Formula 1,  History,  Racing drivers

Brambilla & Maldonado: one’s enough

Two high priests of destruction, Vittorio Brambilla and Pastor Maldonado’s names became shorthand for the kind of muscular approach to Grand Prix motor racing that both excites the imagination of the casual viewer and endears them endlessly to their fellow practicitioners. Both of them would stand on a Formula 1 podium one single time during their career: on each occasion it would be the top step.

Vittorio Brambilla and Pastor Maldonado
Vittorio Brambilla and Pastor Maldonado, giving each other just enough space

Vittorio Brambilla was born in the epicentre of Italian motor racing, Monza, on 11th November 1937. The Brambillas were a motor racing family: his elder brother Ernesto “Tino” Brambilla was a motorcycle racer who would also twice enter the Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix – once for Ferrari – although on neither occasion did he take the start.

Vittorio, too, would begin his motor racing career on motorbikes, winning the Italian 175cc championship title in 1958. Ten years later he first made the switch to racing cars and it would be four wheeled pursuits that would prove to be his primary competitive outlet for the next decade, a wildcard entry in the 500cc Italian Grand Prix in 1969 notwithstanding.

Brambilla had some experience of competing in go-karts but his car racing didn’t get serious until he entered the 1968 Italian Formula 3 championship. He would win the title in 1972, by which time he had also started to dabble in Formula 2. In 1973 Brambilla contested 12 of the 17 races of the Formula 2 European Championship, winning the rounds at Salzburgring and Albi on the way to fourth place in the overall standings. His form sufficiently impressed his long-time sponsor Beta Tools to fund a Formula 1 drive with the works March team in 1974.

His teammate would be the highly-rated German Hans-Joachim Stuck but Brambilla acquitted himself well, competitive with Stuck on pace even though his racecraft and concentration could both he called into question. Brambilla’s burly frame, jovial personality and agricultural on-track style quickly earned him a nickname that stuck: The Monza Gorilla. He spent his debut season bustling and bullying the March 741 around the circuits of the world, scoring his first World Championship points in Austria, crashing out in Monaco and Italy and damaging his car too badly to be able to take the start in either Spain or Canada.

A gorilla and Vittorio Brambilla play Battleships
A gorilla (left) and Vittorio Brambilla engaged in fierce combat, playing Battleships

In 1975, though, both Brambilla and his new March 751 were a far more competitive proposition, albeit one that would be continually beset with reliability issues. Having scored a fifth place at the truncated Spanish Grand Prix, Brambilla then surprised everyone by qualifying in 3rd place for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. Come race day, he overtook both of the front row starters, Carlos Pace’s Brabham and Niki Lauda’s Ferrari, to lead the race. Lauda, appalled that such a thing could ever possibly have happened, quickly gathered his thoughts and re-passed the March on lap 6, never to be headed again. Brambilla was then demoted to third by Jody Scheckter’s Tyrrell but continued to circulate in the podium places until lap 49, his tyres completely finished in an era where drivers would conventionally run non-stop. Four laps later, brake failure ended his race for good.

The next race proved that Belgium had not been a flash in the pan. The paddock watched mouths agape as Brambilla dominated practice at Anderstorp, securing pole position for the Swedish Grand Prix. On race day, the Italian calmly led the first laps – as though he had been doing this sort of thing his whole life – until reality once again bit and it became quite abundantly clear to everyone concerned that his tyres were falling to pieces. After falling from first to third place over the course of a single lap, Brambilla took the sensible decision to make a pit stop for fresh rubber.

The re-shod March made steady inroads back towards the battle for the podium places when his driveshaft failed on lap 31. The next race was the Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort, where Brambilla reassured his expectant public by colliding with Patrick Depailler’s Tyrrell at the start. Cosmic order having been restored, the relief up and down the pit lane was palpable.

