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Pastor’s predicament

There was plenty of glee around after Pastor Maldonado’s struggles in the Lotus in Melbourne. But he’s not the first to face such a situation. And things may yet turn in his favour.
Sunday, March 23, 2014

March 23rd, 2014 (F1plus/Graham Keilloh).- Pastor Maldonado is not the sport’s most ready recipient of popularity awards. And for a few reasons that we all know about.

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Therefore, while there wasn’t much glee around at the Lotus team’s struggles in Melbourne, there was some. Well, some related to a particularly individual. That self-same Maldonado was aboard one of the E22s. And even better as far as such schadenfreude exhibitors were concerned he was so thanks to his forcible exit from the Williams team late last year, and the latest Grove machine by contrast looks something special: perhaps the second quickest out there currently.

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This outcome was on the basis of pre-season testing one that we saw coming. There was therefore sniggering behind palms when Maldonado insisted then that his Lotus switch remained justifiable in his eyes; more after the Melbourne round when he claimed that the E22 would be a podium contender ‘very soon’.

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But perhaps – and despite the instincts of many of us – we shouldn’t be too scathing of him on this one.

Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and when the Lotus deal was done it made a lot of sense for Pastor.

Yes, we did know that at Williams – with a Mercedes power unit in the back and plenty of new technical staff – there was potential at least to improve (but before cars first turned a wheel in Jerez in January it remained that: potential), and the Lotus financial woes and haemorrhaging of staff we’ve known about for a while. But prior to testing almost no one foresaw the sheer extent of the turnaround.

And if it’s any sort of consolation to Pastor F1’s past is rather littered with moves that appeared astute at the time they were inked only for them later to look ridiculous. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is so either, given that about the only constant of the sport’s history is that things don’t stay the same for long.

Strangely too, a lot of F1’s equivalent of the guy from Decca Records who turned down The Beatles stories seem to involve turning down Williams…

It may be striking to the modern ear to hear that in the first part of the 1980s it was Derek Warwick, not Nigel Mansell, who was the more widely-considered to be F1’s latest British hope.

And with a strong record in the junior formulae and an incremental rise up the F1 grid, for the 1984 season Warwick got his big break at the Renault squad. Although Renault’s ‘84 year was a slightly disappointing one all was far from lost for him as he impressed in his driving and was unlucky to miss out on a win or two.

Midway through that year, apparently on the cusp of regular success and with Renault keen to keep him, Warwick also got an offer from Frank Williams for the 1985 season. He takes up the story: ‘I debated long and hard at the British Grand Prix as to what I should do with furthering my career…Alan Henry, Nigel Roebuck, Maurice Hamilton (three F1 journalists), we sat along that table, and we discussed and looked at all the pros and cons’ said Warwick. And the decision they reached was unanimous: ‘we between us all agreed that we would be best to stay with a manufacturer (i.e. with Renault).’

It’s hard to argue with their logic: Regie (Renault’s sobriquet) at the time was an F1 powerhouse, and less than a year on from oh-so nearly winning the title with Alain Prost at the wheel.

Williams by contrast was enduring a year with the awful and agricultural FW09, the last aluminium Williams chassis, and a Honda engine with power delivery that resembled its being operated by an on-off switch. While then as now it was believed that having engines built in-house was a considerable advantage.

But against all odds it could hardly have been a worse path to take from this particular crossroads for Warwick: Renault in response to the rather tepid 1984 campaign shed many of its technical staff, but this supposed treatment only served to severely accelerate the patient’s conditions.

‘The 1985 car…was just impossible to drive’ said Warwick. ‘We went to Brazil at the beginning of ‘85 and it was three-and-a-half seconds slower than the ‘84 car’.

Much worse Renault, with the team in the doldrums and the company more generally in crisis at that point, as well as demonstrating the ability manufacturer boardrooms have always had to ditch a racing programme at a moment’s notice, pulled the plug at the end of the year.

While at almost the same moment, and perhaps just as unforeseen, Williams and Honda both got it right and then some. And the self-same Nigel Mansell – who got the drive after Warwick turned it down – was thus catapulted to the success that we all know about. Warwick meanwhile – and absurdly – never was to win a Grand Prix.

