Although the Williams team has taken pains to deny that their new pilot, Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, is not just a pay-to-play driver, it has just been confirmed, somewhat anticlimactically, that the new Williams marquee sponsor will be PDVSA, which, of course, is Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.
In the world of sponsorship, this is quite a coup, as PDVSA has very deep pockets indeed, and the new deal should go a long way towards making up the funding gap caused by Williams’ recent loss of four major sponsors. Venezuela has been recently ranked 13th among the world’s oil producers, but as of last year ranked sixth among nations holding the world’s oil reserves. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez announced the new deal at a media event in Caracas this week, which should give some indication of magnitude of the new deal.
Although the Williams’ technical director Sam Michael has stated publicly that Maldonado was hired strictly on merit, the link between the driver and Williams’ new marquee sponsor was underscored by PDVSA’s head of corporate affairs Julio Gonzalez, who said at the Caracas press event, “Pastor will fly our flag this year and carry the hopes of an entire country in this new chapter of his career.”
And if there were any doubt about the state’s direct interest in Maldonado’s success, President Chavez himself said, “We will do everything we can for you.” While those words must be music to the ears of Williams bean counters, one wonders if the rookie Maldonado will need the extra weight on his shoulders. There’s pressure enough in being an F1 rookie: the window of opportunity that most rookies have for proving their worth is very small.
Look at the case of Nico Hulkenberg, the driver whom Maldonado is replacing. Hulkenberg did a creditable job in his first year as a full-time F1 driver with Williams, but he didn’t really set the paddock on fire. On the whole, he was outpaced by his vastly more experienced team mate, Rubens Barrichello. I suspect that if Hulkenberg had looked more like the next Senna or Schumacher, Williams might have sacrificed the elderly Brazilian instead of the youthful German to make room for Maldonado.
But even if Hulkenberg’s performance had been generally on a par with that of Rubinho’s, his fate was sealed. Williams needs the oil money that Maldonado will bring, and they also need an experienced driver to partner the young Venezuelan. Barrichello will have a double function, just as he did last year, with the Hulk: he’ll be there to mentor the younger driver, and also the help with the development of the car in ways that would be beyond the scope of a rookie driver.
That said, however, we should still remember that Maldonado might end up being a plum acquisition for the team, in ways that are measured beyond petrodollars alone. He was last year’s GP2 champion by a comfortable margin, having won more events than any of his rivals. So he’s not exactly being plucked from obscurity just because he brings a pipeline of oil cash along with him. On the other hand, it’s also true that when he and the driver he’s replacing, young Herr Hulkenberg, were team mates on the ART Grand Prix team in GP2, the Hulk generally put Maldonado in the shade.
But that was then, and this is now. Perhaps with the knowledge that President Chavez will be receiving regular reports of his progress, Maldonado will learn to go quickly when it counts.