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F1 History 22

Roebuck’s legends: Piquet leaves Brabham

Taken from the November 1997 issue of Motor Sport

Late in the afternoon of November 22 1963, I was stopped by a policeman and reprimanded for riding my bike at dusk without lights. I carried on to school, chastened, where I found my housemaster looking extremely preoccupied. My first thought was that the copper had reported me but it was rather more significant than that. “Two hours ago,” he said, “President Kennedy was assassinated.”

Thus, that corner outside Settle, Yorkshire, to this day triggers thoughts of JFK. And in the same way the far end of the Ӧsterreichring paddock brings Nelson Piquet to my mind. There, in 1985, I had a conversation with him as unusual as any I can recall in 25 years of covering Formula 1.

history  Roebucks legends: Piquet leaves Brabham
Piquet at the picturesque Ӧsterreichring in 1983

I had been up at the Boschkurve during the first qualifying session. You did that at the ‘old’ Ӧsterreichring, a circuit so majestic, so stirring you walked miles, climbed steep hills in great heat, because there were sights, corners, that made it worthwhile.

When it was done, I walked back to the paddock and, as I passed a small caravan, someone knocked on the window. I peered in, and saw that it was Piquet, face half hidden behind a curtain. He beckoned me in.

What was this about? I had always got on well with Nelson, but we were not especially close, and I wondered if he was upset with something I’d written. That was unlikely – he was never one even to read the magazines, let alone get angry about them. So what, then? I walked into the caravan.

Each year, as the summer wears on, an F1 paddock is increasingly a place of intrigue, so the actual work of the weekend – running a Grand Prix – can be almost subjugated by rumours about the following season. Drivers and team owners ruminate about the future, have clandestine meetings, speak in whispers.

As you’d expect, journalists are excluded from this process as much as possible. Not so on this occasion. Piquet began to think aloud. “I don’t know what to do next year,” he said.

history  Roebucks legends: Piquet leaves Brabham

“Sometimes I think about Pelé and Garrincha, how they finished their football days. In Brazil – everywhere in the world – they were superstars, but they ended their playing days with nothing! Pelé had to go to the New York Cosmos as an old man in football terms, to make some money, so now he’s OK, but otherwise…

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Nelson said firmly. “That is not going to happen to me.”

Plainly he was at a crossroads in his career, but although there had been suggestions he might move, few took them seriously: Piquet had been the mainstay of Brabham for seven years, had won countless races and two World Championships with them. He was seen as a fixture, much as Jimmy Clark and Lotus had been.

That, to some degree, was the problem. Nelson may be the most laidback racing driver I have known, but that afternoon there was no doubting a simmering resentment within him, a feeling that he had been taken for granted too long.

“So many people have said, ‘Oh, Piquet – he has simple tastes, just loves to race, doesn’t care about money.’ Bah! I have been screwed around on money for seven years. When I started with Brabham, I got paid so little I had to race those BMW Procars – that was where I earned most of my money at that time. And I didn’t mind, because I’d come straight from Formula 3 into one of the great teams, and it was my big chance. I knew that very well and so did Bernie…

history  Roebucks legends: Piquet leaves Brabham
Piquet in 1979, his first full season with Brabham

“Since then I’ve been World Champion twice, stayed loyal to one team and Prost is earning three times as much as I am. I don’t know how you rate us but for sure Alain isn’t three times better!”

It didn’t help either that, for 1985, Ecclestone had accepted an offer he couldn’t refuse from Pirelli, which was all very well for him, but held fewer attractions for his drivers. In a Pirelli-shod Brabham-BMW, Piquet won the French Grand Prix, but nine races out of 10, the Italian tyres fell woefully short of the Goodyears used by the other major teams.

