Nelson Piquet

Following in the style of Niki Lauda

Ever since the World Championship for Drivers was instituted in 1950 the business of scoring points in order to take the title has frequently taken a high priority in the minds of competing drivers, even to the stage where it takes preference over the all-out effort to win individual motor races. The result of this has often been that the official World Champion has won fewer races than a competitor who has failed to take the title. But in the highly sponsored and commercial world of Formula One today, the ultimate prize to be coveted is the Championship — even though the best man doesn’t always win.

Let’s look back to see some examples of this theory. James Hunt, title holder in 1976, has publicly decried Gilles Villeneuve’s approach in trying to win individual races at the expense of losing a Championship. Taking the Dutch Grand Prix in 1979 as a classic example, he criticises the French Canadian driver for staying out on the track, battling for the lead with Alan Jones’s Williams, when a pit stop to change a deflating tyre on his Ferrari might well have resulted in him finishing the race strongly, thereby beating teammate Jody Scheckter for the World Championship. “After all”, said Hunt at the time, “this business isn’t simply about winning races, it’s about World Championships.” Well that’s all a matter of personal opinion. Certainly, Tony Brooks once said that he never had a great deal of confidence in the Championship system since 1958 “when Stirling won four races, I won three — and Mike Hawthorn won one and was World Champion!” In 1967 Denny Hulme became title holder with two wins to his credit — Jim Clark won twice that number during the same season. And in 1977 Niki Lauda took his second Championship by stealth, chalking up three victories to the four of Mario Andretti. In the Austrian’s defence, however, it should be said that he won his first Championship in 1975 with a crushing streak of five victories, and repeated that total the following year when he lost the title by a point to James Hunt.

So, we pose the question yet again — what price the World Championship? This year two men have scored three wins during the season and four men have scored two wins. One of the competitors to fall in the former category is 29-year-old Brabham team leader Nelson Piquet and he’s the man who has been crowned 1981 World Champion. Three wins out of 15 races may not seem like a crushing victory of the first order, but that probably serves to indicate just how competitive Grand Prix racing has become in terms of strong teams rather than how poor the individual drivers might be. But the harsh facts of the matter are that Nelson Santo Maior, who decided to race under his mother’s maiden name of Piquet to avoid publicity in the face of disapproving parents, has won the World Championship title in his third full season of Grand Prix racing. Some people have held this up as an achievement of considerable merit. In our view all it proves is that good drivers tend to be good from the word go. Jack Brabham won his first title in his second full year of F1, Phil Hill in his third, Jim Clark in his third, Emerson Fittipaldi his second, James Hunt his third and Niki Lauda his fourth. This compares with Mike Hawthorn, whose success came in his sixth year and Jody Scheckter who took the same length of time. Interestingly, Alan Jones seemed an old hand at the F1 game when he became Champion in 1980. But in fact it was only his third full season in F1. His rides with Hesketh and Hill (1975), Surtees (1976) and Shadow (1977) did not amount to complete seasons!

Piquet’s “learning curve”, however, has been particularly impressive. From the moment he arrived in Europe to tackle Formula 3 in 1977, he never failed to seek out, and listen to, good advice from the right quarter. In 1977 he took in a season of European Formula 3. He was reasonably capable, but didn’t appear anything terribly special. But with one season’s experience under his belt he took the decision to contest the British F3 Championships as well as taking in some of the more important European “prestige” races. Driving a works supported Ralt prepared under the watchful eye of preparation expert Gregg Siddle, Piquet took the British F3 scene by storm, fighting an intense battle for supremacy against Brazilian arch-rival Francesco “Chico” Serra (March) and Derek Warwick (Ralt).

“There was a lot of bad feeling between myself and Serra”, Piquet recalls. “His mother worked for the important TV Globo network back in Brazil and Chico was always sending back slanted stories as to how the series was going. He complained a lot about the engines I was using (Piquet’s F3 2-litre Toyotas were being prepared, expensively but well, by Novamotor in Italy). Eventually I got so sick of this that I had a large number of Motoring News and Autosport reports translated into Brazilian, the accuracy of the translation sworn to front of a Notary Public, and sent back to Brazil no everybody could see the truth.”

The record, however, speaks quite convincingly in Piquet’s favour. He won F3 races by the armful, winning the important BP Championship and leaving Derek Warwick to beat Serra for the Vandervell series when he moved up to F1 two-thirds of the way through the year. “We had taken our Ralt away from the factory earlier in the season”, recalls Piquet, “so that we could develop out special “tweaks” in private. Now I had a lot of regard for Derek Warwick. He was very quick in the wet and was running a Ralt just like ours. But he wasn’t terribly good at setting his car up. So when I moved into F1, I made a point of giving Derek all my chassis settings which enabled him to beat Serra for the other Championship. That taught Chico a bit of a lesson!”

