Maldonado gets presidential thumbs up after maiden victory in Spain

Pastor Maldonado celebrates his Spanish GP victory on the Barcelona podium

May 13 (Reuters) Pastor Maldonado started Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix with the expectation of a nation on his back and ended it as a winner, hoisted aloft on the shoulders of champions and covered in champagne.

Then, with his Williams team garage in flames and the pit lane filled with thick black smoke, he carried his 12-year-old cousin to safety.

Away from the heat, the first Venezuelan to triumph in Formula One could savour a first win for his success-starved Williams team in nearly eight years, and revel in the plaudits of a proud president.

“I said so: Our Pastor Maldonado won, making history. Bravo Pastor! Congratulations to you and all your fighting team! We shall overcome!,” tweeted a delighted Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez in Spanish.

The fire that gutted the team’s garage at the Circuit de Catalunya after they had posed for a pit lane victory photograph, was a bitter end to the day and sent nine team members to the medical centre.

With his young cousin Manuel picked up piggyback, the silver trophy dangling by his side, Maldonado made a safe exit.

As he did so, he shrugged off an unwanted reputation as a driver whose presence on the starting grid owed more to money – in the shape of millions of dollars from state oil company PDVSA – than real talent.

2012 Spanish Grand Prix - Sunday Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain Williams celebrate Pastor Maldonado 13th May 2012 World Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic ref: Digital Image CG8C5486While the letters PDVSA could now stand for Pastor Delivers Victories So Amazingly, those around him were not as surprised as the commentators.

“He did a great job, he’s a very happy boy, he deserves to be,” said team founder and principal Frank Williams after Maldonado had been showered in bubbly by Ferrari‘s Fernando Alonso and Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen.

Both champions lifted him aloft on the podium.

“He fully deserves to be in the team with or without the dosh (money). The truth is that if you haven’t got the dosh you can’t go Formula One racing,” said Williams.

“We’ve got a real racing driver as well. I am just astonished by the way he just controlled himself, he didn’t make a mistake at all.”

Maldonado had started from pole position after Lewis Hamilton was sent to the back of the grid because McLaren failed to put enough fuel in his car, and he grabbed his chance with both hands.

2012 Spanish Grand Prix - Sunday Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain Williams celebrate Pastor Maldonado 13th May 2012 World Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic ref: Digital Image CG8C5486In a cliffhanger of a race, with Ferrari’s Alonso taking the early lead and then Raikkonen joining the challenge for Lotus, Maldonado overcame.

“It’s my first podium and my first victory and you can imagine what I feel,” declared the ecstatic 26-year-old.

“When I saw that I was second in the first corner, I said ‘OK, the race is going to be long. We need to keep pushing, we need to prepare to change our strategy just to attack Ferrari and we did it.

“For sure everyone is so happy in my country. I’m very lucky to have a country behind me, pushing so hard, to see me here in Formula One and especially to be here, between these guys,” he added.

“I’m pretty happy for Venezuela, I’m happy for Williams as well. They did a wonderful job to give me a great car for this race. We are getting better and better, race after race.”

In Caracas, Venezuelans celebrated the victory by tooting car horns and driving round with banners saying ‘Maldonado, orgullo de Venezuela (Pride of Venezuela)”.

Race winner Pastor Maldonado (VEN) Williams celebrates on the podium. Formula One World Championship, Rd5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race Day, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday 13 May 2012.Maldonado had scored just four points in the four previous races, and five in his 23  grands prix. He lined up on the grid with few believing he could hold off those behind him for the next 66 laps.

The odds on the Venezuelan winning before Saturday’s qualifying were 300-1.

Yet Frank Williams, a team owner who has worked with some of the great champions, said he had felt strangely calm as he watched the race unfold.

“It’s the first race he’s led and led and led, and as the race goes on you come under more pressure to not think about the podium, not think about what your mother’s going to say, not think how much the prize money is going to be, don’t crash,” he told Reuters.

“Don’t make mistakes, brake a little bit earlier, look after it – that’s what you’ve got to do and that’s what he did.

“He was clear of traffic, he was in control, the car was going well and no mechanical worries, the balance was very good, the track seemed stable and other cars weren’t spinning on dust… I was less agitated or worried than I have been in many many other wins.”