Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Maldonado Enigma

Quick question. Which driver holds the record for the most consecutive feature race wins in GP2? Lewis Hamilton? No? Perhaps it's Nico Rosberg? Or Timo Glock? Or even last year's champion Nico Hulkenberg? No, it's not any of those drivers, it's the Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, who, in his fourth full season in the category, last weekend took his winning run to five at Hungary and who is now surely all but certain to be crowned the series' sixth champion, if not at Spa at the end of the month, then at Monza.

It just goes to show what a mug's game assessing the potential of drivers in the junior formulae can be. To recap, the Venezuelan driver has been competing in GP2 or Renault World Series since 2005. He had an early reputation as something of a mercurial wild-child, not helped by the three race ban he picked up for ignoring yellow flags and seriously injuring a marshal at Monaco a few years ago. But for a disqualification for a technical irregularity at Misano, he would have won the 2006 Renault World Series (eventually instead won by Alx Danielsson, of whom nothing has since been heard). Next came GP2. Flashes of pace for unfancied Trident Racing in 2007, including a dominant win at Monaco, scene of his earlier disgrace, suggested he was one to watch, and in the latter part of 2008, driving for Piquet Sports, he looked as quick as anyone.

Pastor Maldonado

Then it all went wrong. At the end of last year, Maldonado looked washed up, yesterday's news. After signing for manager Nicolas Todt's ART team for 2009, he went into the season as one of the favourites for the title. As it would turn out, he failed to win a feature race all season, and finished up a distant sixth in the title race, while his freshman team mate Nico Hulkenberg took five wins on his way to wrapping up the championship. It was the kind of let down which would have done for the career of many a young driver.

Maldonado, though, has the backing of Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA, who appear to be determined to get a Venezuelan driver into Formula 1, and who have continued to put up funding for Maldonado to race (though to be fair, I don't know the ins and outs of this deal: whether it is primarily about getting a Venezuelan into F1, or whether it is nepotism of the kind that enables Milka Duno to waste everyone's time in Indycars. The key difference being that Maldonado belongs in a high performance single seater, where Duno really, really doesn't...) And for whatever reason (perhaps because with Ernesto Viso looking a bit old now and Johnny Cecotto Jr and Rodolfo Gonzalez not yet having shown any sign of being really special there's nowhere else for PDVSA to go) the oil company produced the cash to enable him to come back this year for a fourth run at GP2, not with ART, but with the new Rapax team which has emerged from the ashes of Minardi Piquet Sports.

I have to admit I was sceptical as to his chances. If he couldn't win races with ART, there seemed no reason to assume that he was going to start doing so, driving for a team which last year, with Alberto Valerio and Roldan Rodriguez, had done little more than make up the numbers.

Except, of course, that's not the way its worked out. Not only has Maldonado won the last five feature races in a row (albeit relying a little on luck for that last victory at Hungary, where both the cars on the front row failed to take the start) but he came really very close to winning at Monaco as well. Which would have made it six wins out of seven. All of a sudden, a driver whose career looked to be all but over at the end of last year is being talked about as a possible replacement for Pedro De La Rosa at Sauber next season (his passage no doubt eased by the bags of money the Venezuelan state oil company could bring to the party).

So how to explain it? It might be tempting to read Maldonado's dominance this season as an indictment of the overall quality of the GP2 field this year, in comparison with previous seasons. I'm not convinced by this though. If anything, the pedigree of this year's front-runners looks rather more substantial than it has done for some time. ART has F3 Euroseries champion Jules Bianchi, Racing Engineering have got his closest rival last year Christian Vietoris. There's GP2 Asia series champion Davide Valsecchi at ISport, and a number of frontrunners from last year's Renault World Series, including Charles Pic and Oliver Turvey.

My hunch is that what Maldonado's performances this year illustrate is that much overlooked but all too vital matter of a driver's psychological state, his confidence. In other sports, it is recognised that people can go through peaks and troughs, that success breeds success and that a player can simply lose their nerve after a run of bad results. Look, for instance, at the records of many a top tennis player. In motorsport lore, though, it seems all too many people believe that a driver simply has a fixed level of 'innate talent' and any remaining variation in their performance is entirely down to the equipment at the driver's disposal. Some concession might be made to the idea that drivers might get faster as they gain more experience, or slow down as they age, but the idea that drivers' form can rise and fall independently of this has never gained much traction.

Which is a mistake, I think, because really it appears to be the only explanation there is for the remarkable turn-around in Maldonado's form. I can only guess that perhaps he didn't click with his previous race engineer, and maybe Nico Hulkenberg's pace caught Maldonado by surprise, caused him to start over-driving, or to lose his nerve, and fail to perform to the level he was capable of. Because the driver scrabbling around for the minor points in a title winning car last year simply doesn't look to be the same man who has won five feature races with a car which his team mate Luiz Razia has been able to do no more with than pick up a couple of reverse grid sprint race podiums. The really intriguing question, though, is whether, if he does get his Grand Prix chance with Sauber next year, it will be the Pastor Maldonado of 2010 who has dominated the series in the manner of Hamilton or Hulkenberg, or the confused, under-performing Maldonado of 2009, who appears on the F1 grid.

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Anonymous Jhonny Farber said...

Excellent post.

The Maldonado enigma is explained by him reaching maturity and learning to pick his battles.

This guy has always had raw speed. He was very disappointed to not getting the HRT seat. It was better this way.

It is very clear how on Sundays he doesn't seem as desperate as he was in the last two years to pass other in risky maneuvers.

He has learn to pick his battles more wisely, thus remain in the points all the time.

He also seems to be more involved in the car's setup, forging relationships with his engineers, etc.

He has learn that races are won not only on track, but it take preparation off-track to have good results.

Now, Speed TV in the US have been insisting that Maldonado is too old and might go the way of Giorgio Pantano. That's ridiculous. Maldonado is 4 years younger and a faster driver overall.

He will do well in F1.

4:37 PM  
OpenID racingburger said...

Hi Jhonny,

Excellente post about Maldonado's 2010 season, i'm a motorsport journalist and this season i'm broadcasting GP2 Series season for Venezuela.
Let's see what happens also in Sauber Petronas with Sergio Perez and Telmex, they have a lot of money also to put in there and can block Maldonado's move!

check mi page is in spanish but i summarized his 2010 season

7:37 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

I think the Pantano comparisons are a little unfair. What people seem to forget is that, not only had Pantano spent the best part of a decade in the junior formulae before he won the GP2 title, but he'd already had a full(ish) season in F1 with Jordan back in 2004. Where he looked very ordinary.

I reckon Maldonado had a lucky escape in *not* getting the HRT seat this year. A GP2 title will do far more for his future prospects than a year spent tooling around at the back of the F1 grid in Dallara's awful GP car.

2:29 AM  

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