“I just wanted to race”

Nelson Piquet came to Europe desperate to reach Formula 1. Gritty determination took him to three world titles and brought him wealth and fame – but he would have done it for the sheer love of it, because… 

There’s a glimmer of recognition in his eyes as he walks towards me. We first met in 1978 when he came to England with his Formula 3 team, fresh from an encouraging campaign in Europe where he’d finished third in the championship. It was a grey day at Thruxton, the interview was in most uncertain English, and his little band of Brazilians looked somewhat underwhelmed by Hampshire in winter. Most observers agreed, however, that here was a champion of the future.

Twenty-five years have passed since the first of three world titles but the wiry figure in baggy jeans and slightly tatty sneakers is unmistakably Piquet, the mischief still close to the surface, the craftiness in the grin and those very steady brown eyes. As he limps on injured feet through the Interlagos paddock, the fans fall in behind, even now wanting autographs. Only Fittipaldi attracts a bigger crowd but then, as Nelson readily acknowledges, it was Emerson who blazed the trail from the vastness of Brazil to Europe’s promised land.

“Yeah, of course, he was the first and we saw it could be done,” says Nelson. “I didn’t come from a racing family but I was quick on a kart and as a youngster I knew what Emerson was doing. It was big news, you know.”

Nelson Sauto Maior was born in Rio de Janeiro, the son of Brazil’s health minister. The family moved to the capital, Brasilia, where Nelson grew up in a comfortably middle-class environment. Later in life he took his mother’s maiden name of Piquet in a failed attempt to hide his motor racing from a disapproving family.

Most Brazilian boys are drawn to football, in the street or on a floodlit beach, but Nelson was steered towards the tennis courts by his father, himself a talented player. He was good at it and there was talk of becoming a professional. His parents packed him off to high school in San Francisco where he was supposed to get himself an education and hone his skills on the court. But it didn’t happen like that.

“I got involved in classes for working on cars and spent time in the workshops. I got the idea of racing then, so when I got home I did some ’bike races, bought a kart and went racing, trying to keep all this from my parents,” he laughs. But that failed too and 17-year-old Nelson was sent back to America to study at university. That lasted a year. Back in Brazil again, the racing bug still swirling in his blood, he got back on the kart, winning the national championships in ’71 and ’72, and entering the national Formula Super Vee series for the following year.

He grips my arm, animated. “I was very quick in karting, you know, from the first day. I just found it so easy, it was so natural, so easy to feel everything. I never thought about why, or how, or anything,” he says matter-of-fact. “It wasn’t hard work, or luck, it just came so easy to me.”

He won the Brazilian Super Vee championship in ’76 and began to think about Europe. He knew it would not be easy, hadn’t even considered Formula 1, though by now Fittipaldi’s success in England was big news in Brazil. So, at the beginning of 1977, Piquet made the big decision, bought a March F3 car, signed up a couple of Brazilian mechanics and headed off for the other side of the world.

“I spoke a little bit of English but I’d forgotten most of what I learnt in America. When I arrived in Europe most people thought I was an Australian. Anyway, we did the European championship and finished third, which was not so bad,” he smiles. “Then we went to England for 1978 to do the BP and the Vandervell F3 championships.”

These early days in Europe taught Nelson a few tough lessons from which he was able to benefit when, many years later, he brought his son Nelsinho to England. Most people went out to find a sponsor and then paid a team to run them. But the Piquet way was to have his own team, his own people around him. The little band of Brazilians had proved they could take on, and beat, the best of the professional outfits.

“It helped me that I could work on the car myself,” he says. “I mean, I was a mechanic and I was always messing, fiddling with the car, making it how I wanted it. I invented tyre-warmers in Formula 3, you know that? It was a revolution,” he grins. “I made up all the bits for them and we had tyre warmers before anyone had ever thought about it. You could just fly round in the early laps, make up a lot of time. Later on, at Brabham, I told Gordon Murray about my new invention. Then they banned me from the workshop after I kept visiting every day to see what they were doing. I used to mess around with bits and pieces, do my own thing, it drove them mad. Niki Lauda got really pissed off with me being at the factory and looking at all the new bits.”

Back to 1978: Nelson reckoned he needed a team manager, who spoke English and who knew where all the circuits were. “Peewee knew nothing about motor racing but he knew where everything was and he drove us everywhere. I offered him £30 a week and he told me that real team managers earned more than that. But we worked it out and he looked after us all through that year,” Nelson remembers.

And what a year it turned out to be: champion in the BP series and runner-up to Derek Warwick in the Vandervell. It was clear that the Brazilian was going to be something special. His name was already being noted, scribbled on the pads of those who constantly scouted for new talent. What caught the eye was his sheer natural speed, his lack of mistakes and some revolutionary tweaks he and his team had brought to the art of optimising the performance of Formula 3 cars.

