Williams will have two South American drivers next season as it has been confirmed that the seat alongside Brazil’s Rubens Barrichello will be filled by Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado. He is the first driver from that country since Johnny Ceccotto, who did 18 Grands Prix in 1983 and ’84.
The news is no surprise, it has been rumoured for months and when Nico Hulkenberg was released last month it was only a matter of time before Williams announced the reigning GP2 champion as its new driver.
In this respect he follows a proud tradition of GP2 champions who have taken the step up, after Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Timo Glock and Hulkenberg. 25 year old Maldonado won six GP2 races this season, the most ever achieved in a season.
Frank Williams spoke of Maldonado’s “talent” in the press release today. But despite his success and undoubted speed, there will be voices suggesting that Maldonado has been hired more for his sponsor budget than for his talent. He has backing from the state owned Venezuelan oil company.
It’s up to Maldonado to prove next season that this isn’t the case. Williams will give him every chance. They have already started, giving him plenty of testing time in Abu Dhabi, in both the Williams and the HRT cars, so has over 2,000kms under his belt already. He will have the advantage of knowing the European circuits plus Bahrain, but the hard yards come in the early flyaways with zero testing allowed. This is where the rookies recently have found life difficult. Once back in Europe with some miles under their belts the good ones tend to come through as we saw this year with Hulkenberg and Kobayashi in particular.
Williams came good in the second half of the season, managing to overhaul Force India for sixth in the constructors’ championship and regularly qualifying both cars in the top ten. Barrichello told me in Abu Dhabi that he believes the team’s main problem has been driveability in the car from the outset of the new car stage and expressed confidence that next year’s car will be much improved in that area from the outset. His input has been very significant in that respect.
So Maldonado can hope to have a fast, driveable car, capable of getting him noticed. He will have a tremendous benchmark in Barrichello by which to measure himself. The Brazilian is still as quick as at any time in his career and very cunning.
It’s hard to second guess what kind of F1 driver Maldonado will make. Experienced paddock sages suspect that Maldonado could be a bit of a crasher in F1.
Time will tell.