Hotshoe Spotlight: Nelson Piquet Sr.

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There are several types of drivers who have, for whatever reason, fallen away from the limelight, but are still very popular with the lifelong fans. One of those drivers is the notorious Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian was a wily planner like Lauda or Prost, but had a joie de vivre that they lacked. Coming from a background where motor racing was verboten, a young Nelson had to hide his identity from his father – entering races under the name “Piket.” Predictably then, he had no family support and had to work his way up through the ranks.

Nelson found racing at the age of 19, and after subsequently dropping out of college, his interest in go-kart racing became a full-time pursuit. He studied motor racing through the lens of a mechanic, and wrenched his way into the seat, finding his edge through a solid understanding of the engineering involved by working for a small racing shop called Camber. He did not have an intention to make it to Formula One at this stage, but merely wanted to race for the fun of it.

Nelson’s first attempts were audacious, to say the least. One event he gladly recounts involves him, little money, a set of racing brakes and a racing engine, and a customer’s car. Since his mothers car wasn’t available – he was not above borrowing it for a little bit of on-track competition – he decided to borrow a Volkswagen that was in the shop over the weekend for a brake replacement.

Daringly, Nelson grinned and grabbed the keys, drove 400 miles to the racetrack, replaced the engine and brakes with his own racing bits, and drove well enough – and safely enough – to secure fourth without any damage. Returning to the shop that night on gas purchased with the race earnings, he replaced the stock parts, fixed the brakes, and returned the car to its unsuspecting owner the next morning. Risky, sure, and probably not the wisest thing to keep up if employment is high on one’s priority list, but it showed that the young Nelson was a courageous, devilish thrill-seeker, and a capable, intelligent one at that.

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Nelson’s humble beginnings: sitting in karts with compatriot Roberto Moreno.

Nelson quickly won in karts, becoming the Brazilian champion in 1971 and 1972, and moved onto Super Vees afterwards. There, he toured around Brasil in his Volkswagen Combi, pulling his racing car behind. Here too, Nelson’s knowledge of mechanics served him well.

When traveling the 300 miles from Taruma to Cascavel, the Combi’s engine broke down. With few options at his disposal, Nelson opted to swap the Formula Vee’s engine – very similar to that of the Combi – into the van’s bay, only to swap it back into his racing car once he reached the circuit.

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Piquet in his Formula Vee.

After winning in Brazilian Super Vee, and with the advice of Emerson Fittipaldi, he sold his road car and flew to England to compete in the British Formula Three championship with sponsorship from the Prado family. In Europe, he used his mechanical sympathy and understanding of the engineering involved to retain the edge.

After Nelson realized that increasing tire pressure would improve straight line speed on faster tracks and improve stability, the competition began observing him setting up his car to try and obtain some of that performance for themselves. So, Nelson altered the tire pressure readers to read higher than the actual pressure, thus keeping the competition in the dark.

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F3 allowed him to leave the season early to start in F1.

Piquet’s string of victories in F3 got him a seat in F1, and soon he partnered with Lauda, who taught him about conservation, minimizing risk, and keeping the big picture in mind. Piquet also brought several inventions into F1, including the tire warming blankets and in-car adjustable rollbars. Despite a Brazilian flair and a big heart, Piquet learned from his Austrian teammate that refining the car was the way forward.

Emulating Lauda, Nelson knew how to keep a cool head in the car, which not only gave him an advantage against impetuous opponents, but complemented his general approach to racing. He was not the type to get into needless incidents, though on the few occasions he did, his temper could flare. He was not one to speak diplomatically; once famously calling the Ferrari “a coffin on wheels” after the death of his friend, Gilles Villeneuve.

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Piquet takes a swing at backmarker Salazar after a silly crash.

Nelson never was the type to show up on a Friday and drive the tires off the car. Rather, he spent lots of time working on the car, refining the equipment, practicing strategies and so on, so that once the race was underway, he did not have to take excessive risks to stay ahead. He was quick but his strongest suit was his consistency and careful driving, which when combined with his technical know-how, allowed him to beat faster opponents.

One such rival was Nigel Mansell, the British sensation who raced to win. Compared to Mansell, Nelson was much calmer and mechanically-sympathetic, but it was the Briton who would often have the edge in pure speed. In their first year as teammates, the two Williams drivers matched one another in qualifying 8-8, but the Briton won 5 races to Nelson’s 4. The following year, Mansell clearly had the edge in speed, though a series of mechanical failures dogged his progress. Ultimately, what lost Mansell the title was a mistake in qualifying at the Japanese Grand Prix that cracked vertebrae and put him out of the last two races.

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Piquet, the trickster, used practical jokes to unnerve Mansell.

Acknowledging his teammate’s superior speed, Nelson drove smarter, not harder, in the 1987 season, and secured consistent finishes without putting a wheel wrong. He also managed to play mind games well; once removing all the toilet paper from a Mexican bathroom after Mansell had been stricken with Montezuma’s Revenge. Additionally, there were instances where Nelson’s understanding of a racing car, not consistency, was what aided him. In Hungary, where the slippery surface made grip a luxury, Nelson found that an open differential minimized understeer and gave him the edge. Cleverly, Nelson hid this bit of information and made a mockery of Mansell – winning the race both years, compared to third and fourteenth-place finishes, respectively.

Nelson’s career waned after his seasons with Williams. Accused of racing merely for the money, at the twilight of his time in F1, Piquet’s public perception changed for the worse somewhat, and he seemed more concerned with spending time on his yacht with a bevy of gorgeous women. Though some of the bad press could be attributed to a pro-Mansell, British media, Nelson was done with the business of chasing lap times and sweating pounds away in a cockpit. He had made his mark, showing that one didn’t necessarily need to rely on speed and daring for success.

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Despite being criticized as a lazy playboy, Nelson worked hard to refine his Williams FW11.

Moreover, he didn’t seem encumbered by the business as his peers did. Calm, confident, relaxed, and jovial, Piquet didn’t race for crown or country, but for the thrill of it all, and when the fire died, he wisely retired. His pace, wit, and humor brought him wealth and the adoration of many fans – most of whom were of the opposite sex. Always his own man, Nelson Piquet brought a unique mixture of attributes to F1 that haven’t been seen since. However, there’s a glimmer of ol’ Nelson in the irreverent Kimi Raikkonen, which would make sense – Nelson named his Maltese after him.

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About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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