What a wonderful race. I do not have time to write much now, as I am changing jobs, but five races with five different GP winners for the first time since 1983, and a remarkable turnaround by Williams F1, which suffered its worst season ever in 2011. This is the closest Formula One season in memory!
Pastor Maldonado won the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday and then, 90 minutes later, carried his 12-year-old cousin to safety from the fire that engulfed the Williams garage. Manuel Maldonado was wearing a cast to protect his injured ankle. The fire brought an abrupt end to the celebrations to mark the team’s first victory since 2004, 132 races ago, as well as Maldonado’s maiden victory. Nine team members were injured, four from Williams, one of whom was airlifted to hospital, four from Caterham and one from Force India.
The area was full, not only with Williams staff but members of the majority of the 12 teams in Formula One. The team principal, Sir Frank Williams, a paraplegic, who is one of the sport’s best known and most cherished figures, was wheeled to safety.
It was in the motorhome beside the garage that Williams, 70 last month, was the unwitting host of a surprise birthday party. Even after the fire had been put out, by mechanics and other team personnel, a cloud of acrid smoke hung over the paddock and those who approached the area were forced into a choking retreat. The reserve driver Valtteri Bottas said: “I was there when Frank was giving his speech to everyone. I felt an explosion from behind, somewhere from the fuel area, and everyone ran out quickly.”
It was a sombre conclusion to an ecstatic party after the Venezuelan Maldonado, a 300-1 outsider at the start of the weekend, won his first grand prix at the 24th attempt.
Promoted to pole following Lewis Hamilton’s banishment, he had driven an exemplary race and led, virtually, from start to finish, and got the better of a protracted strategic battle with Fernando Alonso, one of the best chasers in Formula One.
When Williams – speaking before the fire – was asked when he felt confident he had won the race he said: “Ten laps from the end when Ferdy backed off. I thought “there is no charity in that one.” Alonso said that he had lost something aerodynamically.
The 27-year-old Maldonado, in only his second season, has been described as a “pay driver” who was not worth his drive. But Williams added: “He’s kicked that one well into touch. I am delighted. We have a very well balanced team and car, the aero team have excelled and delivered a car that is pretty competitive. The Renault engine is very competitive. The car has possibilities and our rate of development clearly has to exceed the rate of development of other teams.”
Last season, when they won just five points, was the worst in the history of the team. But that team has been rebuilt under Williams and now, after just five races, they have 43 points.
Along with fellow “midfielders” Lotus and Sauber they are giving the so called Big Four a run for their big money. Maldonado said afterwards: “It was so close. We were looking to manage the tyre degradation so I couldn’t push that hard, just to keep the tyres alive for the end of the race and Fernando got very close. There were some moments where he was so close especially at end of the straight, but I was managing the gap and controlling everything.
“Our pace today was very strong, the car was fantastic, so was the team. We did a small mistake at the last pitstop but it did not affect our performance. I think it’s a wonderful day, unbelievable for me and all the team. We have been pushing so hard since last year to improve race by race and here we are.”
Maldonado did not look likely to make a sustained challenge when he was overtaken by Alonso on the very first corner of the first lap. But the key moment in the race came when he undercut Alonso, pitting first while the Spaniard, arguably, stayed out too long.
The Lotuses of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean were third and fourth, ahead of the charging Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi. But despite a brilliant drive from Lewis Hamilton it was another disappointing day for McLaren; Hamilton was eighth and Jenson Button ninth.
Button said afterwards: “Frank’s has kept at it even though it has been very dry for them over the last few years. They have not lifted a trophy for a very long time.
“It’s great that he has the strength to keep on pushing. I raced with them 13 years ago and had a good time and it is great to see they are still dedicated to compete.
“They might not have the funds of a lot of the other teams but they are still achieving and have proved their dedication, so congratulations to the team and to Frank.”
When the dust – and the smoke – had settled, we were left to reflect on a remarkable start to the 2012 season. The season is only a quarter over but the first five races have brought five different winners.
If there is a sixth in Monaco in two weeks it will be the first time it has ever happened. It is something that Hamilton will be thinking about as he prepares for the race in his home town.
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