The announcement that Pastor Maldonado will race for Lotus in 2014 was not wholly unexpected but it was greeted with universal disdain from Formula 1 fans. Maldonado will move across from Williams and join the affable Romain Grosjean in black and gold as the sport enters a new era. Maldonado is not the hopeless driver that many suggest he is, but his new partnership with Lotus is symptomatic of the deep-rooted problems facing Formula 1 at the current time. That Lotus – the fourth best team in 2013 and one that was within touching distance of beating Mercedes and Ferrari – has had to employ a driver who scored a single championship point this year does not reflect well on the sport. The typically quirky Lotus social media team decided to announce the deal with a picture of Grosjean and Maldonado colliding in GP2 three years ago…
Maldonado has raw speed – albeit he was trumped by rookie Valtteri Bottas this season – and at times he has aptly demonstrated his ability in the sport. Having stormed to the GP2 title in 2010, he joined Williams when the team produced a mediocre car. But his drive in Monaco in 2011 was sublime, while his weekend in Spain in 2012 was sensational, even if he was aided by the penalty to Lewis Hamilton. On that day in May 2012, he held Fernando Alonso at bay for 66 laps and delivered Williams their first win in eight years. There were also other good races – his performances in Spain and Abu Dhabi were mature, as he dealt with the adversity that was thrown his way. At those moments, he delivered when it mattered. Lesser drivers would not have done so.
But for all of his high points, they are indeed contrasted with a tendency to get involved in trouble. He threw away a bagful of points through silly contact in 2012 – the prime example being his impatience in Valencia - while at times his approach to racing means he causes unnecessary problems for himself. It’s highly unlikely that Lotus will be able to change his attitude, for while he is a pleasant person outside of the car, his personality appears to alter inside the cockpit. When Grosjean made errors, he was a broken man and vowed to improve himself. He did. When Maldonado makes mistakes, he never accepts the blame and therefore does not see that a different approach would assist his cause. Perhaps Monaco is the best place to analyse Maldonado’s Jekyll and Hyde racing personality: in 2005, he seriously injured a marshal during an FR3.5 race, in GP2 he was phenomenal around the principality, winning twice, while in 2011 he put in his best drive of his rookie season. Then in 2012 he made a dubious move on Sergio Pérez in practice, crashed out of the session and then blundered into an accident at the start. Nevertheless, while trading Kimi Räikkönen for Maldonado is far from the deal of the century, occasionally in 2014 – given the right equipment – the Venezuelan will pleasantly surprise his detractors. He is not a world champion in waiting, but he is a race winner and an infinitely better driver than some that have participated in the sport.
The bigger issue in hand is the money. There have been doubts about Lotus’s financial state for a few years but the signing of Maldonado is proof that not only was there not enough money to retain Räikkönen, but there was not enough to sign Nico Hülkenberg, arguably the driver that Lotus would have wanted. Effectively, Maldonado is therefore an enforced third choice. Some blame has to lie with Lotus’s marketing department, who have evidently not been as successful as hoped, despite having employed a popular world champion for the past two years. The Quantum deal is still being negotiated, so for Lotus’s sake one can only hope that there is a positive outcome for all involved. But Maldonado’s move to Lotus highlights the perilous financial state of several teams on the grid. Costs are rising unsustainably but the sport cannot get together as a unit and begin to address the issues at hand due to conflicting motives. Rumours persist that a few teams are considering mergers – Caterham and Marussia held discussions about doing so last winter – while midfield outfits such as Sauber and Force India are waiting for whichever two drivers can stump up the most cash. It’s frustrating for fans to see talented drivers miss out on top seats, but survival of the teams is the priority – hundreds of people and their families are reliant on salaries that need paying. Painting Lotus team principal Eric Boullier as the antichrist is misguided. But what this should be is another wake-up call to the sport that the current financial model as a whole is unsustainable. Formula 1 is dreaming up mandatory stops and fixed car numbers for drivers during a period of ongoing global financial problems, while the suits continue to exploit a sport that they do not understand. It is naturally a money-driven business, but until the method of short-term profit is abandoned, then the current situation will only be exacerbated.
Financial difficulties in motorsport are not a new phenomenon but the development of the sport is such that the spending has rocketed uncontrollably. The major impact for the fans is that the likes of Hülkenberg miss out on a competitive seat, while others such as Robin Frijns can’t even get a shot in Formula 1. The show will roll on, but it could be much better. When the majority are merely thankful that the fourth best team can survive for another season, only those with blinkers can ignore the negatives. Sadly for fans, blinkers are popular in Formula 1.