A profile of Renault test drivers Nelson Piquet Jr and Ricardo Zonta
Nelson Piquet: The Promise of Youth
Talent is in the genes of the Piquet household. A triple world champion in 1981, 1983 and 1987, Nelson Sr. made his mark with a flamboyant driving style on the track -- and a charismatic presence off it. As a rival of Mansell, Prost and Senna among others, he stood out with his passion for free speech -- making him a darling of the sport's media. The name 'Piquet' made an impression, so it's no surprise that it brings with it a certain level of expectation when it's attached to a new young sportsman... and he chooses to make a career in motor racing!
Ever since his first laps, Nelsinsho has given ample proof that he has inherited his father's prowess behind the wheel. But this year, the young Brazilian will pass another milestone as he becomes test driver for the Renault F1 Team. Although the talent may be inherited, the media will have to look elsewhere for the brazen declarations of his father: Nelsinho is a shy young man. Discreet and hard-working, he prefers the quiet of the motorhome to the flash of photographers' cameras.
The Brazilian made his racing debut in go-karts at the age of 8. Several national titles followed. "I didn't enjoy school", he remembers. "I got home around 3pm, and immediately went to the gokarting track. Once I got there, I drove until it got dark!" Little by little, he climbed the ranks of junior motorsport. Firstly in South American F3, then the prestigious British championship, with his father on hand for personal and logistical support.
In 2005, Nelsinho made his debut in GP2, and it was the following year, just after his 21st birthday, when Flavio Briatore called. The Renault F1 Team's Managing Director had been impressed by his battles with Lewis Hamilton, and offered him the role of test driver for 2007. Suddenly, his career rose to the next level. This young driver is still little known to the wider world.
"A lot of people get the wrong idea about me," admits Nelsinho, shrugging his shoulders. "I think it comes from my father's name. When people know the name, they mistake shyness for arrogance." He is under no illusions about his new job, though. It will require excellence. "Otherwise, people will say I'm only the shadow of my father..." he smiles.
His first drive for the Renault F1 Team came at Silverstone several days after the 2006 Italian Grand Prix. Since then, he has had several opportunities to begin learning the subtleties of his new job. He has shown himself to be determined, quick and industrious. All three are qualities that merit comparison with his father, while the world waits for the opportunity to compare their achievements...
Ricardo Zonta: A Quiet Hero
Ricardo Zonta is one of the modern generation of drivers. He keeps his feet on the ground, and knows how to put the team's interests ahead of his own when circumstances demand it. He doesn't behave like a superstar; and see his role as the final link in a long chain. When he talks about his new role with the Renault F1 Team, the Brazilian leaves no room for doubt. He will be working to help the double world champions defend their titles with honour. If that work can bring him a race seat some time in the future, that's even better. But it's not the priority. At the age of 30, the experience and character of the Brazilian will be valuable assets for the Renault F1 Team.
After becoming F3 SudAm champion in 1995, Ricardo Zonta decided to head for Europe -- and found a drive in F3000 the following year. He proved competitive and, at the end of his second seasons, in 1997, he took the title with three wins and five podiums. The young hopeful's reward came in the form of the opportunity to test for Jordan, and then a drive with Mercedes in sportscar racing, including racing at Le Mans in 1998.
An offer from British American Racing followed, and he made his official F1 debut in 1999 with the brand new team. He worked alongside 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve, but was injured in an accident at Interlagos - and only returned to racing in Montreal. His debut season had been ruined, and while performances improved in his second season, the new team was still finding its feet -- and Ricardo returned to Jordan at the end of 2000 as test driver. His duties were supplemented by two race starts following an injury to Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
Naturally, though, Ricardo sought a return to racing -- and took a brave decision to give new impetus to his career. He stepped down a level to compete in Formula Nissan, and won the title -- which in turn brought a testing contract with Toyota for the 2003 season. He performed this role until the end of the 2006 season, including 5 race starts for the Japanese team in 2004. At the end of last season, he joined Renault F1 Team as test driver.
Ricardo Zonta is quick, reliable, and well used to the demands of an F1 testing programme. He will help the Renault F1 Team to evaluate the new Bridgestone tyres, and make an important contribution to the development of the R27. He intends to complete the role diligently -- and to contribute to the team's title challenge in 2007.