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Nelson Piquet

Full Name:
Nelson Piquet Souto Maior
17th August 1952 (Age 68)
Rio de Janeiro
Most recent race (in database):

How can a triple World Champion be so neglected by history? In his day Nelson Piquet was the best driver in the world when this aloof loner cut a refreshingly independent furrow as Brabham team leader. However the surliness that had seemed part of his star quality proved less acceptable to the media as his fortunes faded.

Worse still, the role of his son in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix scandal and his subsequent whistle-blowing left the Piquet family’s Formula 1 legacy somewhat battered.

Upbringing and early career

The son of a government official, the young Nelson Souto Maior considered a career as a tennis player before he became hooked on motor racing. He used his mother’s maiden name (Piquet) in the hope of hiding his early progress in that altogether more dangerous sport from a disapproving family. There was little hope that the deception would succeed for he was too quick – winning the Brazilian karting title in his second season in that form of the sport.

Allowed to race as long as he continued his University studies in America, victory in the 1976 Brazilian Super Vee Championship persuaded Piquet to turn professional and trust his luck in Europe. He risked everything – divorce from his wife of two years, parental support and reputation – to follow his GP ambitions.

His European debut in Formula 3 was a struggle at first but he began to win once he had swapped his March 773 for a Ralt RT1-Toyota. Third in the 1977 European F3 Championship after winning twice, he concentrated on the British championships a year later. He battled Derek Warwick for outright honours with Piquet winning the BP title and the Englishman taking the Vandervell series.

Formula 1 graduation and promotion to Brabham

Piquet was in demand as his reputation burgeoned and he made his F1 debut with an Ensign N177-Ford in the 1978 German GP. Further outings in BS Fabrications’ ex-works McLaren M23-Ford attracted the attention of Bernie Ecclestone and the young Brazilian ended the year with a one-off in a third Brabham BT46-Alfa Romeo at the Canadian GP.

A first full season with the team in 1979 included finishing second in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch but was blighted by the temperamental Alfa Romeo V12 that powered his Brabham BT48. Fourth place in the Dutch GP provided his only points score. However, the sudden retirement of team leader Niki Lauda and the introduction of the Ford-powered BT49 at the Canadian GP thrust Piquet into the limelight. He qualified fourth for that race and was on the front row for the subsequent United States GP.

He then belied his inexperience as he battled Alan Jones for the 1980 World Championship. That included the indiscretions of youth (crashing in Belgium for instance) and it was ultimately an unsuccessful campaign. But victories at Long Beach, Zandvoort (especially) and Monza were confirmation of a special talent as he finished as runner-up.

World Champion at the third attempt

Piquet won the 1981 World Championship in just his third full season as an F1 driver – a remarkable feat only bettered by Lewis Hamilton in a very different age. He won three GPs that year and the lingering feeling is that he stole the title at the final round from a strangely out-of-sorts Carlos Reutemann. However, the maturity it took to race for points rather than victories perhaps tempered the fresh, exciting firebrand that had so recently arrived.

He won the 1982 Brazilian GP on the road before his Brabham BT49D-Ford was subsequently disqualified. The rest of the year was spent developing BMW’s turbocharged engine. Piquet rebounded from failing to qualify at Detroit to win a week later in Canada. Second in Holland, he lost the German GP when he crashed into Eliseo Salazar’s ATS while lapping the Chilean. That famously prompted fists to fly in front of the television cameras.

Piquet snatches the 1983 title at the final round

The 1983 campaign began with Piquet’s Brabham BT52-BMW winning in Brazil but much of the year was spent chasing Alain Prost’s Renault. However, aided by a mid-season upgrade and Brabham’s fuel stopping tactics, Piquet overhauled his rival to clinch his second World Championship in the South African final round.

Two seasons then spent in the shadow of the dominant McLaren team did not dim the acceptance that Piquet was F1’s fastest driver when the mood took. 1985 was hampered by Brabham’s use of Pirelli tyres but Piquet was instrumental in developing the Italian rubber. Victory in France was a just but sole reward for his endeavour.

World Champion with Williams-Honda

Thought to be a permanent fixture at Brabham where management were happy to accommodate his traits, Piquet surprised the F1 world by moving to Williams-Honda for 1986. Immediately installed as title favourite, he fought an internecine battle with new team-mate Nigel Mansell. They had the best car in the field and the pre-season belief was that Piquet would easily beat the Englishman. However, they took points off each other as they squabbled on track, letting Alain Prost’s McLaren steal the championship at the final round. Autocourse questioned if Piquet was “a myth exposed” and Mansell certainly had the upper hand in an increasingly difficult relationship.

