Three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet is celebrating is 59th birthday today!
Despite his accomplishments in being part of a handful of drivers to have achieved as much as he has, what is strange is that few would consider the Brazilian among their top-ten drivers of all time…
Perhaps those who begrudge his success feel that it wasn’t earned in the manner of a true champion, but it’s quite likely that the Rio de Janeiro-born driver couldn’t care less. He raced for his own pleasure, did things his own way, and he particularly enjoyed exploiting any advantage he had over his team-mates and rivals. The success, frankly, speaks for itself.
Abandoning what looked to be a promising tennis career, Nelson raced karts and Super Vees in his native Brazil before heading to Europe in 1977 to campaign in the Formula 3 championship. He won two races in his first year, and then enjoyed a year-long scrap with Derek Warwick and Chico Serra the following year, winning one of the two Formula 3 titles on offer.
By now the Formula 1 teams were interested, and he was offered a drive at Ensign by Mo Nunn, before he jumped ship to McLaren. By the end of the year, he was at his third team, Brabham, where he would remain for several years.
The 1979 season was largely absent of major highlights – aside from a fourth-placed finish at Zandvoort and a podium at the Race of Champions – but Nelson was clearly destined for great things. And when Niki Lauda quit the team at the end of the year, team owner Bernie Ecclestone knew he could rely on the Brazilian to lead the team.
Piquet took the Cosworth-powered BT49 to three wins en route to narrowly missing out on the title to Alan Jones, but he made amends in 1981, claiming the crown from Carlos Reutemann at the final race.
The 1982 season was spent developing the team’s new BMW turbo engine, but Nelson still did enough to win at Montreal on one of the rare occasions when the car held together for long enough. In 1983, the Gordon Murray BT52 chassis was a gem, and Nelson drove splendidly in the little car to snatch a second championship at the final race, this time beating Renault’s Alain Prost at Kyalami.
The next two years netted three hard-fought wins, but the team’s fortunes were on the wane and Nelson jumped ship to Williams as the team’s number-one drive for 1986. The pre-season neck-breaking accident to team owner Frank Williams upset the apparent cakewalk the team should have enjoyed to dominating both championships, and this was compounded further when team-mate Nigel Mansell refused to play the role of compliant number-two. The end result was that Prost stole the championship at the final round, while Nelson was left seething at the team’s refusal to favour him.
Knowing the lay of the land, he set about to claim a third crown in 1987, which he did despite claiming far fewer wins than Mansell over the year. Instead, it was sheer consistency on his part – and a little bit of bad luck for Nigel – that did the job.
Lured by an enormous retainer, he moved to Lotus in 1988, but the two seasons there were an unmitigated disaster. His career seemingly looked to go out with a whimper, and it was a huge surprise when he was signed to Benetton for the 1990 season.
But Nelson forged an outstanding working relationship with chief designer John Barnard, and the pair steadily developed the B190 into a competitive prospect by the end of the season. He lucked into a win at Japan when Senna and Prost were eliminated at the first corner, but he claimed another win at the season-ending Australian Grand Prix, and took this completely on merit.
The 1991 season saw Benetton very much battling with Ferrari for best-of-the-rest honours as McLaren and Williams fought out at the front, but he claimed one more lucky win – most satisfyingly, at Mansell’s expense – at the Canadian Grand Prix.
At the Italian Grand Prix, Nelson celebrated his 200th Grand Prix start – becoming just the second driver in the sport’s history to achieve the feat – but the event also marked the arrival of Michael Schumacher as his team-mate, with the German making just his second Grand Prix start. Realising that the new generation was sweeping in, Nelson retired at the end of the season.
He joined the IndyCar scene in 1992, but badly smashed his legs when trying to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. His recovery was long and painful, but he was back in the cockpit a year later to qualify for the race and finish the job he’d started a year earlier.
Between earning yet more money with his fleet of companies in his homeland, Nelson also looks after the motorsport career of his son, Nelsinho.