CARACAS - Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado's remarkable first Formula 1 victory brought a rare moment of national unity to a homeland bitterly divided ahead of a presidential vote.Maldonado has been closely associated with current president Hugo Chavez's socialist government due to numerous friendly appearances alongside the Venezuelan leader and the sponsorship of state oil company PDVSA.His thrilling 2012 Spanish Grand Prix win on May 13, the first for a Venezuelan, elevated him beyond a symbol of Chavez's socialism into a cherished national hero.NATIONAL HERO"Our shepherd!" was the headline in the normally anti-Chavez El Universal newspaper, playing on the Spanish-language meaning of his first name "Pastor".El Universal wrote: "He has united the nation with his triumph in Spain."Scores of Venezuelans celebrated around Caracas chanting, "Maldonado, pride of Venezuela!"In response, Chavez tweeted his jubilation: "I said so: Our Pastor Maldonado won, making history. Bravo Pastor! Congratulations to you and all your fighting team! We shall overcome!"Not to be outdone, his opponent in the upcoming October 7 presidential election, Henrique Capriles, also sent his congratulations via Twitter. "Fantastic Maldonado! Congratulations for Pastor, for Aragua (his state) and for all our Venezuela with this triumph in Formula One. Long live Venezuela!"LAUGHING STOCKDuring Chavez's 13-year rule the South American nation has become deeply polarised, with supporters seeing him as a messiah overcoming decades of injustice and foes casting the president as a dangerous dictator.The national jubilation over Maldonado's echoed last year's feel-good over Venezuela's soccer team, the laughing stock of the region for years before finally starting to perform decently in recent tournaments.As with their support for Maldonado, both Chavez and Capriles tout their love of the soccer team for barely-disguised electoral purposes.Maldonado's beaming face and clenched fist dominated newspaper headlines and TV footage. He brought not only a first win for success-starved Williams in nearly eight years but also carried his young cousin to safety after fire engulfed his team's garage.Maldonado said: "I think there is a new generation coming in F1 which will be talked about a lot. This has been my first podium and my first victory. You can imagine how I feel."