Examining Pastor Maldonado's F1 Legacy of Crashes, Penalties and 1 Magical Win

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2016

Pastor Maldonado at the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix.
Pastor Maldonado at the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

In 66 seasons of the Formula One World Championship, just 95 different drivers have won a grand prix (10 others won the Indianapolis 500 when it counted towards the championship). Improbably, Pastor Maldonado is one of them, and it is difficult to imagine another driver on that list whose talent behind the wheel is more lightly regarded.

Maldonado recently lost his race seat at Lotus when the team was bought by Renault. With economies crumbling across South America, Maldonado's sponsor—the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA—could not come up with an estimated £35 million to pay for his drive, per the BBC's Andrew Benson.

When it comes to Maldonado's reputation, that sponsorship is part of his problem. He is often regarded as nothing more than a pay driver, who would not be in F1 without the financial support from his homeland. But the reality is more nuanced.

Entering the 2014 season, Lotus wanted to sign the talented Nico Hulkenberg, as then-team principal Eric Boullier told ESPN F1's Abhishek Takle, but the German could not offer any sponsorship cash. Eventually, the team opted for Maldonado.

Aside from his pay driver status, Maldonado also gained a reputation over his career as somewhat wild and unpredictable on the circuit. He was nicknamed "Crashtor" and a website called Has Maldonado Crashed Today? was created to track his many mishaps.

Maldonado's PDVSA sponsorship was key in getting him a race drive for Lotus.
Maldonado's PDVSA sponsorship was key in getting him a race drive for Lotus.RONALDO SCHEMIDT/Getty Images

But is his poor reputation completely justified? After all, Maldonado has been a winner at every level of motorsport, including—need we say it again—F1.

After winning the Italian Formula Renault 2.0 title in 2004, he finished third in the 2006 Formula Renault 3.5 championship, taking three wins and five pole positions (and losing the title thanks to a disqualification for technical noncompliance). The next year, he graduated to GP2, winning at Monaco in just his fourth start.

In 2010, he won the GP2 championship over Sergio Perez, Jules Bianchi and several other future F1 drivers.

Andreas Zuber raced against Maldonado for three years in GP2 and was his team-mate in 2008. Reached by email, Zuber described Maldonado as "super-quick." Asked whether he considered he former team-mate a fair and clean driver, Zuber said, "He was very hard when you fight man-to-man, but never really unfair."

After taking the GP2 title, Maldonado made the jump to F1 in 2011, driving for Williams. He performed well opposite 11-time grand prix winner Rubens Barrichello, outqualifying his more experienced team-mate nine times in 19 races.

The next year came that magical, out-of-nowhere victory in Spain. In the aftermath, Andrew Benson reminded BBC readers that Maldonado, "came into F1 with a reputation for being quick but fiery and a bit accident-prone." However, he continued, the Venezuelan's win, "certainly proves beyond all doubt that he deserves his place in F1, even if one inevitably has to wonder what the Williams would be capable of with [Fernando] Alonso or [Lewis] Hamilton behind the wheel."

Maldonado celebrates his only F1 win, at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.
Maldonado celebrates his only F1 win, at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.MANU FERNANDEZ/Associated Press

But even with the victory, Maldonado finished 15th in the 2012 drivers' standings, managing just one more finish above eighth place (fifth in Abu Dhabi).

The next year, he was outshone by rookie team-mate Valtteri Bottas before moving to Lotus for 2014 and 2015, where he was again upstaged by his team-mate, Romain Grosjean.

And what about all those crashes?

F1 Fanatic's Keith Collantine just published a breakdown of all the penalties handed down in F1 for driving infractions since Maldonado's career began in 2011.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Venezuelan tops the charts with 26 penalties, more than twice as many as the No. 2 man, Grosjean. Looking at the average number of penalties received for every 10 races contested, though, Maldonado is fourth, behind last year's Toro Rosso rookies, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Max Verstappen, and new Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez.

Maldonado clearly has the speed to race in F1, but to be competitive over a 20-race season, you must also be consistent. With all those crashes and penalties, Maldonado has racked up 32 DNFs and just 14 points finishes in 95 career starts.

Speaking with the Telegraph's Daniel Johnson last year, Maldonado said:

To find the limit, you need to cross the limit. I think I have the big balls to cross the limit every time. They were the good things in my career. I have been winning in everything in the past.

I won in Formula One with a not competitive car, competing against Ferraris, McLarens, Red Bulls. Sometimes you risk and you do mistakes. 

While Maldonado might view his willingness to cross the limit as a strength, top drivers can approach the limit repeatedly without surpassing it—that is the kind of consistency that wins championships.

Alfonso de Portago, who raced for Ferrari in 1956 and 1957 before dying in a crash at the Mille Miglia, explained the difference between a driver like himself and five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio to Robert Daley for his book, The Cruel Sport:

Every curve has a theoretical limit. Let's say a certain curve can be taken at a hundred miles an hour. A great driver like Fangio will take that curve at ninety-nine point nine every single time.

I'm not as good as Fangio. I'll take that curve one time at 97, another time at 98, and a third time at maybe 101. If I take it at 101 I go off the road.

After acknowledging Maldonado's speed, I asked Zuber for his ex-team-mate's greatest weakness. "He goes too often over the limit," he replied.

And that, it seems, will be Maldonado's legacy: a quick driver with lots of potential who could never quite harness that speed to perform consistently at a high level.

Maldonado takes out Esteban Gutierrez at the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix.
Maldonado takes out Esteban Gutierrez at the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix.MARWAN NAAMANI/Getty Images

Despite losing his seat to Magnussen, Maldonado still wants to race in F1. "I don't see any concrete opportunity for Formula One this year," his agent, Nicolas Todt, told Reuters' Alan Baldwin. "We will try to bounce back in 2017."

Whether the Venezuelan does, in fact, find another F1 race seat depends more on his country's economy than it does his speed on the race track.

With so many talented young drivers—like Stoffel Vandoorne and Pascal Wehrlein—waiting for drives, Maldonado is not going to earn another drive based on his performances over the last five years. But if PDVSA can write a big sponsorship cheque, then who knows?

If we have seen the last of Maldonado in F1, though, it hasn't always been great, but it certainly has been interesting. And we'll always have that one extraordinary weekend in Spain.

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