According to the latest grindings of the rumour mill, Pastor Maldonado is set to lose his seat at Renault’s newly-acquired Formula 1 team. If these stories turn out to be true, it won’t come as a surprise.
With oil currently trading at under $30 a barrel, compared with almost $100 when Maldonado joined the then Lotus team, coupled with the result of the recent Venezuelan elections and the desire of the new coalition to put pressure on the incumbent Prime Minister Nicolas Maduro and the Socialist regime ushered in by Hugo Chavez 17 years ago, the ability of PDVSA to spend upwards of $20million on Maldonado’s F1 drive was always going to come under threat.
The reaction to these machinations across the online world has been broadly positive, with Maldonado portrayed as a pay-driver liability, whose only claim to a seat in F1 was the cheque he brought with him. And while the number of incidents and accidents he’s suffered during his career – and not just in F1 – is indefensible, in an era when the difference between the drivers is subtle shades of grey, having an unpredictable wildcard like Maldonado on the grid was a welcome throwback to a bygone era.
To me having a Vittorio Brambilla, Andrea de Cesaris or Olivier Grouillard on the grid is part of what made the F1 of yore so appealing. All of these drivers brought a significant wedge of cash with them but also possessed the skills behind the wheel to mix it with much more vaunted opposition, and to show them a clean pair of heels when the mood took them.
The fact that you never knew what to expect was the essence of their appeal, whether that was a blinding pole lap that came out of nowhere, a rocket start into a lofty position in the race or some myopic, obdurate defensive driving while a lap of more behind. The ability of all three to send viewers into an impromptu rant also made for fantastic TV.
It’s also easy to overlook just how fast Maldonado can be. Watching him around Monaco is a sight to behold. The aggression with which he’s able to attack the most famous track in F1 is exhilarating and effective in equal amounts.
In his first grand prix there he out-qualified Rubens Barrichello – himself no slouch at Monaco – and made it to Q3. But this came as no surprise to anyone who’d seen him there in in his junior single-seater career – well perhaps not the track marshal he hit during the Formula Renault 3.5 race in 2006…
Much like Brambilla, it appears that Maldonado will end up as a one-time grand prix winner. Probably a good answer on Pointless, but maybe too recent to score less than the 1975 Austrian GP victor. The first half of the 2012 Formula 1 season was one of the most random in recent F1 history, with the Pirelli tyre ‘cliff’ leading to seven different winners in the opening seven races.
To future motorsport historians, Maldonado’s Spanish GP triumph will appear to be a random apparition, but Lewis Hamilton’s qualifying penalty aside (for running out of fuel during Q3), there was nothing in the win that owed anything to luck, it was just a day when he drove faultlessly and brilliantly and showed great composure in the way he kept Fernando Alonso at arm’s length.
Had he kept his head and not got involved in that ridiculous collision with Sergio Perez in FP3 next time out at Monaco, he had the pace to potentially qualify on pole (he was third quickest in Q2) and given how hard overtaking is around the Principality, there would have been every chance of back-to-back wins.
The fact he blew it is why he’ll never even be close to being recalled as an F1 great. But even if there were 20 drivers of that calibre in the world at any one time, most of them would be wasting their talents if the only seats available were at Manor or Haas or wherever. At best only a third of the grid has a realistic chance of winning a race, so surely there is room among those remaining two thirds for something a bit different, something unpredictable.
If, as it has been suggested, Kevin Magnussen is the man to replace Maldonado, that will be a good choice. The Dane is undoubtedly talented and was very unlucky to not hold on to his seat at McLaren after a solid debut season in 2014.
But even after just one year, I think we know what we’re going to get from young Kevin, and all of those things – solid qualifying pace, decent racecraft and a strong team player – are already represented in spades by the other 19 drivers on the grid.
Perhaps when the oil prices rise and there’s political stability in Venezuela, Maldonado’s backing will return. Even if it’s at half the level that it was before that ought to be enough to secure him a seat. The quality of the field will not be diminished by Maldonado’s absence, but F1 fans will be the poorer for the lack of his unpredictable abilities. After all, is there another driver on the grid who would have that tangle with Hamilton at the end of qualifying in Spa 2011? Probably not. He may well have been in the wrong, but it created a talking point, something for the pundits – both professional and armchair – to get animated about and we all know that F1 is in need of all the excitement it can get these days.