The 2012 Formula 1 season was certainly action packed, exciting and close. It was full of incidents, had an unbelievable eight different race winners and a championship race that went down to the wire. It’s some of the incidents that I want to look back on, though, and, in particular, two of the biggest offenders in the sport last season. I think that you can all guess who I’m talking about. Both are former GP2 champions and both, at times, drove brilliantly in 2012 and were rewarded with podium finishes, and in Spain one of them even won a race. That’s right, it’s Williams driver Pastor Maldonado and Lotus’s Romain Grosjean.
Let’s start things off by looking back at Grosjean’s season for Lotus. Out of the eight drivers driving for what turned out to be the four fastest teams in the 2012 Formula 1 season, Grosjean finished the championship bottom of the pile, having scored 96 world championship points. In comparison his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, , finished an outstanding third in the drivers’ championship with 207 points, including 25 for his brilliant win in Abu Dhabi, more than double the number that Grosjean scored.
That’s not to say, that Grosjean didn’t have some great results in 2012, though. The Frenchman finished on the podium three times, including a second place finish behind McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton in Canada. He also qualified in the top three on three separate occasions in comparison to just one top three start for his Finnish team-mate.
It’s the sheer number of incidents that Grosjean was involved in, though, that defined his season. While Raikkonen finished every race, scoring points in all but one of them, his French team-mate retired from over a third of the races that he started. Now, it would be unfair to criticise Grosjean if those retirements were caused by factors outside of his control, but in actual fact only one of his seven retirements was caused by a mechanical failure on his Lotus car, his alternator failure on lap 40 of the European grand prix at Valencia, when he was in position to challenge for victory.
So, if we take that retirement out of the equation, that’s nearly 32% of races that Grosjean retired from in 2012 due to either spins or accidents; far too many. Indeed, many of Grosjean’s accidents came in the opening few laps of races. Of his six spin/accident retirements, five came within the opening five laps of races, the only exception being in Abu Dhabi where he crashed out in an incident with Red Bull Racing driver Mark Webber. Of those five incidents, four involved crashes with other drivers.
The most high-profile of those incidents came, of course, at the Belgian grand prix at Spa at the start of September. That incident, at the first corner of the first lap of the race as the cars raced away from the grid towards the La Source hairpin, ended up with not only a retirement for Grosjean, but also retirements for two championship contenders, Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
The accident was clearly Grosjean’s fault. He cut across the front of Hamilton’s McLaren, squeezing him towards the wall, leaving the Englishman with nowhere to go. Contact inevitably resulted and Grosjean ended up being launched over the top of Alonso’s Ferrari. Given that Alonso ultimately finished just three points behind 2012 world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel in the championship, this incident may have cost the Spaniard the championship, but he was fortunate that it didn’t cost him his life as Grosjean’s Lotus came within inches of the Spaniard’s helmet as it flew over the top of him. As we all know, Grosjean received a one race ban for the incident, and missed the Italian grand prix as a result.
In contrast, Williams driver Pastor Maldonado finished the championship in 15th position, ahead of his team-mate Bruno Senna by 14 world championship points. Maldonado’s Williams, of course, was not as consistently fast as Grosjean’s Lotus, but the Williams had races where it was clearly blisteringly fast, resulting in a win for Maldonado, from pole position, at the Spanish grand prix in Barcelona.
Like Grosjean, then, Maldonado demonstrated some considerable speed in 2012, both in qualifying – Maldonado out-qualified Senna in 75% of grand prix, 15 out of the 20 races – and race conditions. Unfortunately for the Venezuelan, though, he was also involved in a huge number of incidents over the course of the season. These incidents meant that Maldonado squandered points in several races last season, ultimately only scoring points in five races in 2012, including his win in Spain. In comparison his Brazilian team-mate had double the amount of points scoring finishes – 10 – for his, despite his huge qualifying disadvantage.
Maldonado threw away points for sixth place, which would have been the best result of his Formula 1 career at that stage, in the very first race of the season in Australia. Having driven a great race, Maldonado crashed heavily on the last of the 58 laps of the race, while pushing to catch and pass Alonso, who was just ahead of him in fifth place.
Seven races later, at the European grand prix, Maldonado again crashed out late in a race. This time it was two laps from home and he took another driver with him in Lewis Hamilton. While trying to overhaul the 2008 world drivers’ champion, who was struggling with tyres that had ‘gone off the cliff’, Maldonado was squeezed off track by the McLaren driver and chose to rejoin the track immediately and drive straight into the side of the Englishman’s car, putting him out of the race. Maldonado managed to continue with a damaged car, crossing the line in 10th, which he later lost after receiving a 20 second post race penalty from the stewards.
Maldonado struck again in the very next race at the British grand prix at Silverstone. This time, the incident happened much earlier in the race, on lap 12, but again he cost another driver a race finish. This time the unlucky driver in question was Sauber’s Sergio Perez, who Maldonado slid in to as the Mexican attempted to pass him around the outside of Brooklands. This, of course, was not the only incident between the Mexican and the Venezuelan last season. In Monaco free practice, Maldonado appeared to deliberately drive in to Perez’s car and received a penalty for doing so from the stewards, and then followed this up in the race by slamming into the back of Pedro de la Rosa’s HRT at the start.
Although Maldonado has been involved in a similar number of accidents as Grosjean, none have been as severe as the Frenchman’s crash in Belgium. As a result, despite several penalties from the stewards for the Williams driver, Grosjean was the only driver to actually receive a race ban in 2012, becoming the first driver to do so since Michael Schumacher in 1994.
Despite the similarities between Grosjean and Maldonado in terms of speed and a propensity for causing accidents, there is one big difference between the two, for me: attitude. When Grosjean has made mistakes he has been apologetic and admitted his guilt. Following the awful Spa crash, for example, the Frenchman was contrite, admitting that he made ‘a mistake and…misjudged the gap with Lewis’. In contrast, Maldonado often believes that he has done no wrong. He blamed ‘cold tyres for his crashes with Perez at Silverstone and, almost believably, when he hit the same driver during Saturday free practice in Monaco.
It is this difference in attitude that leads me to think that Grosjean is the more likely driver to mature and progress, while Maldonado is the more likely to continue to be erratic and hot headed. This is borne out by comments that the two drivers made recently as they each looked forward to the start of the 2013 season.
Spanish newspaper Marca quotes Maldonado as saying, earlier this month, ‘Yes, I’ve had run-ins with other drivers, not only now, but in the past…But I have won in each of the categories in which I have competed and, every time I walk down the hallway in my house and see everything I’ve achieved with this style, I think I should continue’. I’m all for drivers that are aggressive and exciting, but aggression must be controlled or it can become dangerous. Maldonado seems not to understand that, and seems unwilling, or perhaps unable, to learn and adapt.
Grosjean, though, seems much more able to acknowledge his mistakes and, crucially, learn from them. Speaking earlier this month, the Frenchman told French TV show Stade2 ‘I do not think winning at all costs is the goal, because the dream is to become world champion one day…Of course, it is true that you have to win races to be champion, but I must be careful not to mistake the goal…I am not crazy, I am aware of the risks and I have worked hard to correct my mistakes. Over the last five races, I didn’t have any other problems and there is no reason to believe that I will have any more’.
We’ll have to see what 2013 holds for both Grosjean and Maldonado, of course, and only time will tell whether either driver can achieve the consistency needed to compete with Formula 1’s very best drivers. On the basis of their words and attitude, though, I know which driver I think is most likely, and able, to make that step up.