However, he wasn’t done yet. Brambilla would again trouble the scorers at the British Grand Prix, artfully avoiding trouble as half the field were caught out by a highly localised and extremely heavy rain shower which turned Club Corner at Silverstone into a skid pan and its catch fencing into the nation’s most exclusive scrapyard. Quite why a man who could so adeptly crash a car driving alone on a completely straight road in the sunshine was proving to be so adroit at controlling a Formula 1 car in the rain was anyone’s guess, but two races later he would give an even more convincing demonstration yet.

One year on from scoring his first World Championship point, Brambilla returned to Austria’s Osterreichring, qualifying his bright orange Beta Tools March in only 8th place on the starting grid, as though he was trying to throw his rivals off the scent. Shortly before the green flag fell on race day, a thunderstorm settled over the top of the Styrian mountain circuit, delaying the start by 45 minutes as the teams prepared their cars for an afternoon splashing about in the rain.

Come the start, Brambilla showed his hand early, muscling his way up to third place by the race’s first turn. Ahead were the Ferrari of World Championship leader Niki Lauda and the Hesketh-Ford of James Hunt, winner of that year’s Dutch Grand Prix. Lauda had gathered all of his local knowledge together and gambled on conditions drying up later in the race but the weather had other ideas and resolutely refused to shift, his Ferrari dropping backwards down the order after Hunt passed him for the lead on the 12th lap.

By lap 15, Hunt was up behind his teammate Brett Lunger, the American experiencing his first ever wet race and consequently already almost a full lap in arrears. Lunger, who for a long time held the record for the most Grand Prix starts without having scored a point, duly helped out his team leader by holding him up for two laps, by which time Brambilla was past both of the Heskeths and making good his escape.

On lap 29, his lead was up to 27 seconds while in the pit lane, the incessant rain was doing little to extinguish an increasingly involved and bitter argument between drivers, team owners and race officials about whether or not conditions were now too unsafe to continue racing. Eventually, the “yes” camp prevailed and as Brambilla scudded along the pit straight to start another lap he was greeted by the unexpected but not necessarily unwelcome sight of the chequered flag. Overcome by a cocktail of surprise, excitement and confusion, Brambilla immediately lost control of his March as he crossed the finish line, spinning into the pit wall before beginning a victory lap that had a lot of bedraggled Austrian motor racing fans wondering why the driver of a car whose front end was hanging off would be celebrating quite so fulsomely.

Had the officials hung out a red flag – rather than a chequered one – the race, just over half-way complete, could have been restarted. This would have been bad news for Brambilla, whose car was now in two very distinct pieces. However, once his rivals consulted the FIA’s Yellow Book to establish the exact rules pertaining to this situation, it was definitively decreed that the race’s oldest starter had indeed won his first Grand Prix.

This gave the watching world the opportunity to bask in his unlikely but thoroughly well-deserved achievement, as well as enjoy his gameful attempts to open the winner’s magnum of champagne (which dragged on for several minutes). Of little concern at this moment was the fact that, due to the fact less than 75% of the race distance had been completed, Brambilla’s day of days would be rewarded with 4½ points instead of the usual 9.

Normality returned in 1976. Brambilla and his March 761 would score just a single point all season – this time at the Dutch Grand Prix – and on 11 occasions out of 16 they failed to take the chequered flag. This is not to say that they didn’t make their presence felt: indeed, in the season’s final race, the streaming wet title deciding Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji, Brambilla almost helped to decide the destiny of the World Championship. Having made what was increasingly becoming his customary early pit stop to replace worn out tyres, Brambilla gorillaed his way dynamically through the field in virtually impassable conditions, coming from 8th place to challenge the leader, Champion-elect James Hunt’s McLaren. Arriving at quite a rate, Brambilla threw his March up the inside of the left-hand hairpin far too quickly to make the corner. The car entered into a slide every bit as lurid as its orange livery, missing the McLaren by a matter of inches.

Had the pair collided, it could well have been the end of both of their races, gifting the world title to Niki Lauda. As it was, Hunt carried on to eventually secure the title, the visibility so low that he may not have known anything about how narrow an escape he had. Brambilla recovered his spin only for his engine to cough its last a few laps later. Never again would he come so close to decisively impacting the destiny of the World Championship.

