The second coming

Despite an indifferent first season, Nelson Piquet has another chance to show if he has his father’s abilities
By Adam Cooper

For much of 2008 the future of Fernando Alonso was a major subject of debate. Would he stay at Renault or not?

As the team’s form improved and doors elsewhere closed it became apparent that, unless he took a punt on joining Ross Brawn at Honda (just as well he didn’t!), the Spaniard would be staying.

His team-mate’s future was less clear. Nelson Piquet endured what can only be described as a character-building first season, one that featured many incidents and little sign of the flair that earned his father three World Championships.

Renault had two credible alternatives – official third driver Lucas di Grassi, who impressed when he stepped back into GP2, and test driver Romain Grosjean, whose Franco-Swiss background gave him obvious extra appeal to the Renault board. All three came under Flavio Briatore’s management company, so the team principal stood to gain financially whichever one he chose. As the end of the season approached, Nelson’s job was clearly under threat. Nevertheless, he remained bullish.

“I don’t want to think about it because I know it’s not going to happen,” he told me a couple of days before the Japanese GP. “A driver shouldn’t think that way. I’m confident. I just need to do three more races without bad luck, and I’m sure I can get a good deal for next year again. If I don’t get a seat here I’ll get a seat somewhere else. Honda or Toro Rosso, I don’t know…”

In the end, Piquet’s confidence proved to be justified. That weekend in Fuji he finished a strong fourth in a race his team-mate won, and a week later in Shanghai he earned a useful point with eighth. Those performances probably tipped the balance. Despite crashing out on the first lap of his home race in Brazil, he was confirmed alongside Alonso three days later.

Did Briatore allow the commercial advantages of Piquet’s famous name to override performance considerations? Or did he accept that a new driver often needs a second season to begin to realise his potential?

In reality there’s probably an element of both at play. Having employed Heikki Kovalainen in 2007 and then Nelson, there was presumably a feeling in the team that a third successive start with a rookie – be it Di Grassi or Grosjean – might be too stressful at a time of massive rule changes. In addition, Alonso felt at ease with him. So why toss away a year’s investment?

Even if you weren’t too impressed by Piquet’s debut season, the fact that he’s been given a second chance is surely no bad thing. In this throwaway age too many promising drivers have been chewed up and spat out by the system before they had a chance to find their feet.

His name may have fast-tracked him to the top, but Nelson is a British F3 champion and GP2 series runner-up, so he’s qualified to be there. The problem is that Lewis Hamilton has transformed our expectations of what a rookie can achieve, and the honeymoon period has become shorter than ever. But not everyone can step straight into a winning car; down the grid, life is tough.

“It wasn’t an ideal year for me,” admits Piquet. “A lot of bad luck, a lot of silly mistakes, a lot of [lost] results that could have happened quite easily. It’s probably the year when I learned the most in my whole career. It was really interesting to see how different things are in F1, and how things work around here. And it was good to have Fernando as a team-mate.”

Nelson had spent the previous season as test driver, but ever-tighter restrictions meant that he wasn’t as well prepared as he would have liked.

“I didn’t really have a full year of testing in 2007. It wasn’t like the year Heikki had where he drove like crazy, maybe 30,000kms. If I drove 8000 I was doing well, and that’s counting 2006. Really, it was a year of nearly no driving, and not racing, so it was quite tough for me to go straight back to racing.

“I think they realise that spending one year without racing is not a good thing. It was the same with Heikki and me. One thing they have learned is whatever driver they want should keep doing GP2, even if they are also testing.”

A major novelty was that this year, for the first time, Nelson was just a driver. From karts to GP2 he had driven for the family team, where his engineer, team manager and so on were in effect his employees, and his dad ultimately called the shots. This different dynamic was just one of the many things to which he had to adjust.

“You have no idea how it is. Every time you go into a new series you’re driving against drivers who are at the same level as you, maybe a year or two older. Suddenly you arrive somewhere where the drivers have been around since I don’t know how long. There are drivers who’ve been here for 10 or 14 years. They really know how it is, they know how to deal with things much better than the young drivers do. So it is much tougher.

“Every tiny mistake, you know somebody’s going to ask why you didn’t do perfectly. Not that I thought it was going to be easier, but if things are not 100 per cent perfect here, you’re not going to get anywhere. It’s not like F3 or GP2, where if you’re not 100 per cent OK, you’re still maybe going to get on the podium. If you’re not in the best team, and things don’t go perfectly, then you’re nowhere.”

Only rarely did things run smoothly for Nelson in 2008. Indeed, seven of his 18 races were curtailed by incidents, although in four of those – Monaco, Silverstone, Spa and Interlagos – a damp track played some part. Two others were lost to mechanical retirements. Of the nine races he finished, five were in the points, a respectable strike rate considering the high level of reliability throughout the field.

Nevertheless those incidents weighed heavily against him, and early in the season the pressure seemed to be building as one disaster followed another. The body language at Monaco – where he sat head in hands behind the barrier after the team’s premature switch to dries caught him out – said everything.

“I don’t believe in all this ‘building up’ thing, it’s just that things happen. Silverstone, what do you call that – bad luck? Everybody going off, and all that rain. I was unlucky to go off. Yes, it was a driving mistake, but also the conditions were quite impossible there.

