I have a confession to make. Something that you might find unusual. Perhaps shocking.
I’m a defender of Pastor Maldonado. Or at least more of a regular defender than most. It’s a task that isn’t always an easy one as you might imagine, given his unenviable reputation; that which is summed up by his ‘Crashtor’ moniker. And that which he frequently goes a way to living up to.
And this loyalty was tested again during and after the back-to-back races just passed in China and Bahrain, when yet more wolves were pacing at the Venezuelan’s door thanks to more than one conspicuous boo-boo in either.
But still I’m unflinching in my sympathies for him. I’m not entirely sure why I’m so determined to hold this position either. My mother reckons I’m big on bloody-mindedness, so it may be that. I’d like to think that it’s based on a bit more however.
Partly I think it’s to do with that Pastor is tantalising close to being a decent F1 performer. Certainly when watching him often an overriding thought of mine is ‘if only…’. He’s certainly fast, and capable of good results if he can make it all the way to the end without rancour. Perhaps that this prize of a Pastor with reasonable standing among the F1 fraternity remains agonisingly somewhere near reach helps me not give up on him.
And China and Bahrain’s races were almost quintessential. In both with trouble-free runs Maldonado looked good for a P7 finish ahead of his team mate Romain Grosjean (and some rate Grosjean as high as they come). And just imagine what we’d think of him if he’d managed to pull them off. But both of course were spoiled at least in part by maddening errors from him – that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Partly too however I reckon that some of the explanation lays in the nature of the criticism Pastor Maldonado receives. Much of it I find distasteful, with an aggression that is excessive and at its worst redolent of a vicious pack mentality, rounding on isolated prey.
Moreover much of the abuse he gets is either plain inaccurate, or while technically correct so far removed from its context as to become highly misleading. It seems odd too that this should be so given that he provides no shortage of legitimate bullets to fire at him. Pastor Maldonado does err too often. That is undeniable. There are mistakes in him. Many it seems too are borne of an occasional amateurish lack of concentration. As we saw in China also, errors often follow errors, like he gets into periodic tailspins wherein he tries too hard. Given his style too in which he always seems to be fighting the car, and rarely uses the same line around a corner twice – plus that he’s now 30 – means he’s unlikely to ever totally experience a Grosjean-style absolution.
And herein may lay the rub. That plenty of what is thrown at him is over the top, unfair or plain wrong, when plenty of well-founded criticism could be made instead, may be taken as evidence that much of the abuse he gets is indeed inspired at some level at least by those basest of unpleasant human instincts that I described.
On the point of his criticism being excessive we can start with a zinger. I stumbled across on some comment forum or other a claim that Maldonado was “the worst F1 driver in history”, or words to that effect. No way. Say what you like about him but he’s no Giovanni Lavaggi sort. Not even close to it. Instead upon analysis of his F1 spell, on results – certainly on pace – he’s stacked up pretty well against a collection of well-regarded team mates. He also entered the sport’s top echelon as GP2 champion, and how often have we flagellated ‘modern F1’ when the feeder series’ title-winner doesn’t get their big break?
As for criticisms that Pastor gets that are unfair and misleading, and removed from their context beyond breaking point, well we can take some recent examples. He crashed out at the first corner of the season-opener in Melbourne this year, yet no one who witnessed it (at least among those worth listening to) concluded that it was Pastor’s fault. Much more that he was the victim of an unfortunate chain of events started by someone else. But still it didn’t stop social media being flooded with memes trashing the Venezuelan; the hasmaldonadocrashedtoday.com website liberally banded around.
In a similar vein plenty made mirth over his poor finishing record so far in 2015; round four in Bahrain being the first time he saw the chequered flag – but of those three non-finishes one was down to a brake failure and the other two to being the victim of others’ mistakes.
And these followed the final Barcelona test in pre-season when the pack rounded on his accident on the final day. There was the usual round of abuse but Lotus technical director Nick Chester outlined later that “Pastor was unfortunate to have a braking-related issue…There was nothing Pastor or any driver could have done to avoid this accident, which was systems related”. Plenty seemed determined not to listen though.
Last year too I read more than one Monaco preview that gleefully pointed out that Maldonado had crashed out from the three preceding Grands Prix in the Principality. Which sounds bad until you realise that two of them weren’t his fault, and the stewards agreed by punishing the other guy and not Maldonado. One source – that I won’t name in order to spare their blushes – actually said on the subject, and I quote: “Although two of the three incidents weren’t because of Maldonado, the trend nevertheless clearly indicates that his style is far from clean and complete.” Seriously, what?
