Brabham BT52-BMW 1983
Nelson Piquet is one of only eight drivers to have won three or more F1 World Championships, an elite club indeed. After beginning with go-karts and Super Vees in his native Brazil, then conquering British F3 — where he broke Jackie Stewart’s record for most wins in a season — Piquet (Nelson Piquet Souto Maior in full) made his Formula One debut in an Ensign-Cosworth at the 1978 German Grand Prix. He competed in three more GPs with BS Fabrications, a McLaren customer team, before being signed by Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham organization to partner with Niki Lauda in Canada. When the Austrian unexpectedly retired near the end of the 1979 season, Piquet became Brabham’s number one driver. In 1980, he lost the championship to Alan Jones (Williams-Ford) after a long and tough battle, while posting his first GP win at the US West Grand Prix in Long Beach. In 1981, however, Piquet succeeded in winning his first World Championship crown, with three wins, beating Carlos Reutemann by a single point. When he captured his second Championship in 1983, Piquet became the first F1 titleist to win using a turbo engine. Yet in both 1981 and 1983, Piquet had to make up ground on his rivals, coming from behind in the points standings to reverse the situation at the final race of the season. And the Championships weren’t gifted to him, as in the ’83 season, for instance, when his main opponent Alain Prost put Nelson out of the Dutch GP.
Piquet was a talented but headstrong driver, with a delicate temperament. In Germany in 1982, he was leading the Grand Prix until he collided with Eliseo Salazar, after which he memorably attacked Salazar at the side of the track. He remained with Brabham through some lean years, for instance in 1984, when the car and BMW turbo engine again suffered from unreliability, Nelson recorded pole position nine times but only won twice. Joining Frank Williams to pilot the Williams-Honda turbo for the 1986 season, Piquet lost the F1 title to Alain Prost after he and Nigel Mansell, the 2nd Williams’ driver, stole too many points away from each other to fend off Prost’s dark horse challenge. Unusual for the era, and still today, Williams allowed its drivers to compete head-top-head for the title, which made for some tremendous on-track duels. (Ironically, in 1986 Piquet won one more races — a total of four — than he would in any of his Championship-winning campaigns.) The following year things went according to plan. A heavy practice crash put him out of the second race of the season at Imola, but after retiring from the following Belgian GP, Piquet went on a remarkable run of nine consecutive podiums, including three wins and only one 3rd place. When Nigel suffered a serious shunt and injury in practice for the penultimate race of the season in Japan, a third World Championship was Piquet’s by a big margin, while Mansell became his favorite practical joke target. One time Nelson stole all the toilet paper from the bathroom just before Mansell had to go.
Racing Formula One cars in Monaco is like trying to ride a bicycle around your living room.
— Nelson Piquet —
Piquet made a big mistake moving to Lotus for 1988 and ’89, following the powerful Honda turbos to a surprisingly stagnant team mired in the aftermath of losing Ayrton Senna to McLaren. Despite a multimillion dollar contract, it was the first season since Piquet’s F1 debut that he did not win a single race — although the yellow “Camel Lotus” livery on his Lotus was fantastic. Nelson tasted victory again in 1990, driving a Benetton-Ford in the Japanese Grand Prix, the first time Benetton scored a 1-2, with a tearful teammate Roberto Moreno in 2nd place. But by then the fire had all but gone out of this proud Brazilian. In 1991, again with Benetton, he completed his final season in F1, scoring a single win in Canada after Mansell’s “active” Williams FW14 sputtered unexpectedly with electronic gremlins on the last lap.
Revered in his native Brasil as eternamente tricampeão (eternal three-times champion) and raised in an era before racing drivers were trained to say nothing controversial, Piquet was proudly outspoken. He gained a reputation as a loose cannon — attacking Mansell and his wife, calling Mansell “an uneducated blockhead” and stating that fellow Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna “doesn’t like women.” Piquet was often criticized for only winning when his car was the best on the grid. But much of it was due to countless miles of testing and the bottom line is that Nelson won when he needed to. With Gordon Murray designing the Brabham cars, it was nonetheless Piquet’s brilliance as a test driver that turned the unreliable BMW turbo into a title-winner. After his departure from F1, Piquet set his sights on a new challenge: the 1992 Indianapolis 500. But in a practice session a mechanical failure put the Team Menard Lola-Buick abruptly into the wall, causing severe injuries to his lower legs. It seemed to be the end of a brilliant career, but one year later, after a slow and painful recovery, he came back to the same track to try again. That time his Buick engine blew during the 500 race. It was the last race in which Piquet drove competitively. His son, Nelson Piquet, Jr., drove for a short time in F1 and now competes in the American NASCAR stock car series. The action photo above is from the 1983 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard, where Piquet finished 2nd behind Prost’s Renault.
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