“Bernie’s switch to Pirelli, without telling me beforehand, has had a big effect on my attitude to the team. For one thing, the tyres are usually uncompetitive, for another, Pirelli rely totally on me for testing: I’ve done the equivalent of 75 Grands Prix testing for them! Forget bloody PR work, this is real work for a racing driver, and that’s why I should be paid what I’m worth. This year I’ve spent half my income on travel – hotels, fuel for the aircraft, and so on…”

As his anger mounted, so he spoke faster and louder. Then he stopped abruptly and was silent for a moment. “If I stay for another year, people will think I’ll never leave,” he murmured. “Bernie thinks that now…”

For a number of reasons, though, it wouldn’t be easy to leave Brabham. His relationship with Gordon Murray, and especially with the mechanics, was unusually close, based on true friendship, as well as professional respect. And Piquet’s attitude to PR – he simply wouldn’t do it – meant several teams were off limits. From that point of view, Brabham’s main sponsor had been ideal, Parmalat making no demands of him at all.

history  Roebucks legends: Piquet leaves Brabham
Piquet in 1981, the year of his first World Championship

“I did speak to Ron Dennis about going to McLaren,” Nelson chuckled, “and he mentioned so many days a year working for Marlboro, five for this, six for that… I lost interest. I won’t waste my life talking to people who don’t understand racing.”

If money is the abiding problem, I ventured, why did he not seek out personal sponsors, as Keke Rosberg had done with such success? Piquet shrugged. “It’s true I could have made more if I’d been prepared to do that, but I’m not. When I’m not at a track, I like to get back to my boat and disappear. I swim and ski, watch TV, lie around and do nothing. That’s the way I am, and when I turn up at a race I feel fresh. Away from it, I call the factory once a week to find out what’s going on, and that’s it…”

All this being so, which Brabham alternative was causing so much soul searching? “It’s Williams,” he said immediately, and that was a surprise on two fronts: first, he’d given a straight answer to the question and second, Frank’s team had not been previously linked to rumours concerning Piquet.

Normally, a racing driver will munch razor blades before discussing fiscal matters, but Nelson was never a man for inhibitions (of any kind): “I’m getting $1m from Bernie,” he said, “and I asked for double which is still a lot less than Prost is getting. He’s offered $1.6m, plus a $1000 a championship point. I’m sure he’s thinking it will be just enough to keep me. I’m not going to argue over it. I’ve told Frank I’m ready to sign.”

history  Roebucks legends: Piquet leaves Brabham
Silverstone, 1985: Piquet duels with Rosberg, the man who he would replace at Williams the next year

I asked about Frank’s offer. “$3.3m,” Piquet said, “plus $10,000 a point…”

It said everything about Nelson’s feelings for Brabham that still he had misgivings about going. “I don’t want to leave,” he insisted. “I like the team, the way things are done here. But I don’t want to end up like Garrincha.” In that case, I said, the decision is surely a simple one. He nodded.

These talks always start with “Off the record…” It was typical of Piquet that he should bare his soul, then say, as an afterthought, “No writing for now, huh? Not until it’s settled.”

After making his decision, Nelson would sneak up behind Brabham mechanics, whispering, “Money, money, money!” in their ears. They were glad for him but heartbroken to be losing him. It was, after all, a couple of them who had established the Nelson Piquet Fan Club.

He moved to Williams, to win his third World Championship. Brabham never won another race.

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history  Roebucks legends: Piquet leaves Brabham

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22 comments on Roebuck’s legends: Piquet leaves Brabham

  1. David Hutson, 27 September 2013 11:53

    Great column and idea Nigel. You should encourage Kirby to do the same with some of the characters and situations he’s dealt with in US racing over the decades.
    They’d make a great pair of reads!
    Best wishes.

  2. Ray In Toronto, Canada (Ray T (The other one)), 27 September 2013 12:22

    Great read!

    I remember the starting grid – at Rio – for Piquet’s first race at Williams: Nelson was holding a “GET WELL SOON FRANK” or somesuch placard out of his cockpit to the television cameras.

    Williams was watching the race on tv – recoving from that life-altering road car crash in the south of France.Thy had the best over-all package that year, Shame for them that neither Mansell nor Piquet were able to bag the Championship.

