Given Mercedes’ current dominance, even a Max Verstappen win in a Red Bull is billed as a Formula 1 upset.
But eight years ago, an upset happened on a monumental scale. Standing on the top step of the podium, in between Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räkkönen was the figure of Pastor Maldonado.
A driver derided as incompetent. Crash prone. Not worthy of a place in F1, becoming — at the time — one of just 104 drivers to win a Formula 1 Championship grand prix.
It was a stunning result. But not to the driver at the centre of it all. “When I start a race, I start a race just to win,” says Maldonado. “I never see myself in P2 or P3.”
Now a sports car racer after five seasons of F1 with Williams and Lotus, Maldonado has grown used to the attitude which he says has dogged him since his very first kart races in Venezuela, despite a slog to get to the top of the racing world.
“Step by step, grain by grain, I built my mountain,” says the Venezuelan son of a car dealer, who dreamt of racing for years before he was let loose on a local karting track, not long after his seventh birthday.
“My father is not a racing driver. He never drove a race or a racecar in his life,” says Maldonado, speaking via Zoom from his Monaco home. “It was very difficult for myself to get to the top because I needed to learn.”
“I dominated it, I owned everything, all pole positions, every single race”
“I was racing with guys 10 or 11-years-old. It was very tough, really painful at the beginning, but I was immediately so quick, I think I won my third or fourth race in go-karts.”
With victory came the first of the criticism. “All the people around me started to hate me when I started to race, because I won against guys who were three, four years older than me.”
A growing silverware collection was plenty of consolation for the young Maldonado. “I started to get in love with the victories,” he says. The passion was driving the car, but behind driving the car was always the main purpose on the podium, especially in the middle of the podium.”
His winning habit soon took him beyond his home country to his first international race, in Colombia. “I dominated it, I owned everything, all pole positions, every single race – everything,” he says.
Monaco specialist: Maldonado celebrates ’07 GP2 win, but won’t reveal the secret to his speed there
Jean Michel Le Meur/DPPI
A nascent European career in single-seaters beckoned on the back of domestic karting success. He won there too, immediately taking the Formula Renault 2.0 Italy Winter Cup before winning the full series the following season.
He would have won the 2006 Renault 3.5 championship but for losing a race win to a technical infringement. In spite of Maldonado’s reputation as a pranger, he’s a Principality specialist, taking his first Monaco win that year.
Recognising his talent after the championship near-miss, the Venezuelan government began supporting his bid for the top. He wasn’t simply handed the funds, however. Fifteen years since the last Venezuelan, Johnny Cecotto, raced in Formula 1, Maldonado found himself selling his dream to unenthused sponsors.
“It’s not every day a president of your country calls you and says, ‘Congratulations!'”
“It was really difficult at the moment in my country, because this sport was not very popular,” he says. We worked really hard to find some support over there.
Eventually, branding came in the form of state oil firm PDVSA and Visit Venezuela, and Maldonado made the step up to GP2 in 2007. He won in his first season (at Monte Carlo of course) before a cycling accident ruled him out for the rest of the season.
Why so successful on the ultimate street circuit? “Big balls!” he replies emphatically. “There are only two or three points when you need to really risk and then the rest of the track you just manage. But at these points, if you do a little mistake, you will crash the car.
“I’ve been always taking the risk into the points in the track and that’s it.”
What are these points? “That’s top secret!”
On to 2008 and the Venezuelan lost out in a narrow title fight, finishing fifth; just four points behind second-placed Bruno Senna, and 16 short of series winner Giorgio Pantano.
At this point, the only way to land one of the few remaining seats at motor sport’s top table was with considerable funds and despite the government backing, Maldonado still didn’t have enough cash.
The money would only be forthcoming if he secured the second tier title – so back to GP2 it was. This time with the much-fancied ART team, but things didn’t quite work out. Maldonado claimed yet another Monaco win, but it was team-mate Nico Hülkenberg who took the title and Maldonado was ejected from the team.
GP2 title success finally came with Rapax
Frederich Le Floc'h/DPPI
At the eleventh hour, his old race engineer came up with a proposal that saw the pair reunite and re-enter GP2 with the Italian Rapax team. It turned out to be a winning combination and he bested Sergio Perez (another driver with considerable backing from his home country) and the late Jules Bianchi to win the title at a canter.
It finally opened the door to Formula 1 and the newly-crowned GP2 champion signed to drive for Williams in 2011 — replacing Hülkenberg.
His arrival at the top tier of motor racing brought a new level of fervent support in his home country, plus renewed support from its leader, Hugo Chavez.
“That was amazing for the country, because for many years, they hadn’t any drivers in Formula 1,” says Maldonado. “It woke the spirit for the sport in Venezuela.
“So many kids started to join the motor sports, so many people started to watch F1, I remember we had three different TV stations live at the same time. It was an amazing moment.”
Maldonado is still brimming with pride at the support he received from his country’s leader:
“It’s not every day a president of your country calls you and says, ‘Congratulations, keep working. We will support you.’ So I really feel very proud, because there are many sportspeople in the world, (who are) very talented, delivering so many results (without recognition).