“The most frustrating ones were probably Spain and Monaco, two weekends when I had a good car. Monaco I was lucky to be in the front because of all the mess, rain and dry and people crashing and everything, and I ended up also touching the wall. In Spain we were really quick and I then had a touch with Bourdais. In those two races I could have had points easily. In Spa I could have done much better if I hadn’t touched the white line and spun.

“If you don’t start well, the weekend is already not very good. In Valencia our car was dead slow. In Monza I was really quick, but starting from the back, it was nearly impossible…”

The one area where Nelson was really exposed was qualifying. Even allowing for the vagaries of traffic and track conditions, not once did he start in front of Alonso, and often he was many rows behind. These days the qualifying system can exaggerate the actual time gap between team-mates.

“Qualifying was often frustrating. Sometimes you’re only two or three tenths off and you don’t make it to Q3. The other car might then go light and qualify top five, and you’re 13th or something. People see a big difference, and they don’t understand it. But in the beginning of the story it was only two or three tenths. It was like that in Monza, where I didn’t make Q2, and Fernando only just made it. He was not going to make it into Q1 and then there was all that fuss they had in qualifying, and he made Q1 and was lucky.”

A poor qualifying position often triggered an ultra heavy fuel load for Sunday, giving Nelson little chance to shine in the early stages. However, on one occasion, the strategy paid dividends. If there was one race that saved Nelson’s season, and his job, it was Germany. Committed to an unfeasibly long opening stint, he happened to be heading to the pitlane just as the safety car came out after the Timo Glock accident. With this ‘free’ stop he jumped to the head of the field. Hamilton eventually got by, but under enormous pressure Nelson kept title contender Felipe Massa behind to claim an unexpected second place. Had he screwed up that day, there’s little doubt that it would have been all over. The man himself downplays that performance.

“In Germany I was lucky with the safety car. OK, the second half of the race was really strong, but it was like Singapore for Fernando. When you’re in front and you have clean air it’s a completely different situation, you have nobody in front to bother you, and you’re just pushing. There’s nothing to stop you. The same thing happened to me in Germany. It’s just much easier when you have clean air.”

It was a reminder to both Nelson himself and the outside world that he was used to running at the sharp end.

“I was not made to fight for 17th. When I’m in the front I drive much better! We’re going to have a much better car next season, and I’ll be driving much higher than 17th. I need to be in the top six to do a good race, and that’s where we’re going to be heading next year.”

He’s convinced that, having had time to gather his thoughts over the winter, he’ll come out fighting in 2009.

“Every time you sit in the car you improve, you learn. Some people on the team say when I was testing in 2007 I was better. But I don’t believe that; you can’t unlearn things from one year to another. It’s just putting the pieces together, and putting your head to work well. I’m sure things are going to sort out.

“My goal is to be quicker than my team-mate. This year I haven’t had the pace, but I think it’s not lack of speed, it’s just experience of the tracks, knowing the right set-up to choose, knowing when to risk. Things like that make a difference to lap time. It’s hell if you look on the data – you’re quick the whole lap but because of one corner, you didn’t do it…

“A driver is born quick; you don’t get quicker. Sometimes you push too much or you overdrive. I’m sometimes not putting it together at the right minute, and not working with the set-up very well, like in Singapore. We had a complete disaster in qualifying, doing a crazy thing. I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t want to say much because I didn’t want to fight against the experience of the team. But in the end it was wrong what they did, and it screwed me completely.”

Crucially, he retained the support of Briatore, a man not noted for his delicate touch with underperforming drivers: “I never had any problems in that area. He has always been honest. I can remember a few times, but nothing like I saw with Heikki last year. He knows the problems I’ve been going through, and he’s always been on my side, so I’ve been very thankful for that.

“He knows we can do it, he just wants to see me doing it. He knows I have the speed and everything, he just wants to see me put all the pieces together and do it on the weekends. I just want to re-set completely and start all over again. You know what mistakes you made; really the second year is the year for you to do the job.”

History shows that such chances are sometimes taken away – just ask the likes of Jan Magnussen, Cristiano da Matta or Scott Speed, all of whom were dumped part-way through their second seasons. Will Nelson sink or swim alongside Alonso in 2009? It’s in his hands.

A pat on the back
Renault’s man believes Piquet has the talent to come through in 2009

Renault engineering guru Pat Symonds has worked with many great drivers over the years, including Senna, Schumacher, Alonso and Piquet Sr. He’s not an easy man to impress, but he was fully behind the decision to give Nelson Jr a second chance.

“In the latter part of the season – although maybe not in Brazil – he was much more competitive and getting more on top of things,” says Symonds. “I wouldn’t say he was relaxed, because unfortunately he did have this thing hanging over him of whether he was going to drive in 2009, and I think that was detrimental, to be honest. On top of that, continuity counts for a lot. Particularly with restrictions in testing, it makes it even more valuable.

“It’s not a question of ‘we’ve got a problem with Nelson, let’s wheel in the next one’, as there’s not a massive amount of talent around. If you look at who might be available to drive the second Renault, then Nelson sits at the top of that list, in our opinion. Hence it was a very logical thing to sign him up to carry on.”

Pat confirms that the German GP made all the difference: “I’m being quite straight, as I am with Nelson. I was getting quite exasperated, but Germany was the one where I thought, get him in the right place and he does it right. Because he did do it right, he didn’t go for heroics with Lewis. He judged very well what he was capable of, and he applied it well. I thought actually this is what I saw in GP2. It hasn’t gone away.”