Monday, 14 May 2012

Just a few words on Pastor...

I started supporting Pastor Maldonado in 2007, when he first entered GP2. It was partly because he was great fun to watch on the track - flashes of pure brilliance mixed with moments of over-enthusiastic, haven't-got-the-hang-of-this-yet idiocy. You knew that he could do it, if only he could keep his head together.

...I must be perfectly honest with you though - my love for him was mostly created out of the fact that when James Allen (the UK's GP2 commentator that year) said his name, he said it like 'Pasta Maldonado' as if he was some sort of spaghetti dish. It made me and my dad giggle and gleefully shout 'PASTA MALDONADO!!' at the TV screen every time. (We're pretty simple.)

But during that 2007 season, it really was the joy (and pain) of watching him drive that made me a firm supporter. I get bored of silly names pretty quickly if there's no sparkle there to back it up. Pastor had sparkle - as I said, in between him mistiming overtaking manoeuvres because he was too excited to wait until the right opportunity, there were the times when his talent really truly shone through and you'd go 'Wow' out loud. And that was what made me take notice outside of the spaghetti jokes.

I kept an eye on him through 2008 and 09, too. To varying degrees depending on how much GP2 coverage I could get. (I remember one season I had to watch it on justin.tv, streaming from a Spanish (?) TV channel and I couldn't understand a word other than the driver names. Great fun.). And then 2010 hit, and Pastor had grown up. He won 6 feature races in a row, and I was there at 2 of them. (I wrote a blog about Spa. But Silverstone was my favourite one. That day at Silverstone was special. It was perfect. The sun was shining, Pastor dominated the race, and then we ran into him in the GP2 paddock afterwards and he was an absolute gentleman and giggled at me sweetly as my friends told him what a big geeky fan of his I was.) We had some tough times in 2010 too, it wasn't all plain-sailing, but he put in some sterling drives and deserved that championship.

And then, as GP2 Champion (of the world), he got the Williams drive for 2011. And suddenly everyone who hadn't given a damn about him beforehand suddenly couldn't wait to judge him and slag him off. With a mountain of bolivares (the Venezuelan currency!) behind him, he got the 'pay driver' tag. He also had an appalling car, and a lot of people couldn't/didn't see past that. I'm not saying he was perfect, but he didn't screw up very often (and I've already blogged about when he did) and he performed a lot better than his "worst record for a Williams driver ever" label made it seem. He matched or out-drove his team mate Rubens with great regularity. So I was happy.

When 2012 hit, it hit hard. He was stupendous at the first race in Australia... until the last lap where he ended up in the wall. I don't think he was driving stupidly, he was pushing but I don't think it was ridiculously hard. It just happened. And it broke my heart a little bit. And then in the second race, his car broke down - on the last lap!! He'd been in the points both times, so it was gutting to see those precious points slip away twice. China: he got some points (phew!). Bahrain: a puncture spun him round and ended his race. Ouch. So much promise so far, with very little show from it. But with a good little car under him, surely it was only a matter of time.

Roll on Spain 2012. I have no idea how it happened, to be honest. He was nowhere in FP1 and 2, but Saturday came and he lit up. Only Vettel scraped ahead of him in FP3. He smashed Q2 and, with admittedly a bit of (pointless?) tyre-saving going on in Q3, only Hamilton had an answer for him in qualifying. But the fuelling mishap meant that his answer didn't count, and so Pastor started on pole position. A few hours before quali I'd cheekily tweeted 'Pastor for pole!' - I didn't think he'd take me seriously!

His charmed weekend continued on Sunday. He didn't put a foot (or wheel) wrong. Those sparks of brilliance I've seen since back in 2007 came to the fore. I enjoyed his start - it was hugely aggressive, pushing Alonso right over, but he left exactly enough room for one car so it wasn't a dirty move. (Alonso mentioned this himself in a post-race interview, I like to think it was acknowledged with a little bit of respect). Still, Alonso got by, but that was OK. I could deal with that. Maldonado v Alonso, everyone knows who everyone expects to win that battle.

Of course, sometimes in life: everyone is wrong. When Williams' tactical genius combined with Pastor's not-even-I-expected-this blistering pace, and Pastor took the lead, I was as stunned as anyone. I watched the rest of the race in denial, convinced that Alonso or Kimi would win, because I couldn't let myself think that it could be Pastor. The gap went from 7 seconds to 0.6 seconds, but there was nothing Alonso could do. And with a few laps to go, Pastor started pulling the gap out again by 2 tenths per sector. It was incredible. He just soaked up all the pressure and drove his heart out.

My friends Chris and Kate plied me with tea to keep me alive while I watched the laps oh-so-slowly creep by. It was like the race went on for years. I spent the entire race hugging my Williams/Pastor cap for good luck. And then the last 5 laps hiding my face behind a cushion because I could hardly bear to watch anymore. 

But he did it. He crossed the line 3 whole seconds before anyone else. He shared the podium with two F1 World Champions who simply hadn't been able to take the win away from him today. Maybe things would have been a little different if Lewis had started from pole, but not by much. Pastor wasn't just gifted this win. He earned every inch of it. And he's made a lot of people start to see what I saw under the surface all those years ago. And I couldn't possibly be more proud.

Image from http://maxwellreyes.com
And let's not forget that Monaco's up next, and Monaco is his favourite circuit............!

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