Interestingly, Piquet’s progress didn’t include any F2 competition. Although this intermediate category is definitely beneficial for the aspiring F1 competitor, in that it provides him with the opportunity of running 100-mile races to provide a “bridge” between the 15-lap club F3 race and the 200-mile Grand Prix, an increasing number of rising stars miss it out altogether. That’s because it has become so prohibitively expensive that the really promising men feel that sponsorship money is better raised for a crack at F1 rather than spending two-thirds of an F1 budget on F2 with no guarantee that anybody will take much notice of your success.

In common with many other Grand Prix stars, Piquet’s progress in Formula 1 was impressive from the outset. He made an unobtrusive debut in the 1978 German Grand Prix driving the works Ensign, but this ended with an engine failure after 31 laps of Hockenheim. His performance had seemed confident enough to turn a few heads, and a deal was quickly arranged for him to drive a McLaren M23 owned by BS Fabrications in the Austrian, Dutch and Italian races. The M23 was an outdated car by this time but Piquet ran further up the field than expected, out-performing F2 ace Bruno Giacomelli’s later works McLaren M26 at Zandvoort to underline his tremendous potential. BS Fabrications by this time had their own F1 design at the “mock-up” stage in preparation for 1979 and desperately searched round for sufficient money to complete the programme. They hoped to sign Piquet to drive it, but the whole idea never got off the ground. Meanwhile, Piquet’s performance had attracted the attention of Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone. “I was impressed with Nelson ever since he’d come to ask me my advice during his F3 days”, remembers Ecclestone, “he was obviously a thinker, but he was a winner as well. And very competitive. . .” After some brief negotiations, Piquet was signed to succeed John Watson as Niki Lauda’s team-mate — and actually made his debut with the team as a third entry in the 1978 Canadian Prix at Montreal.

For 1979 Brabham collaborated with Alfa Romeo to produce a new Formula One package, replacing the flat-12-cylinder-powered BT46 with the V12-cylinder BT48. After an initially promising debut, these overweight and thirsty machines dropped out of contention which meant that Lauda and Piquet had a generally disappointing year. There was only one BT48 raced at Buenos Aires, for Lauda, leaving Piquet to drive a flat-12 in his first GP as official number two in the team. Hardly had the race got under way than Nelson found himself embroiled in a first corner pile-up caused by another competitor and was lifted out of the smashed BT46 with a chipped bone in his ankle. Two weeks later he showed commendable determination in starting his home Grand Prix at Interlagos in considerable pain, but now in a BT48-V12. There was no question of his surviving a full race distance, so his car went to the grid fitted with soft qualifying tyres and half full fuel tanks. Predictably, he made quite an impression while he lasted!

A few weeks later in South Africa we saw Piquet give further indications of his long-term potential. The Brabham BT48s finished sixth and seventh with Lauda just ahead as they crossed the finishing line. Lauda paid his youthful team-mate a rare tribute: “Bloody Piquet. Every time I look in the mirror, there he was. So I thought ‘right, I’ll try really hard for a couple of laps and get rid of you’. So I got my head down and gave it everything I’d got. Then looked in the mirror . . . and he was still just as close!”

As the season wore on, Piquet increasingly got on terms with Lauda during practice sessions. Many people attributed that to a loss of competitive spirit on the Austrian’s part, but Nelson is quick to quash this assessment of the situation. “I promise you, it was all a question of equipment. Those Alfa V12s varied so alarmingly you never knew what to expect when you’d had an engine change. One would rev. 600 r.p.m. higher than another, so if you had a bad one there was nothing you could do about it. Throughout the year Niki and I were separated by a few tenths on most starting grids, irrespective of the engine situation. We were about the same weight and I always felt that if a driver was the same weight as me, then we were potentially in with an even chance. But there were times when I simply knew I’d got the better engine. I would sit in the pits and watch Niki charge round as quickly as he could; but there was no way. I realised just how bad some of his engines were, as were some of mine!”

At the end of 1979 Lauda decided that he was retiring (a decision that held for only two seasons!) and the Austrian abruptly walked out on his team in practice for the Canadian GP. This decision left Piquet as team leader at the time Brabham were beginning to race the Cosworth-engined BT49. Ecclestone took the decision to switch to Cosworth power because he knew that Alfa were planning to field their own works effort the following year, and he didn’t want his team running the danger of being left “second best” when it came to engine supply.

Piquet immediately found the Cosworth “smooth and progressive compared with the Alfa V12. The complete opposite of what everybody had told me. The 12 snapped in unexpectedly. With the V8 everything was lovely and responsive. It did exactly what you wanted it to do.”

