By the time when I began to better understand the Formula One universe, during my teenage years, Emerson Fittipaldi was struggling with the Copersucar race team and he naturally fell into obscurity. Fans like me were waiting for the next guy who would restore the Brazilian pride in F-One and that guy was Nelson Piquet.
Pique was born on August 17th, 1952, in Rio de Janeiro, and his career in sports started far from the race tracks, as a tennis player. At the age of 11, his father sent him to spend some time in California, to improve his game, training against American players, during this time he learned two very important things: first, the English language and second, he was not good enough to pursue a professional career as a tennis player.
At this point, racing was nothing more than a passion but now, free from his tennis obligation, he had more time to dedicate to his hobby. At 14 years old, he bought a Go-Kart in partnership with two other friends and he started to compete in the national circuit. Since his father was completely against his career as a race driver, Piquet started to used his mother’s maiden name Piquet (of French origin and pronounced as “Pee-Ké”) misspelt as Piket to hide his identity.
Nelson won the Brazilian Go-Kart championship in 1971 and 1972 but since he had no financial support from his family, the beginning of his career was slow and painful when compared with more fortunate young drivers.
In 1974 Nelson dropped out the Mechanical Engineering course he was attending for two years and found a job at a garage. Eventually he saved enough money to buy a Formula Super Vee.
Piquet was never afraid of turning wrenches himself, he extensively modified his F-Vee, especially the body. Going against the majority of the other racers, he eliminated most of the aerodynamic stuff that provided the ground effect for the car, making it fast on straights. When asked how he would drive a car that behaves badly on turns, he used to say: “Don’t you worry, I will deal with it.” Nelson won the regional championship in Rio de Janeiro in 1976.
The twice Formula-One World Champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, saw Piquet as the next Brazilian prodigy, he advised Nelson to pack his things and leave to Great Britain as soon as possible.
Piquet arrived in Europe with enough credentials to secure him a position at the British Formula 3, and a good sponsorship (Brastemp/Arno is a very popular appliance brand in Brazil). In 1978 he not only won the championship but also broke Jackie Stewart’s record of the most wins in a season. Now his career seems to be taking off.
In the same year Piquet was invited by two small Formula-One teams, Ensign and BS Fabrication, to do some tests and even before the end of the season, he had signed a contract with Brabham.
The Brabham Racing Team drivers for the 1979 season was Niki Lauda, occupying the first spot, and Nelson Piquet as the second. The season proved to be a fiasco for the team, the BT48 was a hard-to-tune car, powered by the unreliable 3 litre, V12 Alfa-Romeo engine.
Even driving a problematic car, Piquet qualified in the top 5 several times, often out-qualifying Lauda, the big problem was reliability, he failed to finish 11 races out of 15 races participated that year.
Brabham had the new BT49 ready for the Canadian Grand Prix in 1979, now powered by the trustworthy Ford-Cosworth V8 engine. Unexpectedly, Niki Lauda quit Brabham right before the race, leaving Piquet as the number one driver.
In the final race, the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Piquet started from the front row and took the fastest lap in the race, clearly showing the new BT49’s considerable potential.
It was in 1980 that the battle for Piquet’s first World title began. The BT49, designed by the South-African Gordon Murray, was at its peak performance, the car even had some very interesting features throughout the season, like water-cooled brakes and hydropneumatic suspension.
The water-cooled brakes became very controversial during the early 1980s, it was used by most of the teams racing naturally aspirated engines because the water tanks helped to bring their cars to the required minimum weight, during the pre-race inspection, turbo cars didn’t need it since they are basically heavier. The trick here is, the water evaporates pretty quickly along the race, making the car a lot lighter, improving considerably the overall performance. In most of the cases, (if not in all of them) the brakes never needed the extra cooling and there was no need for the driver to pit-stop to refill the tanks.
The 1980 season will always be remembered by the fierce battle between Nelson Piquet, driving for Brabham and Alan Jones, drivinf for Williams. At the end, Jones won the championship 13 points ahead of the Brazilian.
The First World Title.
Nelson’s first World Championship came in 1981, in a very dramatic season, he fought not only against his old rival, Alan Jones but also against the Williams second driver, Carlos Reutemann, from Argentina.
The battle for the title was carried on to the last race of the season, the Ceasars Palace Grand Prix, held in Las Vegas. Piquet was only a point behind the leader Reutemann.
