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Fire in Williams pit garage

Pastor Maldonado in the Williams pit garage with Sir Frank Williams looking on (Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1)

Pastor Maldonado in the Williams pit garage with Sir Frank Williams looking on (Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1)

On Saturday morning, a few hours before the start of the third Free Practice session for the German Grand Prix, a small broke out in the Williams pit garage. It was apparently caused by a KERS failure.

The team was carrying out pit stop practice when the incident occurred. The Williams team, together with the teams who were close by and the circuit fire marshals, managed to contain the fire and smoke. There were no injuries.

The KERS unit has been removed from the car and contained in sand, which will dissipate the heat that the failure continues to generate.

Maldonado is in his car and ready to go out for the final practice session.

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Chavez death to impact Maldonado?

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez died on Tuesday after battling with cancer. He was 58 years old. A 7-day period of mourning has been announced for the deceased leader while the country prepares for an election to choose his successor.

Pastor Maldonado, winner of the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix for Williams, was a friend of the late Venezuelan president, and raced with the financial backing of Venezuelan state-owned oil and gas giant PDVSA. The company’s name appears on the side of the 2013 Williams Fw35 and the top of the main plane of the rear wing, while “Venezuela” is printed on the back of the rear wing. Maldonado’s place at Williams was initially at least partly a result of the sponsorship deal with PDVSA, which has bolstered the Williams budget for the last two seasons.

Hugo Chávez, President since 1999.

Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela since 1999, has died aged 58 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the wake of Chavez’s passing, it is not clear what will happen to Maldonado’s financial backing, and the future of the relationship between Williams and PDVSA is similarly murky. There is no immediate reason for concern in the Maldonado/Williams camp, as the contracts in place will likely be honoured by the Venezuelan parastatal. But it could be that Williams and Maldonado will find themselves looking for additional sponsorship in the future, unless Chavez’s successor is similarly keen on supporting motor racing talent.

Maldonado has, of course, proven himself in Formula One racing, winning the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix from pole position in what was a mature, measured and professional performance. His stated aim for 2013 is to win races in the car he describes as “my best Williams yet”. Whether or not he can achieve that aim will only begin to become clear when the first race of the season gets underway next week in Melbourne.

Williams announces late launch

The Williams Renault FW35 will be launched at the second test in Barcelona on 19 February, the team announced this morning. Williams are thus far the only team to delay the launch of their car until after the first test in Jerez.

With only 12 days of pre-season testing available, it makes sense to get the new car on the track right from the start. Williams are not doing that, which is surprising, but it means there is a good reason to delay the introduction of the new car. It is possible that the team could be working on technical innovations that require more time in the factory. It is also plausible that the team has come up with a technical solution that will provide a significant advantage, and they do not want the other teams to see it early and have time to copy it onto their cars.

The latter strategy was adopted by Red Bull in 2011 when they introduced their revolutionary exhaust system very late in testing. The exhaust turned out to be the team’s great strength in that season, and they strolled to the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships.

Another possible explanation for the delay is the need to do comparative testing using a known chassis. The team has a great deal of data relating to the performance of last year’s FW34, which makes it a good test bed for new parts. The team has confirmed that it will be running a number of development parts on the car in Jerez, in anticipation of the launch of the FW35.

For the first test in Jerez, starting on 5 February, Williams will run the FW34 but using the 2013 livery. The FW35 will be presented at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona early in the morning of 19 February before taking to the track the same day.

Bottas replaces Senna at Williams

The Williams team has announced today that Pastor Maldonado will be partnered by Valtteri Bottas in 2013. It has long been speculated that Bottas would replace Bruno Senna, and today’s announcement confirms that Senna is without a drive for next season.

Bottas has been the Williams team’s test driver since 2010, and in 2012 participated in 15 Friday practice sessions as part of his development. The 23 year old Finnish driver has been successful in Formula Renault, Formula 3 and GP3 on his path to Formula One, winning the GP3 title at his first attempt in 2011. In 2012, Bottas focused solely on his role as Williams test driver, and after impressing the team during Friday practice has been promoted to a full-time race seat from 2013.

Bruno Senna is now without a drive for 2013. His Formula One career has been unsettled, with stints at three different teams – HRT, Renault (now Lotus) and Williams. Unfortunately for the nephew of Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna, he has been comfortably out-driven by team-mate Maldonado in 2012, which has surely contributed to his exit from Williams.

Senna’s options for remaining in Formula One are dwindling as teams continue to announce their driver line-ups. Seats are still available at Lotus (where Romain Grosjean is expected to be retained), Force India, Caterham, Marussia and HRT, although HRT are currently not expected to make the 2013 grid. Senna does have the advantage of bringing sponsorship to his team, which will make him an attractive option for the teams with smaller budgets. Speculation has linked him with a possible move to Caterham, although nothing has yet been confirmed.

