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 Osterreichring 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 One.
I had been up at the Boschkurve, during the first qualifying session. You did that at the ‘old’ Osterreichring, 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.
“Sometimes I think about Pete 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! Pele 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! 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, got paid so little I had to race those BMW Procars that was where earned most of my money at that time. And I didn’t mind, because I’d come straight from Formula Three into one of the great teams, and it was my big chance. I knew that very well and so did Bernie…
“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 often, 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. “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 soulsearching? “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.”
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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