Three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet is turning 58 today.
The 1981, 1983 and 1987 title winner had a 204 Grands Prix career spanning 1978 to 1991, representing the likes of Ensign, McLaren, Brabham, Williams, Lotus and Benetton. He achieved 23 wins – including the last won by Pirelli, at the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix – 24 pole positions and 60 podium finishes in all.
The son of a government minister, Piquet forsook a potential career as a professional tennis player to pursue his motorsport ambitions, much to his family’s initial disgust.
After winning in British Formula 3, he was signed up to the Ensign team before jumping ship to a BS Fabrications-run McLaren, and then moving to Brabham.
Serving his apprenticeship as Niki Lauda’s team-mate in 1979 saw Piquet become a championship challenger to Williams’ Alan Jones in 1980, picking up three wins but losing out at the final race in Canada. He got his revenge in 1981, pipping Carlos Reutemann to the post by a single point with a dramatic showdown in Las Vegas.
As Brabham began to develop its BMW turbo engine, the team’s form dipped in 1982 and was notoriously unreliable. When it held together long enough – such as in Canada that year – he would land up on the rostrum.
The 1984-5 period saw the dominance of the rival McLaren TAG package, and Brabham was simply no match for it, although Nelson was able to pick up a few wins.
Rejecting Bernie Ecclestone’s offer to stay on for 1986 (a wise move, at the low-line car was a dog), Nelson jumped ship to Williams. But he had a forceful team-mate in Nigel Mansell, who refused to play a subservient number-two role to the Brazilian. Amidst the in-fighting, Prost snuck through to win the title in an extraordinary finale in Adelaide.
Nelson made up for it in 1987, and won his third championship despite posting fewer race wins than Mansell in the Honda-powered Williams. Honda’s decision to dump Williams in favour of McLaren saw Nelson accept a massive pay cheque from Camel cigarettes to join Lotus for 1988-9, but it was a disastrous two seasons.
A move to Benetton in 1990 saw a revival in his fortunes, and he picked up two surprise victories at the end of the season, adding to his tally in 1991 when Mansell retired on the last lap when he stalled his Williams while waving to the crowd!
Michael Schumacher joined him as his team-mate from the Italian Grand Prix onwards, and Nelson realised that he couldn’t compete with the young German, slinking off to the United States’ racing scene.
A massive accident preparing for the Indy 500 left him with horrific leg injuries and finished his motorsport career for good. Nelson retired to Brazil and earned a fortune developing a host of business interests, in addition to managing the career of his son, F1’s enfant terrible, Nelson Piquet Jr.
[Original images via The Cahier Archive]