Way back in the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of racing there were what we nowadays call ‘gentleman drivers.’ They may not have had the skill to earn a spot in a big team, but they did have plenty of cash. If they didn’t or couldn’t land a ride with a big team then they could always ‘pay to play.’ Some ‘gentleman drivers’, like four-time Le Mans-winner Olivier Gendebien, had talent to spare in addition to plenty of money. They often landed at least occasional drives for factory teams like Ferrari and at high-level events including major sportscar races and Grands Prix. Others were a liability to other drivers and themselves. They had more money than Croesus and less skill than your average daily driver. They were a menace. ‘Gentleman driver’ increasingly became a euphemism for ‘mobile chicane with deep pockets.’
As F1 in particular became more specialised, more professional and ultra-competitive the ‘gentleman drivers’ were increasingly replaced by full-timers. The new breed didn’t race for the sheer joy of competition and the thrill of going wheel-to-wheel. They were there for the race wins, titles, money and fame. Racing had been taken over by the pro’s and there was increasingly less room for happy amateurs. A driver could still buy their way in if they brought enough sponsorship money with them and could deliver passable results but, as F1 evolved into a business instead of a sport, a prospective driver’s funding could often secure them a ride, rather than how well they actually raced. The age of the ‘pay driver’ who bought their way into a big team, rather than earned their place on pure talent, was born.
Meet Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado. It would be inaccurate and unfair to say that he’s entirely devoid of driving ability. In lower series’ than F1 he won quite a few races and showed considerable promise. He’s also acquired a reputation for questionable driving, poor results, seldom (if ever) taking responsibility when things go wrong, blaming everybody whose name isn’t Pastor Maldonado when things do go wrong and has become a very familiar face at the offices of stewards and Clerks of the Course all over the world. But, in the absence of many worthwhile results to bring to an F1 team, he does bring the immense financial backing of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, PDVSA. I suspect his current appearance in F1 owes a great deal more to his money than his results or people skills as he seems somewhat lacking in both.
His list of disciplinary penalties is considerable, dating back to well before he appeared in F1. During the 2005 World Series by Renault Maldonado acquired a four-race ban for dangerous driving at Monaco after he ignored warning flags, failed to slow down at the scene of a shunt and seriously injured a track marshal. In the 2008 GP2 series at Silverstone he stalled the car on the dummy grid, got a penalty for speeding in the pitlane when joining the race, picked up another penalty for overtaking while the race was under yellow flags and then crashed into two other drivers on the final lap.
In F1, which he joined in 2010, his record has been even worse. In 2011 he picked up a drive-through penalty in Hungary (pitlane speeding again), a five-place grid penalty while qualifying for the Belgian GP and in Abu Dhabi he acquired a ten-place grid penalty for using an extra engine. During the actual race he served a drive-through penalty AND a 30-second time penalty, both for ignoring blue flags.
In 2012 he got a ten-place grid penalty for causing an unnecessary shunt with Sergio Perez during practice at Monaco. He retired from the race itself after shunting Pedro de la Rosa into retirement. In Canada he crashed in qualifying and had to replace his gearbox. Result: a five-place grid penalty. At the European GP he indulged in some banger racing with Lewis Hamilton going through Turns 12 and 13, causing Hamilton’s retirement. According to Maldonado this was all Hamilton’s fault. The stewards thought otherwise, handing Maldonado a 20-second time penalty. In the British GP Maldonado had a shunt with Sergio Perez, causing Perez’s retirement. Perez described Maldonado as dangerous and called for the race stewards to take firm action. They did, handing Maldonado a reprimand and a 10,000 Euro fine to reflect how serious they took the matter. According to Maldonado it was simply a racing incident. Maldonado picked up another drive-through penalty in Hungary, for another avoidable collision (this time with Paul di Resta). At the Belgian GP he got three penalties. One three-place grid penalty for impeding Nico Hulkenburgh in qualifying and two five-place grid penalties for the next race at Monza after jumping the start in Belgium and causing a collision with Marussia driver Timo Glock. In Brazil he picked up another ten-place penalty for missing a weighbridge check after his third reprimand. His penalties for the 2012 season totalled a loss of 38 grid places, 1.8 places per race.
Maldonado started the 2013 season by openly criticising the new Williams FW35, claiming that it was a step backwards even from the 2011 car. And then at Monaco (not his luckiest track) he collided with Matt Chilton which brought out the red flag. He admitted that he’d pretty much given up on the 2013 season (making him either a pragmatist or a quitter, take your pick) before publicly accusing the Williams team of sabotaging his car to explain his poor showing at the US GP in Austin, Texas, a claim he’s since barely managed to tone down.
He doesn’t belong in F1. He doesn’t seem to have the driving skill or the cool head needed to even race an F1 car, never mind perform well in one. Maldonado doesn’t drive in F1 because he possesses great talent, maturity, cool judgment or for his sparkling personality. He’s there because he brings huge sponsorship money with him. And that’s about the only reason he’s there at all.