in the catering to give us some food!
“It was a very bad year in terms of trying to survive,” he says, adding he was “trying to be in the middle between the head of the team, and the mechanics, just to get them paid. That was a tricky moment. We were talking to sponsors just to see if we can have extra money just to pay them to finish the season.
“And the entire team suffered a lot. As a driver, nobody was focused, even Romain [Grosjean, Maldonado’s team mate] wasn’t delivering 100 per cent because of the situation. Honestly, I wanted the season to end as soon as possible at the time.”
Renault rescue leads to F1 exit
Lotus was rescued by Renault heading into 2016 but the initially contracted Maldonado was released, amid worsening economic turmoil in Venezuela.
“It was tough at the beginning,” says Maldonado on his exit. “But at a certain point of my career, I realised that Formula 1 was not forever.”
Maldonado held talks with Sauber for 2017 but “it was tricky because I felt I was in a place where I deserved a good car to be consistently in the points,” and his sponsors “wanted a guarantee of the results – it was very difficult to find these guarantees!”
“And, honestly, I started to look around at my family, on a normal life, and say ‘thank God every day for the amazing experience I really had. I had an amazing experience. And I have my family, my health, I’m young, so I started just to accept that.”
Maldonado went on to race in the World Endurance Championship in 2018/19, taking class victories at Daytona and Spa, and a podium at Le Mans.
“I had the best time of my life in motorsport,” he said. “We were having a lot of fun delivering, fighting, winning races. We won Daytona, we won Spa. Being on the podium in so many other races, we just missed Le Mans, which is still maybe the only race I would like to race for the victory at a certain point!”
Missing motorsport – and a comeback...?
Maldonado quips that “my fans are still supporting me and trying to get me to the races” and that he “always [gets] the comments that ‘we are missing you in Formula 1 because of your character, your personality!’” as he explores what he calls “the second step of my life” in business.
“We have a family holding, we do some investments around the world,” he says, explaining how he is taking lessons from motorsport into another area.
But while business is the career path motorsport remains the pull for Maldonado.
“I tell you – I’m missing it every day! I used to travel every day, go to PR events, media events, sponsor events, training, testing, go-karting, racing, and I’m missing this active life. I still have a super active life and all my friends say ‘oh my God, how can you behave in this way?’ And I tell them everyday, ‘this is nothing for me!’
"And maybe in a certain point in my life I would like to get back to motorsport, maybe, in a different role, because this is my passion. Maybe I’d like to manage a team, with the whole experience and the network I have, and to have the same adrenalin and same good feeling of competition in my sport, because it is my sport. And it will be my sport until the last day of my life.”