Amid the frequent accusations of his hapless approach and borderline dangerous driving there was always an unpolished gem inside of Pastor Maldonado, whose genial attitude contradicted his erratic style, and whose substantial nationalistic sponsorship package acted as an albatross around his neck.
Throughout his junior career Maldonado was fast, but at a price, and it remained the case when he graduated to Formula 1 in 2011, off the back of winning the GP2 title with the often unheralded Rapax outfit.
Maldonado spent years in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2 and gained a reputation for his propensity to encounter trouble, though still had the speed and application to string together a championship triumph, the core of which was six straight Feature Race wins. For all of his faults, Maldonado was able to win Formula 1’s feeder series and thus the tag of ‘pay driver’ came as a misnomer. Yes, Maldonado’s arrival came with heavy backing from Venezuelan oil giants PDVSA, and it was gratefully received by Williams, which ousted Nico Hülkenberg (who ironically had been a GP2 rookie when he outclassed ART team-mate Maldonado in 2009 to win the title), but he had taken victories and a title which several maligned predecessors could only dream of (just consider some of the 1990s racers for a moment).
Williams had been a solid midfield contender in 2010 but its 2011 machine was weak, leaving Maldonado and team-mate Rubens Barrichello languishing towards the back of the pack. Maldonado shone in Monaco, on course for sixth until Lewis Hamilton punted him off, and collected a point in Belgium. Elsewhere, though, there were some silly offs and a dubious moment during qualifying in Belgium where he appeared to drive towards Hamilton.
Maldonado stayed at Williams for 2012 alongside Bruno Senna and Pirelli’s unpredictable tyres meant the capable FW34 was a sporadically rapid machine. In Spain all the stars aligned in perfect fashion; Maldonado qualified second but was promoted to pole position due to Hamilton’s exclusion. Few anticipated the Venezuelan would retain his advantage yet he resisted pressure from Fernando Alonso while Williams mastered the strategy to out-fox Ferrari and re-gain the lead later in the race. Maldonado crossed the line in first place, securing one of the most surprising victories in Formula 1 history. It proved what Maldonado could do in exactly the right circumstances, while his heroic performance was heightened further when he later carried his cousin Manuel from the burning Williams garage.
And yet, two weeks later, his performance in Monaco revealed the frustrations surrounding Maldonado; his unique ability to provide a polar opposite showing. Few other drivers have been capable of the sublime and the ridiculous within such a short parameter.
Maldonado appeared to swerve towards Sergio Pérez during practice, making light contact with the Sauber and copping a 10-place drop from the stewards, scuppering his weekend in one hot-headed moment of madness. He crashed out of the session moments later and ultimately wound up 24th on the grid after a gearbox change. Maldonado’s race lasted only a handful of corners as he stumbled into Pedro de La Rosa’s HRT at Sainte Devote before parking his car at Loews hairpin.
Inconsistency defined the remainder of his year; stunning pace in Singapore and Abu Dhabi (in which his performance was as impressive as in Spain) fell to waste due to mechanical woes, while potentially strong results in Valencia and Belgium went begging after stupid mistakes.
Despite his victory Maldonado was only 15th in the standings while Williams regressed in 2013 and Maldonado departed in favour of Lotus. In what some perceived as a dose of karma, the outfits encountered a reversal in fortunes and he scored points only in Austin. Lotus moved forwards in 2015 into the midfield but Maldonado squandered his best chance when he ran wide in Belgium, causing the E23 Hybrid to shut down. Maldonado finished the year a career-high 14th in the standings but was comprehensively outclassed by Romain Grosjean. Maldonado made fewer mistakes across the course of the season and was largely more restrained, but it appeared to come at a cost as his pace remained largely absent.
Five years in Formula 1 was sufficient enough for Maldonado to make his mark on the history books and while he will ostensibly be remembered for his lurch towards the ridiculous, there were some sublime performances outside of his victory and few people in history can stake claim to being a Grand Prix winner. Ultimately, in surviving in the sport courtesy of substantial finance, Maldonado was unseated when the money ran out. Yet his statement confirming his exit from the sport demonstrated dignity in the face of crushing adversity, and such an approach is as commendable as his abilities as a sportsman.