Piquet missed the 1987 San Marino GP after a huge practice accident and was soundly beaten by Mansell in the British GP at Silverstone. But he won three times (in addition to another eight podium finishes) and made the most of Mansell’s misfortunes in Germany and Hungary. A third world title was his when Mansell crashed in Japan.

Final Formula 1 seasons with Lotus and Benetton

Williams lost its Honda engine supply to McLaren in 1988 and Piquet joined Lotus to defend his title, a move eased by Camel’s substantial retainer. His Lotus 100T-Honda finished third in the opening two races of the year but McLaren were utterly dominant. Third again in the Australian finale, Piquet was sixth in the 1988 World Championship.

Honda engines were replaced by Judd units in 1989 and the Brazilian’s seeming indifference on a poor day became ever-more noticeable. His failure to qualify for the Belgian GP was seized upon by his critics but Piquet remained in F1 by signing with Benetton for the following season.

It proved a welcome release for this complex character and he won the final two races of the year to clinch third equal in the 1990 standings. He inherited victory in the following year’s Canadian GP when Mansell retired on the last corner of the last lap – the 23rd and final GP win of Piquet’s career. He had a rookie team-mate for the Italian GP and the precocious Michael Schumacher immediately outperformed him. Piquet’s relationship with team management was on the wane anyway and his contract was not renewed.

Indianapolis accident and the next generation

Without an F1 ride for 1992, Piquet entered the Indianapolis 500 but he crashed his Team Menard Lola T92/00-Buick head-on into the Turn 4 wall during practice. He suffered severe leg, ankle and foot injuries but had recovered sufficiently to return to the race a year later. He qualified for the 1993 Indy 500 in 13th position but retired when his Menard engine failed after just 38 laps.

That was his only Champcar start and – some GT racing for enjoyment apart – Piquet then concentrated on guiding Nelson Piquet Jr’s career to F1. More recently, another son (Pedro) won the Brazilian F3 title on two occasions and has now embarked on his own career in Europe.

Championship seasons

Season Name Starts Poles Podiums Wins Position Points
1996 Temporada GT Championship
Team Bigazzi
2 1 2 2 1st 0
1993 PPG Indycar World Series
Team Menard
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
1992 PPG Indycar World Series
Team Menard
0 (1) 0 0 0 0
1991 F1 World Championship
Camel Benetton Ford
16 0 3 1
7% win rate
6th 26.5
1990 F1 World Championship
Benetton Formula
16 0 4 2
13% win rate
3rd 43 (44)
1989 F1 World Championship
Camel Team Lotus
15 (1) 0 0 0
0% win rate
8th 12
1988 F1 World Championship
Camel Team Lotus Honda
16 0 3 0
0% win rate
6th 22
1987 F1 World Championship
Canon Williams Honda Team
15 (1) 4 11 3
20% win rate
1st 73 (76)
1986 F1 World Championship
Canon Williams Honda Team
16 2 10 4
25% win rate
3rd 69
1985 F1 World Championship
Motor Racing Developments
16 1 2 1
7% win rate
8th 21
1984 F1 World Championship
Motor Racing Developments
16 9 4 2
13% win rate
5th 29
1983 F1 World Championship
Fila Sport
15 1 8 3
20% win rate
1st 59
1982 F1 World Championship
Parmalat Racing Team
14 (1) 1 2 1
8% win rate
11th 20
1981 F1 World Championship
Parmalat Racing Team
15 4 7 3
20% win rate
1st 50
1981 World Endurance Championship
Gerhard Schneider
1 0 1 1 252nd 10.5
1980 F1 World Championship
Parmalat Racing Team
14 2 6 3
22% win rate
2nd 54
1980 World Championship of Makes
1 0 1 0 12
1980 BMW M1 Procar
BS Fabrications
BMW Motorsport
8 1 4 3
38% win rate
1st 90
1979 F1 World Championship
Parmalat Racing Team
15 0 0 0
0% win rate
15th 3
1979 BMW M1 Procar
BMW Motorsport
4 (1) 1 2 1
25% win rate
6th 35
1978 F1 World Championship
Team Tissot Ensign
Parmalat Racing Team
Liggett Group with BS Fabrications
5 0 0 0
0% win rate
1978 BP British F3 Championship 1st -
1977 European F3 Championship
Scuderia Mirabella Mille Miglia
Scuderia Mirabella MM
11 (2) 1 5 2
19% win rate
3rd 33