THE LONG INTERVIEW
THIS IS NELSON PIQUET
This triple world champion spent 14 seasons in Formula 1, stoking controversy with a playboy lifestyle and palpable disrespect for his rivals. Even to this day, there are those who dismiss his talent. Speaking to F1 Racing for the first time, he makes it quite clear that he doesn’t care what they think…
The stiff breeze that’s rocking the motorhome carries the distant hum of racing engines. Deep in the curtained darkness within, something – someone – stirs. We’ve been waiting a long time for this moment – 21 years, to be exact. Nelson Piquet’s absence from the contemporary Formula 1 scene is the yin to omnipresent Sir Jackie Stewart’s yang. Having quit motor racing in 1993 to focus on his business interests, he’s returned only irregularly, to race for fun and to support the careers of his sons Nelson and Pedro – both competing here at Silverstone this weekend, in the World Endurance Championship and European Formula 3. The most elusive living three-time Formula 1 world champion seldom speaks to the press and hasn’t granted this magazine an audience in the two decades it’s been in print.
In his pomp, Piquet was respected for his pace and engineering savvy, gossiped about because of his epic appetite for female company, and quietly disdained in some quarters for overstepping the bounds of acceptability when ‘sledging’ his rivals. He always shot from the hip, but with a twinkle in his eye. Yet he remains a polarising gure, and for all his achievements (like Emerson Fittipaldi before him, he bagged a seat at motor racing’s top table within two seasons of touching down in Europe) there are those who maintain that his 14-season F1 career was a study in playing the percentages, usually in superior equipment of borderline legality.
This, though, churlishly underplays his role in making that equipment what it was, for he was a famously dedicated and tireless tester with a keen eye for engineering detail. Equally, though, while he was driving for Brabham he was the beneciary of some of the sport’s most legendary circumventions of the technical rules.
Nelson manifests himself from the gloom of the adjacent bedroom, shufing slightly – the legacy of a foot-pulverising shunt at Indianapolis in 1992. He apologises profusely for being unwell. “I suffer terribly from jet lag,” he explains. “Always have…”
Let’s start at the beginning. F1 Racing: Is it true that your family were so against you getting involved in racing that you had to hide it from them?
Nelson Piquet: No, my family weren’t very keen. I was the youngest son and my elder brothers had been in some car accidents, so my father never liked anything to do with cars or motorbikes. When I started in karts I was already 18 years old and I raced under a different name – Piquet is my mother’s maiden name. My father’s surname was Souto Maior. I couldn’t let him know I was racing!
Nelson’s father, a prominent doctor and politician, wanted Nelson to be a tennis player, to the extent that he was packed off to the US from Brazil to be coached and to learn English.
F1R: Was it helpful to your career that drivers such as Emerson Fittipaldi and Carlos Pace had already made a name as Brazilians in global motor racing?
NP: Emerson more or less designed the way to do it, you know? Going to England, starting in Formula Ford, then going to Formula 3 and then F1. It wasn’t just me; thousands of young Brazilian drivers wanted to follow that direction.
In European Formula 3 [in 1977] I drove alone – I even drove my own little bus to the different events. I had a mechanic coming out to the race weekends on the Saturday and Sunday, but if practice started before then, I had to do everything myself. I’d been trying some things – they were new then, but feature in most cars now – like a way of adjusting the balance of the braking effort [front-to-rear] from within the cockpit. For the rear roll-bar, I made two cables to adjust from inside the car.
In 1978 I did the British F3 Championships as well [there were two at the time], and I was more stable – I had a house here, a car, a little space in the Ralt factory. I had a friend, Greg Siddle, who was acting as a mechanic. I still didn’t have a truck – I’d rent one on the Friday, give it back on Monday. I can’t remember where the rst race was that year [according to the records, it was Thruxton], but I remember it was very cold. We warmed up the car very slowly, and on the startline it misred because one of the spark plugs was dirty. I was furious – because I was so possessed, so hungry.