It was a dreadful race in many aspects, Reutemann had a failing gearbox as early as lap 2 and he was falling behind pretty quickly. On lap 17 Piquet was getting ready to pass him when Reutemann slammed on the brakes much earlier for the turn, but fortunately, Nelson was able to avoid the crash. There is the suspicion that Reutemann deliberately tried to involve Piquet in an accident; he knew with a broken transmission he had no chance to score points in the race and the only way to secure the World Title was stopping Piquet, but of course, this is just a speculation.
The race was no smooth sailing for Piquet as well, suffering from heat exhaustion he could barely keep the car on track, at the end he finished in fifth position, just enough to score two points. When Piquet stopped at the pits, he was so weak that the mechanics had to pull him out of the car. He became World champion by one point ahead of Carlos Reutemann.
The turbo era and the second World Championship
By the early 1980s, Renault and Ferrari were actively racing turbocharged cars and even if the Ford-Cosworth V8 was still the dominant source of power for most of the teams, (it won the 79, 80, and 81 seasons), everybody knew the glory days of the old Ford V8 were numbered.
In 1982 Brabham closed a deal with BMW to supply turbo engines for the new BT49 D. For the first 4 races of the season, the car was still powered by the Ford-Cosworth, and it was only in the Belgium Grand Prix that the Germans finally delivered the turbo engine. The remaining of the season was used for developing the car, with no chance of fighting for the title.
For the next year, 1983, Gordon Murray presented the arrow-shaped BT52, a fully developed brand new car, powered by the 1.5 litre, in-line 4, BMW turbocharged mill. The unit was based on a production engine; some of them were even built with well run in blocks that had covered over 100,000 km and were sometimes retrieved from scrap yards. This controversial idea actually has a good point: a well-used cast iron block had gone through all the possible thermal stress; the expansion and contraction caused by the changes in temperature. The cast-iron block was fitted with a bespoke alloy head with four valves per cylinder. A KKK turbocharger helped to boost the power to 640 bhp in race trim and well over 750 bhp in qualifying mode.
Piquet won the opening race in Brazil, a second place in France and another second at Monaco also taking the fastest lap, but close to the end of the season, Alain Prost was comfortably leading with 14 points ahead Piquet, with only three races left in the season.
Pique managed to win the next two races, Monza and Brands Hatch, closing the gap to only 2 points, bringing the decision to the last race, the South-African Grand Prix. Post retired at lap 35, and Piquet had no trouble finishing the race in third, winning his second world title. It also was the first time a turbocharged car won the championship and was BMW’s first and only title in Formula-One.
For Nelson Piquet, Brabham was like his second family, he had a very good relationship with the mechanics, with the management, and especially with Gordon Murray, who was like a friend to him.
Right after his second title, Piquet was feeling the big boss was taking advantage of the situation, he was receiving one of the lowest wages in F-one and he was also frustrated by the fact that the team was making some decisions without consulting him, for example, the adoption of the controversial (at the time) Pirelli tires.
He was in contact with a few teams, like McLaren and Ferrari but was Williams who offered something impossible to refuse: a 3 times higher pay and a fabulous machine, the FW10 powered by the engine that would soon became dominant in F-One, the turbocharged Honda V-6.
After 7 seasons and 2 World titles, Piquet left Brabham at the end of 1985.
His start at the new team wasn’t easy, he was hired as number one driver, but Nigel Mansell, who was hired a year before, was already enjoying that position. This conflicting situation created a bitter rivalry between the two drivers.
The 1986 season became one of the closest and most fiercely disputed championships ever in Formula One, Piquet and Mansell went head-on against each other and this “inside war” was causing them to make too many mistakes, allowing Alain Prost, from McLaren to jump as the leader of the season.
However, Piquet was the best option to beat Prost, and Williams was under a lot of pressure from Honda to play “politics” on the track. The Japanese company wanted the slower driver to concede in favour of the faster driver, in other words, every time Mansell was to finish a race in front of Piquet, he should hit the brakes and allow the Brazilian to pass and collect the points.
Williams never did such a thing, even if this kind of politics was part of the contract signed by both companies. Prost became the first Frenchman to win a Formula One Championship, and Williams won the constructor’s world title.
The third championship
For the 1987 season, Nelson decided to leave the emotions aside and be more reasonable at the race track, even if the tensions between him and Nigel Mansell were still at the boiling point. Piquet played an important role in the development of the new Williams FW11 and the car was the best machine on the grid. The year was supposed to go by with no surprises and the title would be decided between the two Williams’s drivers.
The Brazilian suffered a severe accident at Imola, during qualifying, and following medical recommendations, he did not participate in the race. At the end of the season, Mansell won more races, but Piquet managed to collect more points and win his third world title.