    I totally can see why Prost was being paid more. He was the superior racing driver.

    Speaking about money: Mansell was being paid a fraction of Piquet in 1985 – but had the measure of him more often than not.

    Those were great times indeed.

  3. R.E.B, 27 September 2013 12:34

    Very interesting perspective. Not surprised to hear Mr Ecclestone paid the minimum he thought he could get away with! I wonder if the comparison with Clark could be further examined? It has been suggested that had Clark lived, he would not have been driving for Chapman beyond 1969, but instead for Duckworths Cosworth F1 venture.

  4. Ray In Toronto, Canada (Ray T (The other one)), 27 September 2013 14:46

    It must have been difficult to correctly ‘rate’ Piquet during his Brabham days.

    Often, Gordon Murray would come up with something that would provide a big advantage – like the hydropneumatically-adjustable ride-heighte/skirts car in 1981 which made a ‘pay’ Number 2 like Hector Rebaque (Sp?) look like a star vs the Williamses of Jones and Reutemann in Argentina.

    Also, Piquet had the team to himself mostly – with no proper driver as benchmark or no driver than had similar equipment.

    In addition, they were using illegal fuel when they won the title in 1983 – but it was too late to protest.

    I certainly wan’t impressed by any of Piquet’s titles. That last one – Mansell, basically, killed Piquet on pace during their two years together and only lost out because Piquet had a Number 1 contract which allowed him the use of the spare T car which he (Piquet) used to experiment with.

    Lastly, Nelson really was a nasty piece of work when it came to making remarks about drivers that were faster: Calling Mansell’s wife ugly and calling Senna a homosexual.

    Nasty – and over-rated!

  5. Ray In Toronto, Canada (Ray T (The other one)), 27 September 2013 14:59

    Piquet, however, made a great move in retrospect:

    - Way more money;

    - A switch into a great car, albeit having to compete against Mansell;

    - And, equally importantly, he avoided being in that hideous, evil, low-slung skateboard in which poor Elio perished during Ricard testing.

  6. tarek, 27 September 2013 15:02

    @ R.E.B. yes, especially when you remember that Bernie wasn’t interested in the Brabham team anymore

  7. Ray In Toronto, Canada (Ray T (The other one)), 27 September 2013 15:16


    It’s difficult to compare Clark and Piquet beyond that one line of Mr Roebuck’s about being “a fixture” at a team. That and winning 2 titles at said team.

    The comparison stops there, I think.

    Jimmy Clark was, aruably, THE greatest racing driver ever.

    Piquet, on the other hand, wasn’t even the 4th best driver of his time. (At a minimum, Senna, Prost and Villeneuve were greater. That’s just three off the top of my head.)

    More crucially, Clark was a gentleman.

  8. 1959 Impala, 27 September 2013 16:40

    I guess the move made a lot of sense at the time. He got more money, a better car, won another championship (or accumulated more points than anyone else anyway!)….but his reputation was shot to bits after going up against Mansell

  9. Nick Lawton, 27 September 2013 18:55

    F1s most underrated (and sadly least respected) triple world champion. He may have backed into his world championships but he should be credited for seizing the opportunities when they came up. Unlike Reutemann, Irvine, Webber etc.

    History tells us he was right about Mansell’s ego and belatedly did the sport a great service in engineering Briatore’s downfall.

  10. Rob, 27 September 2013 19:45

    To be fair.

    He did have a point about Mrs Mansell.

  11. Charles Norman, 27 September 2013 20:20

    To be honest there appears to be some utter rubbish being written here which denigrates a truly insightful and informative piece from Nigel Roebuck’s archive.

    I find it hard to get my head around all this anti Piquet bile being proffered here of late. The guy was revered by the Brabham team and if he was rated by Gordon Murray then that is good enough for me.