“I had to learn how to race in the wet,” says Nelson. “We didn’t get wet races back home but again I just found it so easy, and we won a lot of races, seven in a row at one stage. Midway through the season I got a call from Mo Nunn, and by the end of July there I was, sitting on the grid at Hockenheim in an Ensign.” Just like that, the ball was coming to him, and fast.

Next it was into a McLaren M23 for Bob Sparshott at the Austrian, Dutch and Italian grands prix. He came home ninth at Monza. “I didn’t know what to do. They wanted to sign me up. I was winning in F3, working at Ralt building cars to make some money, and then Bernie Ecclestone got in touch about joining Brabham.” Nelson is talking fast, moving around a lot, as if he was back there, on the verge of his dream. “Bernie wanted me for the last race in Canada and he offered a three-year deal starting the following year in ’79.

 “He said: ‘look, if you’re that good and you sign for Sparshott, you’re in the shit because you’ll be stuck there.’ That made sense, and I said OK. And, yeah, it was a cheap deal for him. I just wanted to race; it wasn’t anything to do with the money. He offered me $50,000 a season for three years but I would have driven anyway. I was going to F1.” 

So Nelson did what he reckoned all F1 drivers did. He went to Harrods and spent £400 on a set of new clothes so he would look smart when he got to Heathrow to board the plane to Montreal for his first race with the Brabham team.

“When I got to the airport, there was Gordon Murray, looking like some hippy with his long hair, his flowery shirt, frayed jeans and sneakers. And then in the paddock at Montreal there was my team-mate Niki Lauda in baggy old blue jeans, a t-shirt and an old red baseball cap…” He slaps the table, laughing. “So much for the new clothes.”

Piquet and Murray sparked straightaway, the bright young South African forming a relationship with the Brazilian kid that would mature into one of the most successful engineer/driver partnerships of the era. Within three years they were World Champions.

“I was a good mechanic, remember, and did a lot of my own work on the F3 cars, so I could communicate with Gordon, tell him what I wanted.”

He also learned a lot from Lauda before he retired at the end of ’79. It was a difficult time for a new boy, as Brabham struggled with Alfa Romeo engines and then switched to the Ford-powered BT49 for 1980. So that first season was tough, alongside Lauda and grappling with an inconsistent car.

But Nelson got the measure of Lauda, his natural talent showing through rapidly, and some have said that Lauda saw the writing on the garage wall. The Austrian admits that he much preferred a team-mate like John Watson, a man he could out-psyche, rather than a Piquet or a Prost, both of whom threatened his dominance in the team. “Yeah, could be right,” grins Nelson. “He said he just got fed up with racing.”

 All this prepared Piquet well for 1980 when he would be out on his own with only Hector Rebaque and Ricardo Zunino as team-mates, neither anywhere near pushing him. He and Murray worked together, battling with Alan Jones for the championship in only Piquet’s second full season. Jones won out in the end but the Brazilian had made his mark. 

Brabham stayed with Ford into 1981, and the BT49C proved to be an effective weapon. But it was a close-run thing. Jones and Reutemann, for Williams, constantly threatened to keep him from his first title. By the end of a chaotic race at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in October, Nelson took the title, by one single point from a downbeat Carlos Reutemann. 

“Fantastic, is fantastic,” he grins, lapsing into the present tense. “My first championship – I can’t believe it’s 25 years ago. It was a tough season but I work with Gordon and we make very quick car. I learn how to win the title and I knew I could do that again. The driving was coming easy to me. 

“The next year was not so easy,” he recalls. “We were developing the BMW engine and for 1982 we used the Ford and the BMW. There were a lot of blow-ups, it had lots of power, but it kept blowing up and then we started re-fuelling in the races, remember? We found an advantage there.” He finished a lowly 11th in the championship, a point behind team-mate Riccardo Patrese.

But Piquet and Murray came back with a vengeance in 1983, the beautiful BT52 BMW proving too much for Alain Prost in his final year with Renault. “That thing had so much power,” he grins. “You had to have it in a straight line before you got the power down, otherwise it just went round, big spin, no warning. You know, coming out of a corner, you had to point it straight ahead before you could really get your foot back on it. Then it took off like a rocket, all the way up the gears, blat blat blat blat.” He goes through the gears in the chair next to me. Another big grin. “But you had to change the gears slowly, not too rushed, or the gearbox broke.”

 “Yeah, was good, was good. Gordon made a nice car. We did lots of development with BMW and we knew we could win.” Nelson thinks back: “Was good times with Bernie and Gordon and the guys – Charlie Whiting, Herbie Blash. We worked hard and we had some fun. People say we ran close to the rules, very close, and yeah, we did. Renault accused us of running special illegal fuels, running underweight and all that, but hey,” he shrugs, “they couldn’t catch us anyway.”