What we did next time was to build a tent over the car, and we’d bought a heater to go in it. We warmed the car through and I nished ve or six seconds ahead of everybody else. A guy came up to me and said, “What the fuck did you invent?” Nobody realised how much better the car would be through the rst few corners if the tyres were already warm. By the time they woke up, I’d already won 14 races.
It’s an established part of Formula 1 folklore that Bernie Ecclestone ruthlessly exploited the young Piquet’s commercial naivety, holding him to onerous contracts and underpaying him for several years. And yet various elements within this narrative don’t ring true; Nelson was almost 26 when he made his F1 debut and, as the son of a
successful businessman and politician, he was by no means inexperienced in the ways of the world. Let’s see…
F1R: What was it like working for Bernie Ecclestone?
NP: Actually I had a really good relationship with him – and I still do. [ He pauses to rummage through the bag of sweet treats on the table, and, selecting one, ruminates on it for a moment.] I approached him in 1978, when Bob Sparshott offered me a contract to do four or ve races at the end of the year in his McLaren [Many F1 teams outsourced specialist engineering tasks to ex-Lotus man Sparshott’s BS Fabrications company, which was also an occasional entrant in grands prix with customer chassis]. I was told that Bernie knew all about contracts, so I knocked on his door and showed it to him. He modied it so it had a way out, saying: “If you’re very good, you should have one of these!” Then, on race day in Monza – a very sad day, when we lost Ronnie Peterson – Bernie came to see me before the second start. He said: “Do you want to drive for Brabham in Canada?” I went to his hotel after the race and he offered me a contract for three years. I was young and inexperienced so I said yes, I’d sign it. He said: “Do you know how to read English?” and I said: “More or less.”
“Just sign here to say you’ve read and understood,” said Bernie. “Don’t you want to know how much I’m going to pay you?”
“No,” I replied, “I just want to drive the car.”
“Okay, I’ll pay you $50,000 a year plus 30 per cent of the prize money.”
I said: “Okay, fair enough.” And it started like this. But! I never had this contract. He had it. It was like – [he mimes signing the contract, rolling it up, tucking it under his arm and making a dash for the door.] He never gave me a copy or anything – he just took it away and I never saw it again!
Well, three years later he said he’d like to renew the contract. I said, “Renew? Renew what? I’ve never had a contract with you!” He said, “Well, but…” The year after that he came back saying that Parmalat [Brabham’s title sponsor] wanted to have something on paper, so he produced this contract. I didn’t sign my name on it – I think I signed ‘Ayrton Senna’! I said to Bernie, “Look, I’m never going to see this contract anyway…”
Seven years I drove for Bernie – and I never had a contract. Never had a ght, either. Never had any arguments. We won two world titles, he always paid what he owed me, and that’s that. We’re still good friends.
F1R: Bernie has a reputation for being quite a sharp negotiator, though, and perhaps had a bit of a temper. Did you ever see that?
NP: One thing that was a bit sad. In 1979 the Brabham car was quite overweight – by about 22 kilos – because of the big Alfa Romeo engine. For qualifying at Silverstone I only had three gears in a six-speed ’box. Back in the factory I’d taken out rst, second and third gears, just leaving the ‘neck’, you know? And I told my mechanics to put it on the car because it would now be four or ve kilos lighter.
When I left the pits I emptied the re extinguisher – more weight gone. And I was much quicker than Niki [Lauda, his
SEVEN YEARS I DROVE FOR BERNIE AND I NEVER HAD A CONTRACT. NEVER HAD A FIGHT, EITHER. WE WON TWO WORLD TITLES, HE ALWAYS PAID WHAT HE OWED ME, AND THAT’S THAT. WE’RE STILL GOOD FRIENDS”
team-mate]. Unluckily, the scrutineers weighed my car on the scales. And there was quite a difference – maybe 13 or 14kg – between my car and Niki’s. Gordon [Murray, chief designer] was quite upset about this. Bernie, too. So they forbade me from going to the factory again.