“Many people don’t take into consideration all the sacrifices, everything left behind, by a sportsperson.”
Maldonado steps up to F1, here in the 2010 rookie test
Frederich Le Floc'h
Despite struggling with a difficult 2011 car, Maldonado compared favourably with his team-mate, the vastly experienced Rubens Barrichello. The qualifying head-to-head score was 10-9 in “Rubinho’s” favour.
The Brazilian clearly had the advantage over a grand prix distance though, a telling stat against various team-mates throughout Maldonado’s career. Other drivers, commentators and fans had also been noticing that his racecraft left something to be desired.
Two collisions with Lewis Hamilton, multiple spins and a 30sec penalty for ignoring blue flags that season, earned him the ‘Crashtor’ reputation. Enhanced, no doubt, at a time when F1’s relationship with social media accelerated rapidly, meaning mistakes could be cut into gifs and videos to be replayed ad nauseum.
Crashing out of practice for Malaysia ’11 as he entered the pits was a low point
The following year, though, was when Maldonado most famously confounded his critics.
“We got to Barcelona and in FP1 we were P15,” Maldonado recalls, “And then suddenly we’ve got the new package for Saturday night, a [update] package that was supposed to be only for a test.”
“We immediately saw a big impact with the car performance [in FP3], the behaviour of the car was amazing, like another car.
“We only had two hours to decide [whether to use the update package] and get ready. I was pushing so hard to have the package, my engineer also was pushing so hard because at time they needed it and we needed it.”
“That was my natural habitat, I always started on the front rows since I started my career.”
Maldonado’s pleas were heard, the test package was fitted and a shock P2 in qualifying was bumped up to pole after Lewis Hamilton was disqualified.
“All the cameras were focused on us, everyone was watching us,” says Maldonado, relating this famous day, “I said to myself, ‘Okay, this is my time, maybe I will not have again the chance to fight for the victory’”.
Did Maldonado feel nervous, or out of place rubbing shoulders with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso (P2 on the grid) at the sharp end?
“That was my place, since I started my career. I was in my environment, that was my natural habitat, I always started on the front rows since I started my career.
“No nerves. I was calm, focused and ready to deliver my best.”
Deliver he did. A strategy built around his talent for conserving tyres outfoxed Alonso and Ferrari to give him an incredible (and for many, slightly perplexing) victory.
Alonso passes Maldonado to lead in Barcelona — but not for long
Grand Prix Photo
Alonso blasted past at the first corner, but Maldonado kept him in sight without challenging — a tactic designed to lull Ferrari into a false sense of security.
Then, when the time came to put the hammer down, he delivered. “I put five quali laps in a row and they told me on the radio we are far away already in P1. So I start to cool down everything a little, brakes, engine. When I cool down the car, I’m still opening more gap.”
Alonso puts the pressure on Pastor
Alonso wasn’t finished and harried Maldonado all the way to the line to no avail.
“Honestly I did a great job. I always follow my targets and it was maybe not the perfect race because it’s never perfect, but it was very good.
“The team was so nervous and was telling me ‘The podium is the target’, but I didn’t care, because it was my chance and I was myself leading the race. So that was my time, to achieve the result.”
Maldonado celebrates with the team including test driver Valtteri Bottas and Williams executive director, Toto Wolff
Williams had a month-late birthday celebration for their team boss that weekend with Maldonado saying “That was my gift for Frank Williams. He was saying congratulations to all of the team with wonderful, encouraging words.
“That was very special to live that experience together, such a man as him.”
In a surreal finale to the weekend, a fire broke out in the Williams pit, and the hero of the day carried his cousin, who had a broken foot, out of the smoke-filled garage.
Maldonado carries his cousin to safety
The Spanish Grand Prix ultimately proved to be the high point of an F1 career ultimately unfulfilled. Further 2012 shots at glory were spurned, by both team and driver, with the following season proving fruitless due to an uncompetitive car.
Two difficult years spent at a Lotus team slowly going bankrupt led him to a dead-end, his F1 tenure petering out.
Despite joining the exclusive club of F1 winners, Maldonado’s reputation for binning it continued to precede him. In 2015, Mark Webber described him as the worst driver on the grid. “He’s out of his depth and just shouldn’t be there,” said the former Red Bull driver. “He’s making up the numbers basically.”
it was a view that continued to be widely shared, but Maldonado has grown a thick skin and shrugs off the barbs.
“C’mon! I think everyone who has success is criticised,” he says. “I’ve always been like this.
“I was happy because the people writing these kind of things about me – where they were and where I was. We were different in different levels – I achieved my objective in life!
“When I made a mistake, behind the mistake there is always an explanation. Why? It was not always crazy things,” Maldonado reasons, “But Hamilton, early on his career, he had his mistakes, everyone has mistakes. Alonso has had mistakes, how many times has he crashed in his career? And big crashes (they were) too!”
“Everyone has mistakes, but I was maybe coming from a country which is still not ‘mature’ it’s a Latin country, it’s a different mentality. Even if I won or whatever it was, everything was ‘bad’”.