For the past few weeks the word inside the F1 paddock has been that a deal for Pastor Maldonado to race for Williams F1 next year is done. There is an assumption that this would be at the expense of Nico Hulkenberg, who is in his first season in F1.
Williams currently refuse to confirm or deny this, however they did announce this week that Maldonado will take part in the Young Driver test for Williams at Abu Dhabi next month. At 25 he is not exactly a young driver by today’s standards, but he qualifies in terms of his level of F1 experience.
Although he is understood to have access to a strong sponsor portfolio, possibly as much as €10 million a season, the team will be able to argue that it is not trading down to pay drivers, as the Venezualan Maldonado won this year’s GP2 series, as did Hulkenberg last year. However this year’s GP2 was particularly disappointing talent wise compared to previous years. The other driver to come through from GP2 this year is 20 year old Sergio Perez, who was runner up to Maldonado in the championship.
Maldonado has backing from his country, Venezuela, with state owned oil company PDVSA a long term backer. This year he also ran Venezuela branding on his car as well. Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil exporting nation and the country’s colourful president Hugo Chavez is backing Maldonado.
Adam Parr, who took over as team principal and chairman of Williams in July from Sir Frank Williams, was understood to be in Venezuela recently finalising the deal. Williams will presumably give Maldonado the Young Driver test and then if he is to race next season, they will need him to take part in the Pirelli test which follows in Abu Dhabi. Whether they make an announcement about the driver line up before or after that test remains to be seen. Maldonado is due to compete in the final round of the GP2 championship during the Grand Prix weekend.
In the first nine races Hulkenberg scored just one point to Barrichello’s 19. He has scored 17 points in the eight races since then, as the improving Williams car has become a regular in the top ten in qualifying.
But looked at more closely, in the second half of the season he has been quick and has often outpaced Barrichello in races, even if he hasn’t always been able to outqualify him. Barrichello has often shaded it by a tenth or less. We’ve seen Hulkenberg develop quite impressively as a driver, but has he done enough to resist the appeal to the team of replacing him with Maldonado?
Williams had some kind words for Hulkenberg’s development, “But lately he has become very competitive and we have just seen the beginning of something exceptional.
“He’s one of those drivers a bit like Lewis, who won all the way up to Formula 3 and GP2, he has won every single championship and in the right team, hopefully us one day, he will win the world championship as well in Formula 1.”
Asked by the BBC interviewer “Do you look forward to seeing him next year?” Williams replies, “Absolutely, we do hope so, yes.”
The kind words may be aimed at Barrichello’s ears as part of a negotiating ploy. There are some factions within the team who feel he could be doing more, although he has had a pretty good season and Williams has been strong on development.
Williams is in a strong position, having a top ten car to offer and the option of Hulkenberg. The reality is that although Barrichello is the more highly paid driver, believed to be earning in the region of €5 million a year, he has scored 47 points to Hulkenberg’s 18. Williams will have an idea of what Hulkenberg could achieve next season and could safely go with Hulkenberg and Maldonado, a line up that would be similar in experience to Sauber’s next season. The pair were tea mates together in GP2 in 2009, when Hulkenberg had the upper hand. But Barrichello brings a great deal to the team not just in results but in technical development and having a winning driver in the team maintains prestige. So it looks like it may be Hulkenberg who makes way.
He will no doubt be in demand and his manager, Willi Weber, should be able to find him a decent seat.