F1R: It’s very interesting to hear you talk about how much you liked to get involved on the mechanical side, because I remember Gordon Murray saying that he designed the 1983 Brabham to be as non-adjustable as possible because he thought that drivers inevitably went the wrong way on setup.
NP: Ha ha! Bullshit. I enjoyed working with Gordon and with Patrick Head. But Gordon had a big problem. He wanted everything to be his design. Patrick was different – if he saw something that was working on another car, he would be happy to take it. The next day it would be on the Williams for testing. Gordon would be: “No, no, no, no, no…”
The reason we won the championship in ’83 was that we had a fucking good engine. The shape of the car wasn’t very good for downforce, but we won lots of races because it was fast in a straight line. BMW came in with the turbo three or four years after Renault, but were competitive straight away.
F1R: The early 1980s were very turbulent politically in F1 – the teams arguing with the governing body about money and power; the governing body was trying to clamp down on aerodynamic performance by banning things from one week to the next. What was it like to be in the middle of all that?
NP: Well, I think one of the problems was that the rules weren’t well-written. You’d nd a loophole and you’d use it. To give a really short example, the rules said that when you completed the race, you could replenish the liquids for cooling and lubrication. Gordon built a very light car which we said had water-cooled brakes [they weren’t, but the water tank could be lled after the race, bringing the car up to the minimum weight]. Ferrari and Renault complained to the FIA. I won a race in Rio [the 1982 Brazilian Grand Prix] and then got disqualied 11 months later. There were lots of arguments in between. The thing nowadays is that more experienced people write the rules and they write them better.
F1R: You’d won your rst title in 1981, using the BT49C with the hydraulic bodywork [a neat dodge by Gordon Murray, in which hydraulic struts pushed the outer shell of the car upwards when stationary, enabling it to satisfy an FIA diktat on minimum height]. A few years ago I interviewed the F1 photographer Nigel Snowdon and he said you nearly ran him over that year when you had to crash after qualifying because the car wouldn’t have passed scrutineering.
NP: I remember Nigel. [He chuckles] No, I didn’t have to crash the car. The idea was that the car would go up and down without the driver having to do anything, just the aerodynamic pressure. After qualifying – it was in Argentina – I went slowly back to the pits but it didn’t come back up again. I knew it would be measured. So I spun the car onto the grass – and Nigel was quite close!
F1R: How hard was it to leave Brabham?
NP: It was difcult to leave without having an argument or a ght with Bernie. But I did it in a very nice way. I went to him and said: “I’ve won the world championship twice and would like to earn more money next year. I’ve had an offer from somebody else. You don’t want to pay me all that – you could get a younger driver.” And I was going into the McLaren motorhome a lot to speak to Niki, so Bernie was 100 per cent sure I was dealing with Ron Dennis. Eventually he went over there himself to have a conversation with Ron. I don’t know what was said, but afterwards he came back to me and said, “If they’re going to pay you that much, you can sign, don’t worry.” That night I signed with Frank Williams!
There were lots of reasons to go to Williams, including the Honda engine. Then the day after, Bernie said to me, “I’ll give you another $500,000.” I said, “Are you crazy? You told me to sign. I’ve signed.”
F1R: That sounds like a very Bernie thing to do. NP: Yes it was!
F1R: Would he have actually paid you that extra money, if you’d ripped up the Williams contract?
NP: Oh, for sure. He would have done that. But it was the right time to go. There were big arguments between Gordon and Bernie; the team was going down, and Bernie was looking
IN THE EARLY ’80S THE RULES WEREN’T WELL-WRITTEN. YOU’D FIND A LOOPHOLE AND YOU’D USE IT. NOW MORE EXPERIENCED PEOPLE WRITE THE RULES AND THEY WRITE THEM BETTER
more at the F1 business. He didn’t care about the team any more. I knew that if I wanted to win again it was time to leave.
