Nelson Piquet Jr was – and remains – blessed by a number of advantages that have helped propel him all the way from junior open-wheel racing to Formula 1, and then onto becoming the first World Champion of the all-electric Formula E Championship.
The son of three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet, ‘Nelsinho’ was born with one of the most famous surnames in motorsport that already gave him access to an impeccable list of racing connections. A little bit of family wealth helped to kickstart him, while access to first-class machinery and his own superb talents did the rest.
With his parents separating shortly after his birth, Piquet Jr spent his early childhood in Europe before relocating to Brazil as an eight-year-old. He was destined to dip his toe in racing and it was no surprise to see him take his formative steps in karting where he quickly proved a winner and a multiple champion.
His move to open-wheel racing triggered further success. He claimed an incredible 13 wins and 16 pole positions over a 17-race sophomore campaign in the F3 Sudamerican championship. Two years later, he was the British F3 champion. Two years after that, he was waging an intense battle for the GP2 Series title with a certain Lewis Hamilton, losing out the Brit in the final race of an incredibly close season.
His performances earned him a role as Renault’s F1 test and reserve driver in 2007 before he was promoted to a full-time drive with the Enstone outfit in 2008. Paired alongside the formidable Fernando Alonso, Piquet Jr had a torrid spell of races and quickly came under pressure to deliver results and keep his seat in what was a poor car. His first points came at Magny Cours and he backed that up in Germany where a one-stop strategy and Safety Car interruption played perfectly into his hands to net him a second-placed finish.
The following year saw Piquet’s future in under a cloud as he failed to score a single points’ finish. Halfway through the season he was fired by team principal Flavio Briatore, but it turned out Piquet had his own scores to settle by dropping a bombshell that he’d been ordered by Briatore to crash out of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix in a successful ploy to help teammate Alonso claim victory.
While he was granted immunity from prosecution by the FIA in exchange for his testimony, Piquet Jr was cast off into the wilderness and left to rebuild a reputation tainted by one of the sport’s greatest acts of cheating. It left a lasting scar on Piquet’s career and it remains a topic he’s no longer prepared to keep reliving.
He crossed the pond and opted to try his hand at NASCAR racing, where victories at Bristol, Road America and Las Vegas showed his versatility and speed.
A later stint in the Global RallyCross Championship followed – netting four podium finishes – before he signed on with China Racing in the new Formula E Championship.
Consistency and reliability – along with two vital wins at Long Beach and Moscow – saw him crowed the series’ inaugural Drivers’ Champion by a solitary point over Sébastien Buemi.
The following two years with what then became the NEXTEV team saw Piquet fail to trouble the podium again as the Chinese team struggled for competitiveness and reliability.
A switch to the new Jaguar Racing outfit for the 2017-18 season has brought Piquet Jr a new lease on life, where the car has proven quick and pushed him back into championship contention.
Ahead of the season’s fourth event in Santiago, Nelsinho sat down to reminisce about his career and talk up his chances of a second Formula E title.
Nelson, you’ve had a change of scenery for this season, moving to Panasonic Jaguar Racing. It seems to be a good fit – how are you finding working with the team?
It’s going really well and I’m very much enjoying the new challenge. There’s an amazing technical crew at Panasonic Jaguar Racing and they’ve made a lot of gains from season three to season four – the car is much lighter and much more efficient.
Your new team mate this year, Mitch Evans, has been with Jaguar since the start of their Formula E program. Given he has more experience with the team, but you have more experience in Formula E, how is the working relationship between the two of you?
It’s working perfectly. He has the speed, I have the knowledge and we complement each other well. I bring a lot of experience and he’s really fast and pushes me to be the best and quickest I can be. We work very well together and he’s a nice guy.
With Formula E teams having different power train design philosophies, for example varying control system programming, different numbers of gears and so on, how has it been adapting to driving the Jaguar after driving the NIO for the past few seasons? Have you had to change much in your approach to driving the car?
The cars are very similar but there’s different software and the team works differently. But those are things I adjusted to very quickly and I’m using my experience to bring the best of my previous experience to my current team.
It’s been a strong start to the season for you, currently fourth in the Drivers’ Championship standings on 25 points. It’s a very similar points’ score as you had after three races during your championship winning season. Is winning this season’s championship a genuine goal for you and the team?
We didn’t expect to be this high up in the championship after three races so it’s been a nice surprise for us. Obviously our goals and expectations are growing the better we are doing. We will just keep working hard and working to get good results.
After winning season one – when the cars and power trains were a controlled specification – you couldn’t quite stay at the same level of competitiveness during seasons two and three. Is it fair to suggest that when the need to develop their own power train for season two and beyond, NIO struggled to match the development of other teams at the time?
This technological challenge is not the easiest thing. There’s a thousand different possible solutions and technologies to focus and invest in and it’s not easy to take the right decisions. NIO perhaps didn’t take the right decisions two years in a row so I took a gamble to move to Jaguar and make a fresh start. With the big players coming on board, once you’re a few steps behind it’s difficult to catch up so a team like Jaguar with the resources it has was an attractive proposition.
