It’s Saturday morning, mere hours from qualifying. In this season where, it seems, anyone can top the leaderboard and carve themselves into history, the stars in practice so far have been Romain Grosjean, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso. There is a name missing from this introduction so far, perhaps because he made a mistake yesterday on a greasy track, and perhaps because last time out was an aberration, and perhaps because normal service will resume today and tomorrow. But the man intent on proving them wrong – again – is Pastor Maldonado.
Imagine you’re debating Pastor Maldonado with a well-informed fan or F1 journalist. They begin by saying Barcelona 2012 will go down as a flash in the pan. Maldonado is a tuggy, they say, in-joke journalist baby-talk for slow. He crashes into people, and more often, things. He had his day in Barcelona, and fair play to him, he did a good job. Keeping Fernando Alonso behind him on home soil was neat, but it’ll be his finest hour, mark my words. If at this point you haven’t stopped arguing, they’ll bring out the big guns, in the form of two words. Pay. Driver. And if you dare point out that some of the best drivers in history have had some sort of financial assistance at some point in their careers, you may inadvertently open the can of worms that is Venezuelan politics, and then sanity may truly be left behind.
But you could defend him, and here’s how. Let’s agree to leave behind the relative merits and pitfalls of Latin American socialism, and concentrate on the matter at hand. Pastor has got better, dammit, simple as. He was not stellar when he came into the sport – incidents such as driving petulantly into (and in apparent retaliation at) Lewis Hamilton in Spa last year come to mind. After the last lap mistake in Australia this year, everything points to his having gradually eradicated the wildness from his driving, while retaining a very competent streak of speed.
What’s more, that victory in Spain was truly remarkable. Fernando Alonso, who is looking increasingly as if he is a candidate for the best driver ever in the history of the world, acknowledged that he could not beat a Williams that day. The Williams has improved, no doubt, but a race-winning car? The scale of the achievement is actually staggering, when you think about it, and in no small part that is due to the driver.
Which is something that recommends him today and tomorrow in the tortuous streets of the Principality. Monaco is a circuit where, on pure pace, the driver can make a real difference. And do not forget his GP2 achievements here, nor his first outing last season. He was doing a fine job in an unwieldy bitch of a car, until sordid 2011-spec Lewis Hamilton drove into him.
Pastor can win this race, and can win more races this topsy-turvy year, as his confidence blooms. One of the awkward pleasures of this job is seeing one’s written opinions disproved, as they so often are. As Murray Walker once admitted, F1 commentators don’t make mistakes, but rather predictions that are immediately proven erroneous. Or something like that. The point is, whatever has been said of Maldonado in the past, none of that is true now. We are dealing with a different fish – one that has earned his stripes in the F1 pond and is quite a lot bigger than he used to be.
And one that seems quite at home in the Monaco harbour waters.