Taking a broader view of Pastor’s time in F1, someone in China’s aftermath outlined in apparent evidence of the Venezuelan’s erraticism that Maldonado in his 81 Grand Prix career has had but eight points finishes. But as a very good recent article in response by Jack Amey on The F1 Stat Blog pointed out for most of these, all aside from those in 2012 indeed (and not including this season which remains in its early days), Pastor has not been in a car capable of scoring points with any sort of regularity, which likely goes much further to explaining this superficially damning statistic than anything else. And we can gauge as much from looking at what his team mates did at the same time. Rubens Barrichello across the garage scored but twice in 2011 to Pastor’s once (and Pastor would have matched him, and in so doing beat him on points, but for an errant Lewis Hamilton wiping him out in the late laps in Monaco); in 2012 I concede that we can legitimately criticise Pastor – he failed to make hay when the sun shone and indeed Bruno Senna got ten points finishes to his five; in 2013 however it was one score apiece between him and Bottas; last year it was but two-one to Grosjean.
As for his number of DNFs in his F1 career, which is an apparently towering 26, Amey noted that just 11 of them were due to accidents or spins, and of these but eight were Maldonado’s fault. In fact I can go one better and reduce it to seven, as the Monaco race of 2013 which Amey included in the eight wasn’t the Venezuelan’s fault either. This was when an apparently asleep at the wheel Max Chilton drove into the side of him, and the stewards agreed as the Englishmen got the stewards’ sanction.
And six of these seven accident/spin DNFs happened in 2011 or 2012. Admittedly it’s a slightly crude measure – it doesn’t take into account contact or spins after which he continued – but a fact that may surprise is that the last time Maldonado didn’t make the end of a Grand Prix due to an accident or spin was the Australian race in 2013. More than two years ago in other words. People may scoff upon hearing that Pastor said recently: “I am driving as well now, maybe better. I’m more experienced, better, quicker, more solid”. But whatever is the case the stats on one level at least back up his contention.
Indeed in the past couple of seasons especially Maldonado’s ill-luck with mechanical retirements has been almost off the scale. Sadly for him too it’s seeped into 2015 to an extent, with his brake failure in Malaysia mentioned while his Bahrain qualifying session also was spoiled by more technical woe (Pastor also reckoned his China pit entrance error owed at least something to fading brakes). It all got Sean Kelly to comment on Twitter in Bahrain’s qualifying: “I must say, Pastor doesn't do himself any favours sometimes, but he's been VERY unlucky at times this year. It's not all been his fault.” Therefore to use his topline finishing record in the case against him doesn’t tell even half the tale.
As for why Pastor gets such little benefit of the doubt, well that could fill not just an article but an entire book chapter on its own. Part of it may be that his F1 career arguably was tainted at source. In the junior formulae he established the reputation as something of a crasher, and even though as mentioned he entered F1 as GP2 champion many cringed at his promotion. His Williams ride was at the expense of the highly-rated Nico Hulkenberg, and rather transparently down to Williams wanting Pastor’s Venezuelan cash. Furthermore the German absurdly had to sit the next year out as Force India’s reserve. Then-Williams boss Adam Parr didn’t help matters when he put a few noses out of joint by derisively describing suggestions that Maldonado was merely a pay driver as “repulsive and irrelevant”.
And of course part of this whole shebang is that matter of money, which given he brings a lot of it to his team paints an even bigger target on Pastor’s back. While his GP2 crown probably means he was deserving at least of an initial F1 chance on driving merit alone it seems undeniable that by now money is the crucial thing that is sustaining his presence. Yet Pastor is hardly alone on this one. It is the way of today’s F1 that if in the first two or three seasons you do not show yourself to be a talent from the top drawer the only thing that can sustain a career at the sport’s top echelon is if you bring money and/or commercial opportunities, and indeed I make it that six of the 20 out there in 2015 right now have finance as their chief discriminator.
Whatever else we can say of Pastor, the sport’s warped finances – with many of the teams in “survival mode” as Martin Whitmarsh had it – absolutely cannot be laid at his door. And even if F1 was in the first flush of financial health teams would still find ways of making Pastor’s annual £28 million of free money come in handy. Pay drivers, and crashers for that matter, are nothing new in this game. Moreover, while Pastor may be fortunate to have this backing equally you cannot blame him for using it. We all would if given the same opportunity. Don’t hate the player hate the game, as the saying goes.
