The abrasive joker — Nelson Piquet's F1 career

Nelson Piquet

A happy Piquet wins in Hungary during his '87 title-winning year

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

Born August 17, 1952, Nelson Piquet burst into the consciousness of racing aficionados when he won 13 F3 race in 1978 – breaking Jackie Stewart’s record — en route to sharing the two main British championships with Derek Warwick.

Mo Nunn gave Piquet an F1 debut in his Ensign at that year’s German GP before Nelson was offered a BS Fabrications McLaren M23 for the next three races. He did enough to impress Bernie Ecclestone, who offered him a third Brabham alongside Niki Lauda and John Watson in the season-closing Canadian GP.

With a full-time Brabham ride in ’79, Piquet struggled with the thirsty and unreliable V12 Alfa-engined BT48 but became a championship challenger the following season when Brabham reverted to Cosworth power for design ace Gordon Murray’s neat BT49.

Nelson took his maiden GP victory at Long Beach and won again at Zandvoort and Imola to lead the championship with two rounds to go. But retirements at Montreal and Watkins Glen, allied to victories for championship rival Alan Jones, saw the title go to the Williams driver.

Nelson Piquet on his way to winning the 1980 F1 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort for Brabham

Piquet’s Zandvoort win was one of three in 1980 — but the title went to Alan Jones


Piquet got his revenge a season later when the championship went down to the wire in a three-way fight which saw Williams driver Carlos Reutemann head to the Las Vegas finale one point ahead of Nelson with Frenchman Jacques Laffite the outsider.

Reutemann started from pole but fell to eighth with gearbox problems. Piquet, struggling with heat exhaustion in roasting temperatures, did enough to finish fifth and collect the two points needed to overhaul his Argentinian rival.

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The next year was sacrificed to the transition to BMW turbo power but it reaped reward when Nelson and the Brabham-BMW BT52 were the first driver/car combination to win an F1 championship with turbo power. Once again Piquet won it at the final round, in South Africa, where he overhauled Renault’s Prost.

Nobody could touch the McLaren-TAG Porsche in 1984/5 and when a switch from Michelin to Pirelli rubber rendered his Brabham even less competitive, Piquet made the move to Williams for ’86, alongside Nigel Mansell.

Nelson Piquet in front of a home crowd at the 1987 F1 Brazilian Grand Prix

In front of a home crowd. Piquet didn’t win the 1987 Brazilian GP but took that year’s championship

Grand Prix Photo

Mansell’s competitiveness came as a shock in ’86 when the championship went down to a thrilling finale in Adelaide. Mansell’s tyre blew with 18 laps to go, just a lap after Rosberg suffered a similar failure. Williams, fearing that Nelson would suffer the same fate, pulled him in for a tyre stop. Piquet charged back to within 4sec of Prost but it wasn’t sufficient to stop Alain winning the race and the championship.

The following season, Piquet suffered a heavy concussive accident at Imola’s Tamburello corner. He later admitted that he lost significant depth perception as a result, making it difficult for him to lead a race from the front. He secretly visited a Milanese hospital every fortnight, keeping quiet in case Williams stopped him racing.

A series of early second places and three victories in Germany, Hungary and Italy set him up to take a third world championship even if Mansell took more poles and showed quicker outright pace, including during the famous Silverstone win when he clawed back a 20sec deficit to Nelson and dummied him into Stowe corner to win.

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Piquet, unhappy at the intra-team vibe with Mansell, left for Lotus and a bigger paycheque in ’88 but the car was not a Williams and a trio of third places was the best Nelson could manage. After three uncompetitive seasons, he finished his F1 career with Benetton, winning back-to-back at Suzuka and Adelaide in 1990 and taking a final chequered flag – at Mansell’s expense – in Montreal the following year.

Seeing Emerson Fittipaldi’s success in the USA, Piquet signed a deal with Team Menard to run in the ’92 Indy 500 but suffered serious leg and ankle injuries when he crashed into the wall after running over debris during a practice run.

A colourful character who enjoyed a practical joke, Piquet always enjoyed a strong relationship with Brabham stalwarts Bernie Ecclestone, Charlie Whiting and Herbie Blash. He also knew how to upset the fans of F1’s royalty, labelling Mansell “an uneducated blockhead” and Enzo Ferrari “senile.” In recent years, he has overseen the racing exploits of his racing sons.

Nelson Piquet: 2020 Hall of Fame nominee

Voting is open for the 2020 Motor Sport Hall of Fame, with Nelson Piquet among the F1 nominees. Make your choices below, and be in with a chance of winning a £265 Stirling Moss print from Tim Layzell.