Even before the end of the season, Piquet announced he had signed a contract with Lotus, to be the undisputed number one driver, a promise that was never fulfilled at Williams.
The beginning of the end
Piquet debuted at Lotus in 1988 with great expectations, after all the 100T was also powered with the same unbeatable Honda turbocharged, V6 engine.
The season proved to be a total frustration, Piquet didn’t win a single race and he was completely overshadowed by another Brazilian driver, Airton Senna, who won his first World Championship that year.
The 1989 season was a little bit better but not enough to bring him to the “Top 5” drivers. In 1990 he signed a contract with Benetton with his salary based on the results, but the good results never came and he quit Formula One all together in 1992.
The controversial one.
Nelson Piquet was never an easy-going guy, he always had a complicated relationship with the media and not a lot of teammates have good memories of him, but things got way worse when his career took a downturn. Piquet started to fire insults at people he didn’t like, he called Nigel Mansell “an uneducated blockhead” and also made remarks about the looks of Mansell’s wife, saying she was “ugly”. He called Airton Senna a “taxi driver” and later he said Airton “doesn’t like women”. Piquet had to public apologize for those horrible statements when he was threatened with legal actions.
The Indy series
After his retirement, Piquet followed the steps of many ex-Formula One drivers and he tried the American Indy car series. He was hired by the Menard Racing Team, to compete in the 1992 Indianapolis 500.
He seemed comfortable on the oval and was doing quite well during practice until he run over some debris on the track and he decided to go back to the pits, that was the moment when he made a typical rookie mistake while going around turn 4 at full throttle, he abruptly took his foot off the gas pedal, to enter the pit lane and his car spun out of control, hitting the wall at 300km/h.
“A picture is worth a thousand words“, and that certainly is the case of the photograph above, it shows how horrifying the accident was. Surviving that crash was nothing less than a miracle but Piquet suffered serious foot and ankle injuries. Even after all these years and lots of physiotherapy he still walks with the aid of a cane.
He came back to Indianapolis in 1993 but had to retire at lap 38 due to engine failure.
During his career as Formula- One driver, Piquet was also involved with Sportscar/GT competition. In partnership with the German driver Hans Stuck, he raced in the legendary 1000km of Nurburgring in 1980 and 1981, driving a (also legendary) BMW M1. The duo scored a victory in the 1981 edition.
In 1996, well into his retirement, Piquet competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving a McLaren F1 GTR, having Johnny Cecotto and Danny Sullivan as teammates, finishing eighth overall.
During 1996/97 he actively promoted the GT series in Brazil. In partnership with the Venezuelan driver Johnny Cecotto, they dominated both seasons, even winning the most traditional endurance race in South America, the “Brazilian 1000 Miles”. Always driving the McLaren F1.
“The last time I saw Piquet in action was in 1996 when the GT Series was brought to my hometown, Curitiba, in Brazil. What I saw that day was the Piquet like the good old times, not the retired F-One driver but the three times World Champion. He was bold but precise – no mistakes – leaving no room for the other drivers. Of course, the car he drove helped a lot, the gorgeous McLaren F1, powered by the sublime V12 BMW engine, a GT car made in heaven. At some point during the race, the guy driving in the second position was trying so desperately to close the gap that the engine of his Ferrari F40 exploded while he was going flat-out, right in front of the stands, 20.000 fans rose from our seats and we went like “wooooow” in unison!!!! “
“I have so many good memories of my hometown race track but that Sunday afternoon is one of the best.”
On January 20, 2006, Nelson Piquet won the 50th edition of the Brazilian 1000 Miles, in Interlagos, at the wheel of an Aston Martin DBR9. The driving duties were shared with the 4 times Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, the French race driver Christophe Bouchut, and Piquet’s eldest son Nelson Junior. At the end of the race, an exhausted Piquet was quoted saying to a friend he would “never sit in a cockpit again.
Now a days Nelson spends his time taking care of his businesses: fleet management software and GPS vehicle tracking and he keeps himself close to the race track managing the racing career of his two sons, Nelson Jr. And Pedro Piquet.
Piquet is also an avid classic car collector.
Nelson Piquet is the kind of character that inspires “love or hate” feelings among racing aficionados, especially because the Brazilian fans love to compare him with Airton Senna. For the majority of those fans, Senna will always be the “good guy”, the gifted driver that tragically died in pursuit of more titles and Piquet will always be “the jerk” who loves insulting people.
For me, he is the fellow Brazilian who won 3 Formula One world titles and remained a true gearhead ever after; the guy will always have my admiration.