    Some on here say that eh was a “nasty piece of work” because he threw a few insults out. Well he was man enough to do so in the open wasn’t he, unlike some others who tried to do team mates down behind closed doors. On that score I know who I would rather deal with, and so does Nigel Mansell.

    It has also been stated that he was “found out” when he went to Williams and came up against Mansell. On the face of it that might appear to be true, however we all know that in real life nothing is as it seems particularly when it comes to human kind.

    Piquet went from the team that adored and worshiped him to a team where softly softly isn’t something they are famous for. It also might be pertinent to mention the real reason why Keke Rosberg left Williams at that time. It was revealed in an Autocar feature at the time that Keke left because he had a complete dislike for a member of Mansell’s entourage who he felt was doing his utmost to destabilise the team in Mansell’s favour.

    Nelson would have walked right into that and that would have been pretty hard to deal with considering the previous surroundings he had come from.

    Of course all this might have been complete tosh!

  12. Alex Milligan, 27 September 2013 22:19

    Wonderful article from what was in my view, the best period of F1 – glory days.
    I was a fan of Piquet in his time at Brabham and whilst I agree that he was very very public with his insults, I just feel that it is neither necessary or justified. Can you imagine Clark or Ronnie Peterson behaving in such a manner? Latin temperament perhaps, but there was a sense of justice in Mansell wiping the track with him on many occasions.

    More of these articles please Nigel and MS!!

  13. Peter Coffman, 28 September 2013 00:18

    I enthusiastically second David Hutson’s suggestion!

    By the way… is that THE David Hutson, motorsport photographer extraordinaire?

  14. CK, 28 September 2013 00:18

    Whatever everyones views are… you cannot ignore his results and remember him as one the sports biggest characters ! Sadly missing these days… interesting personalities. All this corporate business is making interviews so dull. Good on Nelson for being himself and he was still a very talented and fast racer !!

  15. Ray In Toronto, Canada (Ray T (The Other One)), 29 September 2013 02:47

    Charles Norman,

    What do forum members’ opinions on Nelson Piquet have anything to do with either denigrating or not denigrating Mr Roebuck’s insightful piece – which I complimented straight off!

    Mr Roebuck’s piece is a great one.

    I can’t, however, see why we can’t comment on Piquet.

    Bottom line number one is that Piquet was being paid very well by Williams, irrespective of whether they “adored” him or didn’t. Perhaps Williams may not have “adored” too many drivers who came after Alan Jones, but Honda sure as heck favoured him over Mansell.

    Bottom line number two is that Piquet had a Number 1 contract which allowed him use of the spare car – something his Number 2, Mansell, didn’t have until late into the season.

    Piquet had a distinct advantage, as per contract – yet Mansell proved to be the faster and greater Williams driver.

    If Mansell was faster and gave Piquet a beating, then Senna would have annihilated Piquet in the same car and Prost would have made the Brazilian look like a chump.

    Piquet was the least impressive of those who have three titles to their name. Heck, he was less impressive than some who only had two – or even one – title to their name.

    Gilles Villeneuve had none.

    So what?

    Gilles was the greater driver.

    Anyway, perhaps Mansell’s wife wasn’t a supermodel but I found Piquet’s comment’s about her – and about Senna’s sexuality – to be cheap and ungentlemanly.

    I couldn’t possibly compare him to Jimmy Clark. Not in a million years.

  16. Andrew Scoley, 29 September 2013 10:16

    Nelson’s laid back attitude probably did him no favours. Autocourse posed the question in 1981 as to whether the BT49C was a better car than Nelson made it appear-you’d have to ask what Alan Jones or Gilles could have done in that car in 81.

    In 1987, the same publication said it best: Mansell won 6 races, Piquet inherited three. Without doubt, Nigel was on great form all year, but I think we didn’t know at the time, and Nelson didn’t let on for some years afterwards, just how much the Imola accident had affected him. I think it was months before he started sleeping properly again. I genuinely don’t think he wanted to win the title with Mansell side-lined after the Japanese practice shunt. After all, we were all going to say the only reason he won the title was because Nigel wasn’t there to race in Japan and Australia.