Not that Warwick looks back on his career choice for the 1985 year ruefully: ‘even now I think it was the right thing to do…with all of the facts at the time it was the right choice’.

Fast forward to 1990 and Jean Alesi was the sport’s hottest young property, having burst onto the scene with some spectacular drives in the Tyrrell.

For 1991 he could have gone pretty much wherever he wanted. Frank Williams was interested, correctly surmising that his FW13B was better than his two pilots of Thierry Boutsen and Riccardo Patrese tended to make it look. Indeed, word on the street had Alesi signing something with the team some months previously.

But while Alesi’s racing licence said France the blood that pumped through his veins was Italian (indeed, he had Sicilian parents): Alesi wanted to race for Ferrari. And as luck would have it the Scuderia had a vacancy, with Nigel Mansell having announced his intention to retire at the year’s end, and was keen for Alesi to fill it.

And again, even parking the emotional, the choice made sense on the rational level. Alain Prost as we know in 1990 in a Ferrari had been able to sustain a challenge of Ayrton Senna and McLaren for the drivers’ title for much of the season, the tilt only being halted by Suzuka and all that.

When Williams dithered and put Jean’s nose out of joint in so doing – the team having been courted by Senna and wanting that possibility exhausted before committing to Jean – Alesi’s mind was made up. He was off to Maranello.

But little was Alesi, or anyone else for that matter, to know that Ferrari was about to enter one of its periodic troughs, and probably its worst ever one; certainly its most extended.

Weighed down by frenzied infighting and shorn of direction it wasn’t to win another race until mid-1994 (the longest drought in its history); it wasn’t to be a habitual race-winner and championship challenger until much later even than that. By the time it was, Alesi had been forced to one side to make way for the haughty Michael Schumacher

And if only Alesi had been more patient with Frank. Senna as suspected was playing politics with his McLaren contract renewal and stayed where he was. While Williams with Adrian Newey recruited was to produce a series of some of the most devastating racing cars ever seen, taking the team to four drivers’ and five constructors’ titles by 1997.

Alesi meanwhile only got a solitary Grand Prix win from his career, a return which sold a man of his talent way short. And once again in the immediate term it was Nigel Mansell, having neatly overturned his retirement decision in order to return to his former employer, who cleaned up in his stead, his FW14B establishing dominance that was insulting.

In fairness to Pastor Maldonado too, for all that he’s invited ire with his conspicuous and clumsy untangling of himself from Williams last season, as Peter Windsor for one has noted the probability is that Pastor’s Venezuelan backers would have been reluctant to sign their latest cheques for year number four of same old same old, particularly for a team that was flat lining. So Pastor’s hand was likely forced.

But then again and as intimated, Pastor’s never been one to benefit from a reservoir of goodwill. Worse for him he was on a hiding to nothing in picking a fight with the popular Williams team.

And we should consider further that the long game has not yet even begun to play itself out on this one: Pastor’s Lotus move may yet have its numbers come in. After all, Team Enstone’s been down before, many have written the collective off previously – none have ever been proved right.

It has lost large numbers of key staff in the past – most notably around the 1996 mark when many followed Michael Schumacher to Ferrari, as well as in late 2009 post ‘Crashgate’ – but the team’s inimitable and unquenchable spirit has always lived on.

The squad’s having its troubles now – its efforts in Melbourne were cringe worthy – and is by its own admission a month behind in its preparations. But despite appearances the Melbourne weekend was encouraging for the team, in the relative sense anyway.

A car that had barely completed ten laps in a row in advance actually reached lap 43 of the race in Romain Grosjean’s hands and lap 29 in Maldonado’s (before each succumbing to almost inevitable technical gremlins). Technical Director Nick Chester continues to talk of the car’s ‘good potential’, while the innovative twin-tusk nose reportedly has given encouraging aero data.

And just as was the case with Red Bull (and still is, to an extent) once the chassis has got beyond the embryonic stage and the Renault power unit has its problems sorted the car could be one to reckon with. And matters could turn more quickly than anticipated.

Little in F1 stays the same for long as I said, and this may yet work out to Pastor’s benefit.

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