In 1977, Beta Tools switched allegiance to the Surtees team and took Brambilla along with them. There were fears that the Italian’s rather robust approach might put him at loggerheads with the famously finicky and demanding patron of his new mount but actually, Brambilla enjoyed a decent year – scoring points on three occasions and narrowly missing out twice more. Tempering some of his natural urges helped him reach the finish of 12 out of the season’s 17 races.

Remaining with Surtees in 1978, Brambilla found the new TS20 car to be a far less competitive proposition. He failed to qualify for the races in Brazil and Monaco and, although he would once again excel in a wet Austrian Grand Prix scoring his only points of the season, at the subsequent Italian Grand Prix he would have a lucky escape during the first lap accident that would claim the life of Ronnie Peterson. In the firey melee of the first corner pile-up, an errant wheel bounced along the track and struck Brambilla on the helmet. He was fortunate to come away having only suffered a severe concussion.

Severe enough, in fact, to keep him sidelined for a calendar year: Brambilla’s next Formula 1 race would be at Monza in 1979, this time in a privately-entered variant of the new Alfa Romeo Grand Prix car. He would finish 12th, a lap behind the winner and new World Champion, Jody Scheckter in the Ferrari. Four more outings for the Alfa Romeo team would follow but it was quickly becoming apparent that his head injury had taken its toll on Brambilla’s ultimate competitiveness. His final Grand Prix outing was at the 1980 Italian Grand Prix, which politics had decreed would be held away from Monza for the first and so far only time in its history. Perhaps Brambilla was still digesting the horror of this fact when he spun out after 4 laps to become the Imola race’s first retirement.

Brambilla retired from motor racing for good the following year, opening a Formula 1 memorabilia shop in Milan. He died of a heart attack, aged 63, on 26th May 2001 while mowing his lawn at his home, just down the road from the Royal Park at Monza.

Pastor Maldonado
Pastor Maldonado, in a rare picture unaccompanied by mangled wreckage

His spiritual successor, Pastor Maldonado, was born on 9th March 1985 in Maracay, Venezuela. He would start 95 Grand Prix races between 2011 and 2015, finishing several of them, having enjoyed a fruitful career in the lower echelons of the European motorsport pyramid.

For a variety of reasons, there have not been an abundance of Venezuelan racing drivers to make an impact on the world stage. However, being a Venezuelan with ambitions of making it to Formula 1 presented no significant handicap in the early part of the 21st Century thanks to a confluence of circumstances entirely unrelated to motorsport.

Just as Maldonado was ready to take his step up onto the world stage, Venezuela discovered it possessed large and previously untapped oil reserves. Even better, it had recently come by its very own ideologically unsound tinpot dictator, Hugo Chavez. Chavez took power in 1999 and quickly began a policy of using the PDVSA reserves as his own personal piggybank, Venezuela’s oil wealth becoming an excuse to indulge any number of his own pet projects. Funding Pastor Maldonado’s racing career proved to be one of the least morally questionable of these decisions.

However, not even the most reckless Formula 1 team are willing to give the keys to someone with no racing pedigree whatsoever simply because their cheque had cleared – this wasn’t the 1990s, after all – but happily for Hugo Chavez, Maldonado proved to have the talent to back up the investment.

Alarm bells should perhaps still have been ringing, as Maldonado’s demonstration of this fact took rather longer than many of his fellows. He started well enough, winning the Italian Formula Renault title in 2004 before stepping up to the World Series by Renault series in 2005, finishing 3rd in the final standings and winning the blue riband Monaco support race along the way. In 2007 he made another step up, this time to the Formula 1 supporting GP2 Series. Just like Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton before him, he would win that, too. But therein lay the nub of the problem – it took him four years to do so.

Conventionally, a driver in his second season of GP2 would either be looking to win it and secure a move up to Formula 1, lest their career’s momentum evaporates completely and they spend the third season also working at Subway. Maldonado’s four seasons in GP2 yielded 10 wins, making him one of the series’ most statistically successful ever drivers. However, they were also spent racing for four different teams, a reasonable indication that the initial offer of juicy Venezuelan oil sponsorship had lost its sheen once the season’s repair bills were due to be settled up.

