Pastor Maldonado Confirms Status as F1's Laughing Stock in Chinese GP Practice

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2014

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 18:  Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela and Lotus walks away from his car after crashing off the track during practice ahead of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit on April 18, 2014 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

After acting as a ramp for the Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez in Bahrain, Pastor Maldonado could have done with a weekend under the radar at the Chinese Grand Prix.

The Venezuelan was handed a triple penalty for the incident with Gutierrez, which included a 10-second stop/go penalty, three penalty points on his superlicense and a five-place grid penalty for Shanghai.

The last of those, surely, was to ensure that this weekend would pass without bother for Maldonado, whose Lotus is bound to qualify towards the rear of the field anyway.

With just backmarkers around him at the start, and his E22 still troublesome enough to prevent him from challenging the usual midfield runners on pure pace alone, the chances of him getting in on the act of ruining somebody else’s race would be significantly reduced.

But on Friday at the Shanghai International Circuit, Maldonado proved not for the first time that he does not need an ally or a victim to cause havoc.

The first free practice session saw the 29-year-old have a bizarre off at Turn 9, going off the track momentarily before spinning his Lotus. This was rather incredibly due to Maldonado taking his eyes off the road as he fiddled with a button on his steering wheel.

His embarrassment was compounded in the second practice session when he then crashed at the infamous pit entry which claimed Lewis Hamilton in an ultimately title-deciding incident in 2007.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 18:  Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela and Lotus crashes off the track during practice ahead of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit on April 18, 2014 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty
Clive Mason/Getty Images

The root of Maldonado’s tendency to crash into anything within a 200-yard radius has been something of a mystery since he made his grand prix debut in 2011.

Those who recall his swipe towards Hamilton during qualifying at Spa in 2011, as well as his handbags with Sergio Perez in practice at Monaco the following year, will point to a certain malice that perpetually bubbles below the surface of his driving.

Others will look at his bashing against Paul di Resta at the Hungaroring in 2012, for example, as evidence to suggest that Maldonado is a talented driver who struggles to find the balance between safety and speed.

After all, in the dog-eat-dog world of Formula One, which is perhaps more competitive than ever before in terms of finding enough seats for drivers, there is great pressure on drivers in the midfield to stand out from the crowd. That feeling is heightened for so-called “pay drivers” such as Maldonado, who are forever forced to justify their places on the grid. That need to impress, then, could be interpreted as Maldonado’s downfall.

On the evidence of his Friday antics in Shanghai, however, Maldonado’s biggest hurdle to success is his complete and utter clumsiness.

Ah, that wasn't part of the plan.

— Lotus F1 Team (@Lotus_F1Team) April 18, 2014

The nature of his incidents, particularly in FP1, showed all the hallmarks of a driver with no concept of his surroundings, no awareness. It was almost as if he had forgotten which part of the circuit he was on as he drew his attention to his steering wheel, turning right as a left-hand corner was approaching.

His later, session-ending shunt, meanwhile, reeked of carelessness and a lack of respect for the circuit he was driving on. The pit entry in Shanghai is undoubtedly the most difficult in F1, given its habit of tossing cars into the gravel trap which lurks on the outside. Its history means it should be approached with care by the finest drivers in the greatest cars.

Yet Maldonado, not the finest of drivers in what certainly is not the greatest of cars, ploughed into the barrier, ripping his right-front wheel off and shredding that horrendous twin-tusk nose of the Lotus.

And as he trudged his way back towards the pit lane to finish the journey on foot, the FOM footage cut to a shot of a group of Maldonado’s Lotus mechanics who were watching the footage of the crash in the garage.

The majority of the men in the shot stood motionless, but one mechanic thrust forward before turning away in laughter and shaking his head. This occurred only a matter of hours after Alexander Rossi, Caterham’s reserve driver, sniggered at Maldonado's misfortune on BBC Sport’s practice footage as the Lotus spun at Turn 9.

It’s one thing for Maldonado to be the subject of jokes by the fans of Formula One; it’s quite another for him to be mocked by his fellow competitors and even his own colleagues.

It is a reflection of what Maldonado has become. We are little more than three weeks away from only the second anniversary of his superb, breakthrough win in Spain—a victory that was set to elevate him to a new level of performance and maturity.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 13:  Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela and Williams celebrates after winning the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya on May 13, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Getty Images)
Vladimir Rys/Getty Images

But since that May afternoon in Barcelona, he has gone backwards to the point where he has become the laughingstock of F1. And you know the saddest aspect of his demise? Maldonado has never even hinted at being able to learn from his mistakes.

What a waste.