Williams have retained Pastor Maldonado for a third season. The Venezuelan had a very mixed 2012, with a dominant win in Spain and the unfortunate record of being the season’s most penalised driver. While he has been accused of driving recklessly, there is no doubting Maldonado’s speed, and if he can tame his aggression he could turn into a very successful driver.

Bottas and Maldonado will be on track as team-mates for the first time when pre-season testing begins on 5 February 2013.

Maldonado’s unfortunate penalty

Pastor Maldonado has been handed a ten-place grid penalty for today’s Brazilian Grand Prix after receiving his third reprimand of the season from the stewards. The reprimand was issued after Maldonado missed a call to the weigh bridge as he entered the pits during yesterday’s qualifying session.

The weigh bridge is there to ensure legality of the cars during the competitive sessions. An underweight car would be a huge advantage, particularly in qualifying where the cars are already running as light as possible. The officials conduct random checks on cars during Q1 and Q2, and all cars taking part in Q3 are weighed after the end of the session. The procedure for calling a driver to the weigh bridge during a session involves a red light at the pit lane entrance and an official indicating which way the car should go. If the driver does not see the light or official – bear in mind that the driver is approaching the pitlane at considerable speed, not always in a straight line, and sometimes (as in Brazil) while cresting a hill – he will receive a reprimand. Three reprimands during the season earn the driver a ten-place grid penalty.

The problem with calling a driver to the weigh bridge during qualifying is that it costs time, which puts that driver at a disadvantage compared to his competitors. In the case of Maldonado, he was 13th in the session with only seven minutes remaining in Q2. He would have been acutely aware of the need to get back to his pit garage, put some new tyres on, let the team make any changes or add fuel if necessary, and get on with the business of delivering a quick lap. A delay at the weigh bridge would have cost him valuable time, particularly if the team needed to make any minor changes to the car.

While the weigh bridge serves an important purpose, the way it is currently used results in random drivers being disadvantaged in the name of scrutineering. There is also an obvious communication problem, which clearly needs to be resolved. A simple call to the team to inform their driver over the radio that he must report to the weigh bridge seems quite logical and could completely avoid the need for petty penalties.

Nonetheless, the rules are clear, even if the mode of communication is not. Maldonado missed the weigh bridge, earning him a third reprimand, and resulting therefore in a ten-place grid-penalty. He will now start the race 16th, after qualifying an impressive sixth.

Williams driver line-up too inexperienced

In January of this year, Williams announced that Bruno Senna would join the team to drive alongside Pastor Maldonado. The announcement meant the end, at least for the moment, of Rubens Barrichello’s Formula One career. The choice of drivers was fairly obviously financially based, with both Maldonado and Senna bringing significant sponsorship to the team. But what they brought in funding they lacked in experience, with only one full season each in the sport.

Maldonado has demonstrated that he is very quick when the circumstances are right. The Venezuelan driver won this year’s Spanish Grand Prix from pole position with a mature and measured drive that greatly impressed everyone in Formula One. However, he had to wait almost five full months for his next points finish – at last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix- and produced some scrappy performances in between, showing just how new he is to the top level of motor sport.

Senna’s Formula One career has got off to a difficult and unsettled start. He raced for back-of-the-field HRT in 2010, before joining Renault as their reserve driver for 2011. When Nick Heidfeld departed from the team mid-way through the season, Senna was given the opportunity to drive for the team in the last eight races of the season. Now with Williams, he has yet to set the track alight with his speed, but has performed consistently and is now only eight points behind Maldonado in the Drivers’ Championship.

While both Maldonado and Senna could have long and successful careers ahead of them, their lack of experience has a crucial downside for the Williams team. They are unlikely to be able to extract maximum performance from the car on a consistent basis. Furthermore, they do not have experience in developing a front-running car, unlike more seasoned veterans such as former Williams driver Barrichello.

The 2012 Williams FW34 car is a good car. The victory in Spain clearly shows that. But one has to wonder if a more experienced driver could have done more with the available equipment. Rubens Barrichello is the most experienced driver in Formula One history. He was team-mate to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari during the most dominant period of the team’s history. He has unique and valuable experience that could only help an outfit like Williams to re-assert itself as a front-running team.

Williams discarded Barrichello too soon, and are now paying the price for that decision. The Williams driver line-up for 2013 has not yet been confirmed, and it is possible that the team could look to recruit at least one experienced driver. It would certainly make sense to have a mix of youth and experience going forward. The current youth-only formula is not likely to work long-term.

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