I wonder too if part of the trouble is that given he’s spent the past two seasons in cars usually not capable of troubling the scorers, that even when he does as much as can reasonably be expected – brings it home for a P11 or P12 or whatever, which loosely speaking is what he’s spent most of the last two seasons doing – not many notice. The prangs meanwhile are by contrast guaranteed to get our attention. And given they chime with our predispositions we remember them too. It’s something the man himself suspects anyway, as he commented recently: “When Pastor crashes, it’s big news. When the other people crash, there is no news.”
It also is all perhaps compounded by that in his one season wherein he did have a car capable of regular points scoring, as mentioned in 2012, Maldonado was indeed wild, losing several weighty points hauls via his own mistakes. Perhaps this went a long way to firming up the view that many suspected of him already.
But since? Believe it or not there’s evidence that he’s gone some way to keeping a lid on his antics. The 2013 season was a case in point. The common narrative at that year’s conclusion was that his team mate Bottas whipped him and moreover plenty spoke like Pastor was awful – I recall more than one end of season drivers’ ranking that placed him in the bottom one or two drivers out of everyone. But this reflected a lazy assessment. As far as I could tell these ratings were based almost entirely on the qualifying match-up – which was 11 to 8 to the Finn – as well as on the goings-on of the solitary Austin weekend wherein he was taken to the cleaners by Bottas (Pastor tumbling out in Q1 while his team mate topped that session and later made the top ten on the grid and finished eighth in the race), and worse got out of his car after quali to at least heavily imply in front of a microphone that the Williams team was out to screw him.
But again dig further and matters look a little different. It was rather airbrushed from history that for much of the year it was Pastor who was the Grove team's habitual race day pace setter and that Austin aside it was a reasonable year of effort from him in a disappointing car. A stat that may be of surprise is that in the 2013 rounds where both finished Maldonado finished ahead of Bottas more often than not, by nine times to five – and we know how good Bottas is. And as mentioned that year Pastor only crashed out once, in the opening round in Australia.
Last year at Lotus was more of the same to a large extent, plugging away in a car that wasn’t really one in which to judge him. He even got on terms with Grosjean more and more as the year went on. His reputation in that time remained largely un-budged though, again in that the solid efforts went unnoticed while there were enough high-profile errors to cement his existing reputation. Not least in Bahrain with his ‘flipping’ of Esteban Gutierrez.
Yet even that wasn’t quite as straightforward as framed. The fault therein mainly was Pastor’s, who should have been more circumspect. But Pastor was right also that there was the mitigating circumstance that Gutierrez rather overshot the corner, making it appear he was giving him space, before cutting back on line rather sharply. Not that this got much of a hearing. I thought it odd too that so much of the opprobrium focussed on the outcome (a car flipping) rather than the actual driving error (which was much milder). There is a lot of random chance involved when two cars get together, after all. Indeed in the Bahrain weekend just passed Sebastian Vettel and Sergio Perez had a collision in practice that was not all that dissimilar, and at the same corner, and all that resulted was a damaged front wing for Seb. So no one said much.
And if it is indeed the case that the perceptions of him have hardly been helped by being in cars only good for drawing attention to him if something goes wrong, then this season in a far improved Lotus machine Pastor has a big opportunity. There will still likely be mistakes as outlined, which sadly for many will return his reputation direct to base camp, but so long as he the rest of the time keeps out of trouble, brings it home and presumably by extension gets healthy bags of points perhaps it’ll emolliate the worst parts of how he is viewed. Hopefully too his erratic 2012 season taken in combination with his adventures in the last two rounds aren’t indicative of Pastor being more likely to err on the days that he does stand the chance of a good result, like they’re a product of pressure. The future should offer more clues on that one.
Reputations are funny things though. Always have been. Even Shakespeare knew as much, as demonstrated by the exchange in Othello, when Cassio complains to Iago: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation, I have lost that immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial”, to which Iago replies: “Reputation is a most idle and false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving”. And both of them are right – as Cassio suggested reputations once established can be very hard to alter. And as Iago noted cynically, they’re not always entirely merited.
And, despite what some may insist is Pastor Maldonado’s reputation, it’s also the case that he’s improved. And that he’s not as bad as they say.