Form is temporary, class is permanent.
It’s an old sporting adage that each of us has read and heard a million times—apart from, apparently, Pastor Maldonado.
When the Venezuelan was plotting his exit from Williams towards the end of last season, he was, in his view, escaping from the sinking ship.
2013, after all, was the second time in three seasons that Williams had failed to reach double figures in the constructors’ championship. If there was ever a statistic to confirm that the team’s glory days had come and gone—never to return—that was it.
That Maldonado had claimed Williams’ only victory in eight years, at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, told him all he needed to know: I’m the star here. I’m wasted in this joint.
So, off he fled to Lotus, with two fingers pointed in the direction of Grove and the bizarre claim that the team had deliberately sabotaged his car at the United States Grand Prix. That’s the problem with those pay drivers, you see: Their wads of cash can lead them into a sense of security, allowing them to get away with whatever they want in the knowledge that—in the current economic climate—the team needs the driver more than the driver needs the team.
The mark of a great driver—in addition to blistering pace, handy race craft and, in the modern era, a healthy bank balance—is one’s ability to judge the competitive order, not only for the present, but also the short-to-medium-term future.
It is a skill that even the finest can get horribly wrong, with Ayrton Senna’s move to Williams at the beginning of 1994—at the exact moment when the team’s performance advantage was neutralised due to a ban on electronic driver aids—serving as perhaps the most high-profile example. But, it is almost as important a part of a driver’s repertoire to assess and predict the competitiveness of each team as it is to spot a potential overtaking opportunity on the track.
And there is a huge possibility that, despite the initial glee upon the confirmation of his move to Lotus in December, Maldonado has departed Williams at the worst time imaginable.
The trouble for Williams since the end of their last major winning spree came to an end in 2004 is that, because their form has been so dire for such an extended period of time, it was tempting to believe that their class had also regressed to that level. For much of the last decade, they have not been the legendary manufacturer that scooped title after title in the 1980s and 1990s, but merely a team seemingly content with making up the numbers.
Williams’ deal to use Mercedes power units from the 2014 season, a shrewd piece of business, was the first step towards the team’s resurrection. With the deal announced as long ago as May of last year, this is a factor which Maldonado should unquestionably have paid more attention to when assessing his 2014 options, given the long-standing speculation that Mercedes were to emerge as the major force—not only as a race team but as an engine supplier—for the season ahead.
The signing of Pat Symonds, a man whose reputation has remained impressively intact despite his involvement in the crash-gate scandal surrounding the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, as chief technical officer barely two months later has added world championship-winning know-how to a team that had all too often appeared to lack direction. No doubt, this led to the restructuring of Williams’ engineering department with the additions of Jakob Andreasen from Force India, Craig Wilson from Mercedes, Rod Nelson and Dave Wheater from Lotus, Shaun Whitehead from Red Bull and, of course, Rob Smedley from Ferrari in recent months.
The changes behind the scenes are set to be built upon with the exciting development that, as reported by Jonathan Noble of AUTOSPORT earlier this month, Williams are to announce a sponsorship deal with Martini ahead of the Australian Grand Prix. The aligning of two of the most iconic names in motorsport history will reinvent the identity of a team who have settled for placing driver number graphics on their car’s sidepods (normally a prime spot for sponsors) in recent years, returning glamour and attraction to the Williams brand.
Maldonado’s replacement, former Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, is expected to thrive having finally removed the ‘doormat’ tattoo from his forehead and will drive with the freedom and flamboyancy that characterised his early years in the sport. Meanwhile, in Valtteri Bottas, the team has a mature, talented youngster—a potential world champion—who will be intent on reinforcing his credentials after an impressive debut season in 2013. In addition, Williams' decision to hand Susie Wolff, the team's development driver, the opportunity to drive in two free practice sessions in 2014 will see Williams considered as trend-setters in a period when the need for female involvement in sport is ever-growing.
Suddenly, there seems to be an urgency, a desire and a belief within Williams that has not been visible for some time.
That belief was summarised by Symonds, whose pride in the team’s 2014 car, the FW36—the only car after nine days of pre-season testing not to cause a red flag stoppage—was evident when he was quoted by Sky Sports’ Phillip Porter as saying the machine is "running like a dream."
After the opening two tests in Jerez and Bahrain, the third test is traditionally the time when the pretenders are separated from the real deal. And if that is still the case in 2014, Bottas’ completion of 128 laps around two grand prix distances on the first day in Sakhir—while posting the second-fastest lap-time of the day as he focused on setup work, according to a Williams press release—is to be feared.
Not only do Williams have a fast car which is almost certain to be a contender for early-season podiums, but the FW36 is so impressive that the team can focus on optimising its performance for Melbourne while other teams remain in the ‘meet-and-greet’ stage with their machines.
Among those other teams are Lotus, who brought an early end to their running for the day after just 31 laps with a certain Pastor Maldonado at the wheel. With the Renault-powered team completing a grand total of only 142 laps over the course of its five days of testing, after missing the entirety of the Jerez test, the 28-year-old’s winter transfer is already looking like a poor career move to say the least.
While the Williams pair of Massa and Bottas stand a chance of fighting for victory in Melbourne as things stand, Maldonado could face a struggle to score a point and even finish the race. If you’re particularly cruel towards his aggressive driving style, you could argue that this is the norm for the Venezuelan.
It would be confirmation, if ever we needed it, that form really is temporary and class really is permanent.
That’s worth raising a Martini to, don’t you think?