The fairy story about the boy from Brazil who made it so good, so fast, begins to fall apart at this juncture, Brabham slipping down the grid during the next two years, and taking precious few victories. The subsequent move to Williams, he says, was not his best idea, and when I mention Nigel Mansell he looks like I’ve offered him a bowl of spiders.

He looks me in the eye, roguish smile. “I’ve said this before, you know that, but hey I don’t care. It was terrible with Mansell there, he was – ” and here he expresses opinions we can’t publish. “I was rude to him, yeh, but I thought he was an idiot and the team was not a family. I kept telling Frank, after the races, what we should do about it but I had not so much courage then.”

The feeling was entirely mutual, Mansell describing Piquet as vile, stupid, and childish while the Brazilian’s penchant for practical jokes left Our Nige distinctly unimpressed. Mischief was never far below the surface. His mechanics recall the day Nelson planted plastic turds in the cockpit of his team-mate’s Williams, not a prank that was appreciated by anyone except himself. “Yeh, well, I hated him and he probably hated me.” End of story. I get the feeling he would rather drink ink than expand any further on this subject.

All this feuding did little to help the team rack up the points in 1986. Alain Prost sneaked up behind the pair of them and stole the world championship from Williams, Honda, Piquet and Mansell. But it was clear that Honda had a very potent engine. So how did the move to Williams come about, after the great days at Brabham?

“Bernie wouldn’t give me any more money, said I had to stay because of the Parmalat contract, but I told him he could tell Parmalat whatever he liked. He wouldn’t pay more and Frank Williams just about trebled my money. So I went.

“But it was a bad move at the beginning. They didn’t deliver what they said they would, I had no engineer, Patrick Head was on Mansell’s car and it was, you know, an English team with an English driver. I was supposed to be number one, to have the T-car and I knew how to be a world champion. But I was never treated like the number one and it was never good with Mansell there. They made many promises that were not delivered and it was almost a year before I got Frank Dernie engineering my car, in ’87, and I won the championship. So.”

Piquet’s third world title was achieved after a huge battle with Mansell, the two Honda-powered cars invariably ahead of the field. The Englishman took more victories but Nelson scored more points, his consistency winning the day.

“I was not happy there, especially with Mansell, so I left, went to Lotus for big money, really big money this time, 17 million dollars,” he smiles. “But the car, and the team, was shit. Really, it was shit, the car was slow and the team didn’t know what to do.” 

So Nelson’s career in F1 petered out amid accusations that he’d given up, lost his touch and was sitting out the last years just for the money. And he certainly enjoyed his riches, with a private jet and a yacht in Monte Carlo. Yet, while he agrees that he went to Lotus for the big salary, he firmly denies that he was slowing down. His three victories at Benetton, where he spent the final two years of his career, underline this claim.

“I could still drive, no problem, I always loved the driving. I didn’t give a shit about the fame, I just wanted to race, and it was better at Benetton. I won three races, including my last one in Canada. But in the end I just decided to stop and go back to Brazil, build up the business I had started. I was 40 years old, time to stop.”

Back in Brazil his telecommunications companies were beginning to make serious money and Piquet now presides over a multi-billion dollar corporation, supplying satellite navigation technology, from his headquarters in Brasilia. But there was one last ambition to be sated and the call came, early in 1992, from Menard in the United States.

“I’d always dreamt of doing Indianapolis and Le Mans,” he explains, “Menard came on the phone, offered me a million dollars to come out of my retirement to do Indy. I said yes, OK, I do it.”

It was the wrong answer. A huge and terrifying shunt in qualifying ended his career for good. He knew, there and then, as he lay in the wreckage at the Brickyard, that it was all over.

“Yeh, I knew soon as I looked at my feet, they were all splayed out, my ankles were smashed to bits and it hurt like hell. I sat there praying. I’ve always believed in God and that day I just prayed that I would live. The pain was terrible. But you know, it was the best thing that happened, because now I had to stop, I knew it was over and this was a wall in my life, the wall went up and the racing was finished, in the past.”

But he hasn’t shuffled away into obscurity. His son Nelsinho is now test driver for the Renault F1 team, Nelson having supported him through F3 and GP2, while his eight-year-old son Pedro has just won Brazil’s junior kart championships.

“I have seven children,” his credentials as a ladies man, or womaniser, always were impeccable, his success rate legendary. “I help them when I can. I learnt that hard work and sacrifice equals results and to get on in F1 now you need to make sacrifices. Or you can work less, have more fun, and not get the results. I have said this to Nelsinho.”

Nelson Piquet had fun. And results. But they were different days. He hobbles away on those injured feet, arm around his Formula 1 son. They are wanted for a Renault sponsor’s photograph. Another motor racing dynasty, very much the fashion these days, is being established. It’s in the blood. Somewhere down the road we may see more Piquet-Rosberg jousting. And Nelson will no doubt be aware that the Sons of Mansell are embarking upon the next stage of their motor racing journey. Hold the back page.