Maldonado did, however, win twice in the Monaco support race. Just as Vittorio Brambilla was capable of switching on a higher plane of conciousness when it rained, Maldonado – a driver who was quite capable of spinning out and losing a front wing while driving alone on the Bonneville Salt Flats – was almost always brilliant at Monaco, where laser-guided judgement and split-second reactions are at a premium. It’s another excellent demonstration of how sometimes life is better when it doesn’t necessarily make total sense.

Bankrolled by PDVSA’s billions, 2010’s GP2 Series champion graduated to Formula 1 for the 2011 season with Williams. Maldonado belied his reputation for being wild and woolly by finishing 13 times out of the season’s 19 races, but he did so by adopting what can only be described as a steady pace. He troubled the scorers just once, earning a single point for 10th place at the Belgian Grand Prix. The Williams car was no world beater and his vastly experienced teammate Rubens Barrichello fared little better, however, so few eyebrows were raised when Maldonado was retained for 2012.

Quite whether it was such a good idea to dispense with the services of Barrichello at the same time, however, was in some dispute. He provided a calming influence on a driver who had not necessarily endeared himself to many of his fellow practicitioners, many of whom had him pegged as a car to avoid even when it was stationary.

With new, decidedly less than vastly experienced, teammate Bruno Senna in tow, 2012 would prove to be an unusual season. At the request of the FIA, Formula 1 tyre supplier Pirelli had made a change to the construction of their rubber with a view to creating more unpredictable and exciting racing. This worked to a limited extent, as Formula 1’s teams all took their sweet time figuring out how best to use them. As a result, the seasons first seven races would all be won by different drivers, competing for five different constructors.

Williams had switched from Cosworth to Renault engines over the winter and 2012’s FW34 car proved to be a far more competitive prospect. In the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Maldonado qualified in the top 10 and was comfortably running in the points, even harrying Fernando Alonso’s 5th-placed Ferrari until he threw it all away on the race’s penultimate lap, losing control at the chicane and removing the front corner of his car on the retaining wall of Albert Park’s boating lake.

By the time the F1 circus arrived in Spain for the season’s fifth race, Maldonado had 4 points to his name: already a step up from his rookie season but still scant reward for four races in which he had shown flashes of strong pace, at times for several laps consecutively. But in Barcelona, like Brambilla in Sweden 37 years previously, Maldonado was suddenly right on the pace.

On Saturday afternoon, course workers all primed and ready to peel the remains of the Venezuelan’s Williams out of a tree, Maldonado instead kept his head down and his nose clean, recording the 2nd fastest time in qualifying. Better yet, Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren – the only car that was able to get round the circuit quicker than him – was then disqualified from the session for a fuel infringement. Maldonado would start the Spanish Grand Prix on pole position.

On Sunday, Maldonado’s Williams was outgunned by Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari on the run down to the first corner and the watching world relaxed into the knowledge that they hadn’t lapsed into some kind of bizarro world parallel universe, settling into their seats to watch the Venezuelan have his standard mishap later on.

Maldonado, however, proved unflinchingly dedicated to the idea of a bizarro world parallel universe, and clung on determinedly. The Williams stopped earlier than the Ferrari and when Alonso emerged from the pit lane, he had been passed by Maldonado, who had undercut him by using the pace of his new tyres to put in fast lap times instead of having an accident. This was serious.

Behind the increasingly serene-looking Venezuelan, third-placed Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus Renault decided now was the time to strike, forcing Alonso to make a critical decision: take the chance of passing the Williams or try to fend off Raikkonen’s advance and wait for Maldonado to hit a squirrel, or drive into a tree, or chase a squirrel up a tree.

With everyone now waiting for him to have an accident, Maldonado stayed true to his reputation for unpredictability and didn’t. Instead, he crossed the line 3.2 seconds ahead of Alonso to win the Spanish Grand Prix. It was a superbly measured performance, one of which any Grand Prix driver would be justifiably proud. Some sheen would be taken off the achievement later when Bruno Senna’s Williams caught fire in the pit lane after the race as the mechanics stripped the car down, causing millions of pounds worth of damage. Maldonado, however, had arrived. The season’s next race was in Monaco, too! These were very much the salad days.

