In a move that was widely anticipated, the Williams team has announced Venezuelan GP2 driver Pastor Maldonado as Nico Hulkenberg’s replacement. While the Hulk had been touted by Williams as the most promising rookie since Lewis Hamilton, they dismissed him after his first season.
It’s understood, of course, that the move had little to do with Hulkenberg’s performance. His rookie season wasn’t exactly brilliant, but it was certainly creditable. The Hulk’s primary problem was money. He had no intention of being a pay-to-play driver. Like other talented young drivers before him, he (and manager Willi Weber) fully expected to be paid for his efforts.
And there’s the rub. When Williams was a benchmark team, back in their glory days of the early 1990’s, the great Ayrton Senna actually offered to driver for the team for free. It might have happened in 1993, but for the fact that Williams had hired Alain Prost for that season, and Prost made it clear that he had no intention of sharing a garage with his former McLaren team mate again. Their intra-team battles at McLaren, of course, are the stuff of legend, and make the Hamilton-Alonso rift at the Woking squad look like sandbox squabbles by comparison.
But Williams has come a long way since then. True, it’s said that Pastor Maldonado brings perhaps $15 million in state oil money to the team, but the pay-to-play option is only employed by teams firmly entrenched in the mid-field zone. And no one can deny the Williams is definitely in the middle of the pack these days.
Of course, it could end up being a win-win scenario of Williams. Maldonado might end up being a brilliant performer, and one who pays his own way, in spades. Next season will be an indicator of what his future holds. In the meantime, veteran Rubens Barrichello will stay on as the team’s benchmark. Rubinho is apparently on a year-to-year contract with the Grove-based squad, which seems to suit both parties.
The Brazilian is apparently earning a salary similar to what he drew at Brawn during the single year that the former Honda team raced under that banner. Brawn paid both Barrichello and Jenson Button a fraction of their usual salaries that year, while they tried to keep the team afloat. According to paddock gossip, Barrichello was getting something between $1 million and $2 million.
At this stage of his career, Barrichello is happy to be racing period, and he’s already gotten rich from his many years and Ferrari and Honda, so he can well afford to race for relative peanuts. Bottom line: for Williams, he represents good value at a bargain rate. Clearly, Williams will be in no hurry to dispense with his services. Even if Maldonado turns out to be a brilliant driver, he’ll have nowhere near the requisite experience to be of much technical value to the team in terms of car development. As long as Barrichello continues to score points, and Maldonado continues to cough up petrodollars, look for the driver pairing at Williams to remain stable.