It was at the wheel of the Cosworth-engined BT49 that Nelson Piquet began to carve his F1 reputation as a leading contender. He started the 1980 season with a good second place at Jones’s Williams at Buenos Aires and then won the Long Beach street race, leading magnificently from start to finish. By the end of the season he added the Italian and Dutch Grands Prix to his tally of victories and went into the Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal with a chance of beating Jones for the Championship. Unfortunately the two touched at the first bend, sparking off a multiple pile-up which resulted in the race being stopped. For the subsequent re-start Piquet transferred into his spare BT49 owing to minor suspension damage on his other chassis, but a team management mix-up meant that the spare car’s practice engine hadn’t been changed the previous night. That spelled engine failure when Nelson was comfortably ahead — and the Championship went to Jones. “I wasn’t really too disappointed”, reflects Nelson, “because I wasn’t expecting to be challenging for the Championship in my first year as team leader. You know, Brabham gave me a fantastic deal, really. When I was younger it was always my ambition to drive for Brabham. Some people hope to drive for Ferrari or Lotus, but I always wanted to be in the Brabham team. I don’t know why, but that’s the truth.”

One of the strongest facts in making the Brabham team as strong as it currently is must be the quiet, unflustered presence of Gordon Murray at the head of the technical side of things. The quiet South Afrcan born designer, now a naturalised British subject, has built up a reputation for first-class engineering and innovation over the past few years. He developed a sympathetic and successful working relationship with Niki Lauda and that has simply carried on into the Piquet era. In many ways, Murray feels that Lauda’s character has rubbed off on Piquet. The Brazilian’s mannerisms and dry humour art very reminiscent of the Austrian, as is his approach to the business of racing. In fact, Murray feels that, in 1981, Piquet has probably improved to the point where he’s better than Lauda was at the peak of his career — and instill improving.

“Nelson learned a great deal from Niki, particularly about testing”, insists Murray, “he now knows just what information I need and what I’mv not bothered with. He can also come to a conclusion, very quickly, about what should be done to the car to effect the desired improvement in performance. I first realised how much he was learning in 1979 and, certainly, he was as good as Lauda by the end of last year. Now I think he’s probably better. And I don’t think he will stop improving either. I would expect him to go on performing well and to peak out in about three years’ time, when he is 32 years old. I feel that’s about the optimum age for a Grand Prix driver to be performing at his best.”

In 1981 Piquet’s three victories have been in the Argentine, San Marino and German Grands Prix. He drove well in all three races, although his critiea will be quick to point out that he had the benefit of hydro-pneumatic suspension in Buenos Aires, allowing the Brabham BT48C to develop more ground effect than its rivals. Many people thought this to be highly illegal at the time (although everybody was using similar systems within a couple of races!) and considered that Piquet had a manifestly unfair advantage. But the reality is that there are only winners and losers in the Formula One game — and Piquet won the Argentine Grand Prix. He drove superbly at Imola, winning the San Marino race after a splendid drive through from eighth place, and he capitalised on other people’s misfortunes to win at Hockenheim. On the debit side, an incredibly stupid decision to start on slick dry weather tyres in the rain at Rio cost him victory on home ground and he allowed himself to be pressured into an error at Monaco when Jones was “breathing down his neck”. Another error when he slide off the road in the Spanish Grand Prix, plus concern over the totally exhausted and dehydrated condition he was in at the end of the Las Vegas race, raised questions as to his physical fitness. They are questions, criticisms, which Piquet doesn’t avoid answering.

“Once you’ve been racing F1 for a few years, the physical side seems to become a bit easier. You’re not so tense, you learn to relax in the cockpit. That means there is a temptation to stop exercising. I trained a lot for my first three seasons, but now I’ve eased up. I suppose I should do more, but I don’t smoke, drink and I always have a lot of sleep. I’m quite fit, I think.” But Piquet’s physique is that of a jockey. Jones, who doesn’t train and likes his beer, is built like an ox in comparison. Piquet has been told that he must get himself into better physical shape for 1982.

So how does one judge Nelson Piquet, 1981 World Champion? At the end of the day, ignoring everybody else’s excuses, it was Piquet who won the title by the rules of the game in force at the time. Some of his drives may have made it appear that he was driving “strategically”, in the mould of Lauda, for points rather than wins. And he wouldn’t dispute that he was taking that approach in the last few races. In 1982 we will see Nelson Piquet in his true light. Now that he has won the Championship, will he ease off, ambition satisfied, or will he race on to prove that he can cross that thin dividing line between “good” and “very good”? If he does the latter then he stands a good chance of becoming the first man to win two consecutive World titles since Jack Brabham in 1959 and 1960. — A.H.