BARCELONA, May 12 (Reuters) - Formula One wished Frank Williams a belated happy 70th birthday at the Spanish Grand Prix on Saturday but it was Pastor Maldonado who handed his team boss the best present of all with pole position.
What had looked like a heroic effort became a sensational one when Briton Lewis Hamilton, the only man faster in qualifying, was stripped of pole and sent to the back of the grid because McLaren failed to put enough fuel in the car.
That left Maldonado celebrating his first F1 pole, Venezuela’s greatest moment to date in the glamour sport and former world champions Williams’ first appearance in the top slot since 2010.
He may not manage to hold off Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, lining up alongside at his home race, but the odds favour him at least.
No Formula One driver has won in Barcelona from lower than third place on the grid in 21 years of racing at the Circuit de Catalunya and 20 of those winners have started on the front row.
“I think all the guys in the factory did a wonderful job because the upgrades we have for this race, everything is working on the car,” Maldonado said before the four stewards dropped their bombshell.
“Our strongest point has always been in the race, so I‘m looking forward to tomorrow. Actually we improved, our worst thing was the qualifying pace, so I‘m pretty happy for that, pretty happy for the team, for my country, for myself. It’s a great job today.”
After the decision, his resolve was even firmer.
”It’s a great moment for the team and for me. And it’s the best present ever for Frank Williams,“ he said. ”I hope to have a great race tomorrow. I’ll do my best, we’ll see.
“We have everything and I think the team must be ready for all the situations in the race. But the motivation is there, the mechanics are ready, we’re all ready.”
Williams turned 70 on April 16, the day after the Chinese Grand Prix, but he was not in Shanghai for that race and the one after in Bahrain was held against a backdrop of civil unrest and not deemed the place for a party.
Instead, Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, drivers, team principals and a crowd of well-wishers crammed into the Williams hospitality to hear 1996 champion Damon Hill congratulate the team founder in a ‘surprise’ homage.
“I think Frank thought we were all here because he was finally on the front row of the grid,” quipped the Briton. Maldonado, standing next to him, grinned.
The microphone gave out as Ecclestone began his speech and Williams could barely be heard either but the team founder’s opening comments were clear.
“Pastor, congratulations from the team for a wonderful performance of which we are very proud,” he said. It was about to get even better.
Maldonado has scored only four points in four races this season and is 14th overall, while Brazilian team mate Bruno Senna has 14.
The Venezuelan, a champion in the GP2 support series, still has some rough edges but they are being smoothed out with the help of a car that is a vast improvement on last year’s which scored a meagre five points.
That was the worst season ever for Williams, nine times constructors champions and who have not won a grand prix since their 113th and last in Brazil in 2004.
“Pastor has become much stronger in race pace and very aggressively fights his position, which is good to see,” said Williams’ chief operations engineer Mark Gillan of Maldonado’s development.
”He’s a difficult person to overtake, he’s very strong mentally.
“I think a win will be tough but based on our race pace (in practice), we were definitely in the race.” (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)