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 beneciary of some of the sport’s most leg­endary cir­cum­ven­tions of the tech­ni­cal rules.

Nel­son man­i­fests him­self from the gloom of the ad­ja­cent bed­room, shufing 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 misred 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 modied 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


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 dis­qualied 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 difcult 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


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 forenger 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…


Piquet clinches the first of his three ti­tles at the US GP at Cae­sars Palace in Oc­to­ber 1981, with a fifth-place fin­ish

Brab­ham’s Gordon Mur­ray de­signed his cars to be as non-ad­justable as pos­si­ble, but Piquet liked to be in­volved on the me­chan­i­cal side

The era-defin­ing in­tra-team ri­valry be­tween Piquet and Nigel Mansell at Wil­liams in 1986

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