F1R: Your rivalry with Nigel Mansell when you were Williams team-mates has become the stuff of F1 legend. What went wrong there? Did you feel you had to put him in his place?
NP: The bad thing… what went wrong in that relationship wasn’t Nigel. It was Frank’s accident. I signed a contract with Frank and I made sure I was the number-one driver.
But then Frank was in the hospital. What was I going to do – go to him to complain [about not being treated as the number one]? His problems were much bigger than mine. But I said to myself at the time that the way we were going, we weren’t going to win the championship. And yes, we lost the championship. But I kept quiet and did my job.
The rst year, I don’t remember the exact results, but there were very few times when Nigel was in front of me – I had a lot of engine failures and that’s why we lost the championship.
Just for clarity, in the races that they both nished in 1986, it’s actually ve-four in Nigel’s favour, although Nelson was ahead on the road in two of the four races from which he retired, and two of the races from which Nigel retired – including the climactic Australian Grand Prix in which Mansell’s left-rear tyre exploded, forcing Williams to bring in Piquet for a precautionary stop. Alain Prost won the race and the drivers’ title. In 1987 Nigel won ve races to Nelson’s three, but lost the title to his team-mate because he crashed in Japan and missed the nal two rounds.
The second year was very different. I had a big accident in Imola and I lost three dimensions.
F1R: This was after you had crashed at Tamburello? You didn’t tell anyone about it at the time, but you had problems with your vision afterwards.
NP: That’s right. Not double vision – it was at, like a TV. I only realised when I got in the helicopter and went to y. It was so strange. But I kept quiet in case they didn’t let me race. I was taking sight tests in Italy every 15 days to see if I was safe to y, and it was coming back – but not quickly enough. In the car, I was so slow. I had to have somebody in front of me to follow during qualifying.
If I didn’t, when I was running by myself, I’d have to look at the marker boards [mimes turning his head repeatedly to the side], then look to the front to see the direction of the corner, then brake and turn the corner. So fucking slow! Next time around I’d try to do a little better. And it was like that until the end of the year.
I was getting better, but it was never the same as before, and that’s why, in the middle of the year, I signed the big contract with Lotus [he rubs his thumb and forenger together to emphasise how lucrative it was]. I thought I would never be as quick as I had been before the accident.
F1R: Once you’d nished in F1 at the end of 1991, a few months later you were trying to qualify for the Indy 500. What made you want to try that?
NP: Ha! That’s another story. I’d stopped racing and gone back to work in Brazil to look after my business. But I’d always wanted to do the Indy 500 and Le Mans. When I was back in Brazil they offered me a chance to run in the Indy 500. I thought, “Hmm, do I really want to do this?” I was busy working. But it was a lot of money, and they paid me, and I went – and I had an accident before the race!
F1R: And you broke both your legs very badly. Was that a worse accident in terms of the ongoing effects than the crash you had at Imola?
NP: I broke all of my feet. Tamburello was nothing in comparison – I only hit my head. The consequences of the Indy crash were very different.
F1R: But you went back the next year. Was that for the money?
NP: No, it was for pride. But the accident, for me, was also the best thing that happened in my life, because it made a wall between racer and businessman. When I started in business it was hard to join the real world, to be 100 per cent sure I wanted to do it. If I hadn’t had the accident, I might have carried on racing for ve years? Ten years? The accident told me that I needed to do something different with my life.
But! If you told me I could go back and do it all again, then I’d do it all again…
THE ACCIDENT WAS THE BEST THING THAT HAPPENED IN MY LIFE. IF I HADN’T HAD IT, I MIGHT HAVE CARRIED ON RACING FOR FIVE YEARS? TEN YEARS? IT TOLD ME I NEEDED TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT
Brabham’s Gordon Murray designed his cars to be as non-adjustable as possible, but Piquet liked to be involved on the mechanical side
Piquet clinches the first of his three titles at the US GP at Caesars Palace in October 1981, with a fifth-place finish
The era-defining intra-team rivalry between Piquet and Nigel Mansell at Williams in 1986