A fortnight later in Monte Carlo, Maldonado showed early flashes of pace in Thursday’s practice sessions. Come final practice on Saturday morning, however, he would underline his full potential by needlessly crashing into Sergio Perez’s Sauber, earning himself a 10-place grid penalty for the race. It was at this stage, for future reference, that Maldonado’s Formula 1 career began to comprehensively fall to pieces, not yet two weeks removed from reaching its zenith.

Starting from the back of the grid in Monaco, Maldonado crashed out on the race’s opening lap. In Canada, he again had good pace and looked set for another strong qualifying performance before he stuffed his car into the wall at the circuit’s final corner. In Valencia he ran third until a completely hamfisted attempt at defending his position from Lewis Hamilton took them both out of the race. In Britain he again crashed into Sergio Perez, earning a reprimand from the stewards and a $10,000 fine. In Hungary he forced Paul Di Resta’s Force India off the circuit and was given a penalty. I mean, I could go on. Come the season’s end, Maldonado had accrued 14 penalties and been docked a total of 38 grid places as a result.

Venezuela still being positively flush with oil money, however, he would be retained by Williams for a third season in 2013. His teammate was a Finnish rookie, Valtteri Bottas, but both would spend the majority of the year traipsing around at the back of the field in an uncompetitive car, usually with the junior Williams driver conspicuously in front of his more senior teammate. At the United States Grand Prix, it was revealed that Williams would not be retaining Maldonado’s services for 2014, a piece of news that the Venezuelan took particularly badly. After a dismal qualifying session in Austin, he went on the offensive, accusing the team of sabotaging his car to make it significantly less competitive than that of his teammate. Quite whether or not he believed this had been the case in all of the season’s other races was unclear.

Still, as the old saying goes, while there’s oil in Venezuela there’s hope and Maldonado was picked up by Lotus for a fourth season in Formula 1 in 2014. Together with new teammate Romain Grosjean, the dynamic duo joined forces to produce one of the largest repair bills seen in the history of Grand Prix motor racing. Unfortunately, that season’s preposterous “twin nose” Lotus Renault E22 car was so ungainly that it wasn’t necessarily immediately clear if it was supposed to look like it did or not.

Maldonado went on to spend two seasons with Lotus, the second proving far better than the first thanks in no small part to a switch to Mercedes power units for 2015. However, points finishes proved to merely be respite from all the accidents, crashes and mistakes. Maldonado retained a high memetic value, the internet festooned with websites and social media accounts ready to inform the watching world whether or not he had crashed yet. Whether or not this was of any value to his employer was another question entirely, one that was probably answered comprehensively when it came time to renew their driver contracts at the end of the season.

Because in 2015, Formula 1 ran out of patience with Maldonado. There’s a chance that they had just run out of spares. Venezuela hadn’t run out of oil, although Hugo Chavez’s death in 2013 put an end to some of the worst excesses of his spending. But with single seaters turning a blind eye to his talents, Maldonado needed to find another type of racing car to bend. He settled, as one might imagine a driver of his peculiar skillset would, on endurance racing.

Actually, Maldonado has acquitted himself pretty well in long-form sportscar racing. In 2019 he won the LMP2 class of the 24 Hours of Daytona race and was third overall in class of the FIA World Endurance Racing championship, despite stuffing his Oreca car into the wall at the season-ending Le Mans 24 Hour race and bringing out a late-race safety car.

Vittorio Brambilla and Pastor Maldonado are men who were cut from the same cloth. They are ceaselessly unpredictable behind the wheel but of such amiable character that their natural exuberance is allowed to enrich all of our lives. Men of talent and bravery who, occasionally, provide the comic relief in an otherwise dour and processional world. Drivers who remind us that in sport – in life – everyone has the potential to have their day in the sun.

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