There’s some big and exciting changes coming to Formula E over the next two seasons, with several new manufacturers joining the field. Given their histories of success in other forms of motorsport, how are you looking forward to the challenge of competing against them?
Manufacturers coming into Formula E is a great thing for the championship – it shows that the series is exactly where it needs to be and is doing an important job.
Season five will also see the introduction of the second generation Formula E car. Have you had much exposure to the development of the new car yet? What are your thoughts on the new model?
Apart from a few photos we haven’t seen the car yet. I honestly don’t really care though about what the car looks like, I’m only focused on Jaguar’s new powertrain because it’s the powertrain technology that is going to make the difference.
From the sneak-peek images we’ve seen of the new car, it appears it will be fitted with a Halo-style driver head protection device. Do you feel the Halo is a welcome safety improvement, or more likely to be a hindrance to you as a driver?
I don’t like the halo. I think it’s taking away what motorsport is all about.
Is the new car likely to change how you approach each ePrix as a driver? Energy management over a full race distance in a single car, and no ‘back up’ option of a second car if you sustain damage in the first half of the race would surely change how a driver thinks about their race?
Not really. You might be a tiny bit more careful in practice but apart from that will be the same mentality.
Looking beyond Formula E, after you left Formula 1 you raced in a wide range of categories, including all three of the NASCAR National Series, Global RallyCross and also the FIA World Endurance Championship. You had some success there, with race wins in the NASCAR Truck & Xfinity series, and even an X-Games medal in RallyCross. You’ve continued to dovetail sports cars while racing Formula E, but are the other categories something you’d consider a return to in the future, and if so, which ones?
I have had some career highlights that I am very proud of. In Formula 1, highlights were my first podium in Hockenheim 2008, my fourth place finish in Japan 2008 and my sixth in Hungary the same year. Before I reached F1 I had some amazing career moments that I will always remember. I won every championship I raced in go-karts. I was South American F3 champion in 2002, British F3 champion in 2004. I set the record in the GP2 Series for the first driver to have a perfect weekend, scoring the maximum points available, in Hungary 2006. In NASCAR, the highlight has to be the win at Road America in the Nationwide Series last year in only my third NNS start. That was an amazing moment.
And then of course the championship win in Formula E was so special. I can’t pick a favourite championship and there’s still so much I want to do! I would compete in the Le Mans 24 Hours every year if I could and I also absolutely loved racing NASCAR, so I would do that again in a heartbeat. Of course, as a driver I want to win races and championships, and so there’s always room for more of that in my career!
Last year you competed in the World Endurance Championship with the Valliante Rebellion squad, including at Le Mans, where your finished on the outright podium in an LMP2 car, only to later be excluded for a technical infringement. After such a grueling event, to have such a brilliant result taken away from you for no fault of your own as a driver, did it take some time to process and move on from the disqualification?
Of course I was upset with the end result but it didn’t take away from the hard work we did at Le Mans. I was the driver who did the most amount of laps; I completed 170 laps (nearly 2400km) and drove for 10 hours 40 minutes of the 24 hours, achieving the second best lap time of the LMP2 category along the way. I love Le Mans, it’s one of the best races you can do in the world and I hope to compete in it many more times.
I had an amazing experience, I had fantastic team-mates in Mathias Beche and David Heinemeier Hansson and we won’t ever forget the experience we had getting that car to the end. I felt bad for the whole team who had done an amazing job all week but sometimes things like that happen in racing. You just come back stronger.
You come from a motor racing family, not only your father but also your younger brother Pedro. Is racing together, for example in Prototypes or GT racing, something you’ve considered or discussed? A ‘Team Piquet’ entry at Le Mans – like we’ve seen in the past from the Mansells and Brundles – would be quite interesting.
We’ve done that already! My father and I raced together in the Mil Milhas endurance race in Brazil together in 2006 and we won the race. It was a very special day and amazing to win together with my father.
Your time in Formula 1, while so often linked to the events of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, did show signs of speed and potential, including a podium at the 2008 German Grand Prix. Looking back a decade one, how do you view your time in Formula One? Is there a feeling of unfinished business, or are you content with what you achieved during your time?
Getting the podium in Hockenheim in my debut season was a great moment. In fact, I had the most successful debut season of any Brazilian in Formula One. Then a very hard fought fourth place in Japan later that year was a very good moment. I put all my effort into everything that I do. I love racing and I’ve always loved being diverse in my racing career. Formula 1 was a part of my life for a few years but I have done a huge amount since then and I’m loving what I’m doing.
With the introduction of faster cars with more aero and wider tyres last season, the Halo added to the cars for 2018 and of course Liberty Media taking ownership of the series there’s been quite a few changes in Formula 1 across the past few seasons. As a former Formula 1 driver, what are your thoughts on the direction the sport is taking?
I think it’s all going the right direction. It’s good they are really looking at the locations of the races as well and working to remove races that only happened because they paid money.
I believe that the only thing the drivers are not happy about at the moment are some of the regulation decisions being made such as the halo, which fans and drivers generally do not like, and on-track penalties that are causing drivers to become less aggressive in the races and reducing the excitement factor for fans.
So I think those things need looking at, but it seems what Liberty is doing is going in the right direction.
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