PASTOR Maldonado turned from grand prix winner to hero as Williams’ celebrations for his debut victory went up in flames.
Just 90 minutes after being hoisted up on the shoulders of rivals Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen on the podium, having taken the chequered flag in the Spanish Grand Prix, Maldonado was forced to carry 12-year-old cousin Manuel to safety as a fire gutted the Williams garage.
Maldonado, criticised for being nothing more than a ‘pay driver’ last season during a wretched debut campaign in which he scored just one point, this weekend proved finally he has what it takes to compete in Formula One.
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Starting from pole position, following Lewis Hamilton’s demotion to the back of the grid as punishment for a fuel irregularity in qualifying on Saturday, Maldonado eventually won a seesaw battle with Alonso by just over three seconds come the conclusion.
It was Williams’ first victory for 132 races, their last coming in Brazil in 2004, and the first by a Venezuelan in F1 history.
After a lean period for such an illustrious team, the exuberance that followed was obvious, but as founder Sir Frank Williams was delivering a victory speech to the entire team, disaster struck.
An electrical fault with the fuel rig is believed to be the cause of a fire that rapidly engulfed the garage, sending team members, photographers and cameramen running for safety at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya.
Within seconds, clouds of black smoke were seen billowing above the paddock and track.
As for Maldonado, with his cousin holding the winner’s trophy and wearing a protective boot on a broken right foot, the triumphant driver gave him a piggy back out of the garage and down the pit lane.
Bravely, Williams mechanics were joined in their battle to beat the fire by personnel from other teams, notably Caterham and Force India in the neighbouring garages.
It took 20 minutes to bring it under control, at the end of which nine people received treatment – four from Williams, a further four from Caterham, and one from Force India.
All were taken to the track’s medical centre, the majority for minor injuries or smoke inhalation, and three Williams team members were airlifted to a local hospital, one understood to be suffering from burns.
It was fortunate, given how rapidly the fire took hold and the volume of people in the garage at the time, that noone was severely injured.
With glasses of champagne going to waste in Williams’ paddock motorhome as noone no longer felt like consuming them, there was naturally a sombre mood, replacing the euphoria from earlier.
A Williams team statement read: ‘‘After today’s Spanish Grand Prix a fire occurred in the team’s garage which originated from the fuel area.
‘‘Four team personnel were injured in the incident and subsequently taken to the medical centre.
‘‘Three are now receiving treatment at local hospitals for their injuries, while the fourth has been released.
‘‘The team will monitor their condition and ensure they receive the best possible care.
‘‘The team, the fire services and the police are working together to determine the root cause of the fire.
‘‘The Williams F1 Team would like to thank all of the teams and the FIA for their support in today’s incident.’’ As for Sir Frank, speaking shortly before the fire, there was obvious delight at the team’s 114th victory, and for Maldonado especially.
‘‘It’s a great story for Pastor who did a great job,’’ said the 70-year-old.
‘‘He’s a very happy boy, he deserves to be, and this is good for the engineers back home and those who built a good solid racing car. I’m very pleased.’’ Asked about the suggestion Maldonado was brought in because of the money from sponsors that came with him, Williams added: ‘‘Yeah, he was to some extent. I’m not denying that.’’ But Williams stressed that if there was any suspicion Maldonado could have been a problem driver, ‘‘He wouldn’t have got in the team no matter how much money’’.
Williams added: ‘‘He did a very sensible job in GP2 and he fully deserves to be in the team, with or without the dosh.
‘‘The truth is if you haven’t got the dosh you can’t go Formula One racing.’’ In front of his home fans Alonso finished 3.1 seconds behind the 27-year-old winner, with Raikkonen just 0.6secs adrift in his Lotus after a stunning final stint, only to run out of laps.
The Finn’s team-mate Romain Grosjean was fourth, followed by Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi and reigning champion Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull.