By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Formula One driver Pastor Maldonado’s future at the Renault-owned Lotus team was called into question on Wednesday amid speculation about his funding from Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA.
The BBC, citing unnamed sources, reported that substantial sponsorship money from PDVSA was several weeks overdue and Maldonado’s seat was at risk.
Danish driver Kevin Magnussen, the 23-year-old who was released by McLaren last October after an impressive 2014 debut, has also been seen visiting the team’s factory recently.
Renault, who completed their purchase of Lotus last month, have yet to name a reserve driver and Magnussen would be well qualified for that role after failing to secure a race drive elsewhere.
The autosport.com website, in an unsourced report, said Renault officials were in Venezuela for talks with PDVSA but Magnussen was on the shortlist if a Plan B was needed.
Lotus had announced both Maldonado and British rookie Jolyon Palmer, winner of Formula One’s GP2 feeder series in 2014, as their 2016 drivers before the Renault takeover had been finalised.
Renault are due to hold a news conference in Paris in February to announce their plans and will want to be sure about the driver line-up before then.
The season starts in Australia on March 20.
Neither Maldonado nor his manager Nicolas Todt, whose father Jean is president of the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA), were immediately available.
The BBC quoted a Renault spokesman as saying Maldonado, a race winner with Williams in Spain in 2012, had a contract and the rest was speculation.
“We have a contract with Pastor. That is the current situation. Who knows what could happen by Australia but, at the moment, we are going forward with Pastor and Jolyon,” he said.
The tens of millions of dollars that PDVSA brought to the team made the quick but crash-prone driver’s position secure at financially struggling Lotus, who risked going into administration last year.
Renault, as a major car manufacturer with big ambitions for a team that they won titles with in a previous existence, are less in thrall to such considerations and more sensitive to other factors.
Venezuelans are reeling from annual inflation thought to be in triple digits, a deep economic recession and shortages of basic goods, which have been aggravated by the tumble in oil prices.
The country’s opposition recently won control of the National Assembly from the ruling Socialist party for the first time in nearly 17 years.
PDVSA has backed Maldonado throughout his career, with the country’s late president Hugo Chavez seeking to boost Venezuela’s international image through sporting success.
The oil company has faced negative headlines recently, however, after U.S. authorities said last month they had traced over $1 billion to a conspiracy involving a Venezuelan magnate and the company.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)