    He suffered at Williams in much the same way Alonso did at McLaren in that having been signed as number one he wasn’t necessarily treated like one. Certainly Mansell flourished in 86/87 but hadn’t given a great deal of indication that was about to happen prior to these years despite his first two wins at the end of 85.

    On another subject altogether, Nigel’s piece on Francois Cervert in this month’s mag is a gem.

  17. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 30 September 2013 17:56

    Well, although Nelson got little money from Bernie, in return he got:

    -Full first driver status from 1980 onwards
    -Cooperative (and comfortable) team mates, both in the track and financially.
    -Many competitive cars from Gordon Murray
    -Two WDC titles

    Not much to moan about.
    I think the thing with him at the end of 1985 was not to stay stuck to Brabham forever and especially to restore his self-pride by reducing the money difference against other drivers…

  18. Ben M., 3 October 2013 04:52

    I heartily agree with Charles Norman.

    While there is no denying that Mansell’s form was terrific, I remember reading Heinz Pruller’s GrandPrixStory and it really shed a different light on how Piquet was isolated in the team. Patrick Head in particular was overtly supportive of Mansell and regarded Piquet with barely concealed hostility. Head was the de facto teamleader in the absence of Frank Williams.

    Mansell’s preferrential treatment was exposed by Piquet with the infamous radio-incident. He tuned into Mansell’s frequency and when Mansell was called in for tires, Piquet beat him to it. Head was furious and exclaimed: “You bastard!”

  19. Rob Christoph, 18 October 2013 20:26

    Saw him asleep at the wheel of his Brabham in the paddock at Goodwood this year – for a full 15 – 20 minutes!! Did anyone else witness this? I’d heard stories about him having a nap just before Grand Prix and have now seen his laid back style with my own eyes. He woke up, had an ice cream and laughed and chatted to Alastair Caldwell for a while. He might have won 3 championships but I always thought he was had spiteful character which was demonstrated with his comments about Nigel Mansell and his wife which were totally uncalled for. What goes around comes around and it doesn’t surprise me at all that he isn’t remembered with affection by the F1 world at large.

  20. Cnn, 5 November 2013 21:34

    Best driver of 80s. And I mean it. His career ended prematurely in San Marino 1987 what few knew. After his scary crash he lost the touch. Until then he was better than Senna and even better than Prost. And except of his last title he did not need the best car on the grid to win the title neither any help from a team mate.

  21. Norm, 26 February 2014 08:36

    As much as I liked Piquet I think Prost was three times better!

  22. Gilson, 25 March 2014 22:11

    I’m brazilian and followed closely F1 in the 80′s. Started watching F1 races in the 70′s. Emerson, Lauda and Stewart were just great.

    Three things should be considered over the 86/87 seasons, specially in Williams:

    1) Piquet was a double champion and arguably the best racer alongside Prost during 1980-1985. This was common sense in all around F1 at that time – media, mechanics, drivers, etc.
    (just don’t forget Prost left McLaren and Renault at odds in 80 and 83. I’ll comment on that later on.)

    2) Mansell developed a reputation of a very fast driver from 80-85 – and indeed he was. On the same stake, he was error-prone and his poor emotions control was well known around.

    3) Does anyone know why Rosberg left Williams? This information appears to be very little exposed. Mansell started engineering William’s personnel to favor him – a british driver on a british team. James Hunt was the last world champion and the british press was urging for a new one. Nigel was in the best position. And the ominpresent BBC broadcast duo of M. Walker and Hunter himself praised him way beyond what he really was. Just ask the french press :-)

    Make yourself this question: this is the end of 1985. Who do you think is the best driver? Piquet or Mansell?

    So here we are, at the begginng of the 86 season. Frank Williams signed a world champion to partner with the up-and-coming Mansell. The car was excellent, a natural development of the 85 version. The off-season tests were great – by the way Nelson was consistently faster than Nigel.

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