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Special feature

Nelson Piquet – one of F1’s most formidable champions

Nelson Piquet was one of Formula 1’s biggest stars of the 1980s, going head to head with fellow legends Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna – and enjoying his fair share of success against them.

Nelson Piquet, Brabham-Ford

After giving up on a promising tennis career, Piquet rose through the single-seater ranks following the advice of another Brazilian great, Emerson Fittipaldi, and came to Europe to follow his F1 dream.

After hard-fought battles in British Formula 3 against Derek Warwick, Piquet made his first F1 starts with Ensign and McLaren machinery in 1978, before finding a home at Brabham in 1979.

Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT48
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT48
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT48
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT48
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT48 Alfa Romeo
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There – under the ownership of Bernie Ecclestone, management of Herbie Blash and with cars designed by Gordon Murray – Piquet unleashed his true potential at the pinnacle of the sport. His prodigious speed, and willingness to test hard to innovate elements of the car, helped Niki Lauda opt for (his first) retirement.

Piquet finished second to Alan Jones and Williams in 1980, but went one place better in 1981 to win his first world championship – defeating Williams’ other driver, Carlos Reutemann, in a thrilling title decider at Caesars Palace.

After a year spent developing the BMW turbo engine in 1982 – although memorably finding time out to karate-kick Eliseo Salazar in the German GP – Piquet won the title again in 1983, using the dart-shaped BT52 and BT52/B to beat Renault’s Alain Prost in a dramatic end to the season.

Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT49
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT49 and third place Emerson Fittipaldi, Fittipaldi F7
Start: Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT49C leads
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT49C Ford
Nelson Piquet, Brabham
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BMW
Gordon Murray with Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT50
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT52 BMW
Nelson Piquet, Brabham
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT52 BMW
Nelson Piquet
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Gordon Murray on Piquet

Murray said Piquet was “a fantastic racing driver with a lot of natural talent. It was a pleasure and privilege to work alongside him. He was part of the family – and I say that with conviction. We had a family, we had much more than a team.

“It was the passion and the dedication in those early days. We used to load the windtunnel model in the back of his car and go down to Southampton University and do windtunnel testing, and Nelson was there for every single minute of development and he learned everything. From an engineering point of view, we had a fantastic relationship and that's because he was absolutely dedicated as a youngster.”

Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT53 BMW
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT53 BMW, with Paul Rosche of BMW
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT53
Nelson Piquet, Brabham BT54 BMW
Podium: race winner Nelson Piquet, Brabham BMW, second place Keke Rosberg, Williams Honda, third place Alain Prost, McLaren TAG Porsche
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Piquet on his Brabham years

Piquet said of his time at Brabham: “It was fantastic, we were together for seven years, and we achieved two championships together. It was a big family atmosphere. To learn and work with a team was the most important thing.”

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In 1984, Piquet would take nine pole positions – equaling the F1 record of the time – but only two wins, as turbocharger failures cost him dear and restricted him to fifth in the championship.

When Michelin withdrew at season’s end, Ecclestone’s decision to switch to Pirelli tyres rather than the superior Goodyears would prove a limiting factor for 1985, Piquet scoring just one win at Paul Ricard.

Piquet, who liked to relax between races, had also grown bored with endlessly testing the Italian rubber, so when Frank Williams offered him a vastly superior salary to join a Williams-Honda team clearly on the rise, Nelson leapt at the chance.

Nelson Piquet, Williams FW11, Nigel Mansell, Williams FW11
1986 World Championship contenders, Ayrton Senna, Lotus, Alain Prost, McLaren, Nigel Mansell, Williams, Nelson PIquet, Williams
Winner Nelson Piquet, Williams FW11
Nelson Piquet, Williams, Ayrton Senna, Lotus, Nigel Mansell, Williams
Nelson Piquet, Williams FW11B Honda, leads Ayrton Senna, Team Lotus Honda 99T, Teo Fabi, Benetton B187 Ford
Nelson Piquet, Williams FW11B Honda
Nelson Piquet, Williams FW11B Honda
Stefan Johansson, McLaren, Race Winner Nelson Piquet, Williams. Ayrton Senna, Lotus
Nelson Piquet, Williams FW11B Honda
Nelson Piquet, Williams FW11B Honda
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Relationship with Williams

In 1986, he finished third in the championship behind McLaren’s Alain Prost and Williams team-mate Nigel Mansell, but in ’87 the Brazilian would beat them both to claim his third World Championship. And that came despite a horrendous practice crash at Imola, which caused him to miss the race.

Piquet, who could be a divisive character when it suited him, maintains his last title was his hardest.

“I had to fight with everything, against other drivers and in my team – to be in an English team with an English teammate and win the championship, it was not easy!

“I had to try to create a division in the team, to survive to try to win the championship. It was a very difficult year, you can believe that.”

The toxic atmosphere that he’d gone some way to creating at Williams turned full circle when it came to contract time. Piquet opted to leave at the end of his title year for an easier time at Lotus, where he was assured number one status alongside journeyman team-mate Satoru Nakajima and – unlike Williams – he would retain the powerful Honda engines.

Nelson Piquet, Lotus 100T Honda
Nelson Piquet, Lotus 100T Honda, 3rd place
Ayrton Senna, McLaren, Nelson Piquet, Lotus, Alain Prost, McLaren, Jean-Marie Balestre
Nelson Piquet, Lotus 101 Judd
Nelson Piquet, Lotus 101
Nelson Piquet, Benetton B190 Ford
Nelson Piquet, Benetton; Nigel Mansell, Ferrari
Podium: winner Nelson Piquet, Benetton Ford, second place Roberto Moreno, third place Aguri Suzuki, Lola Lamborghini
Nelson Piquet, Benetton B191 Ford
Nelson Piquet, Benetton B191 Ford, takes the chequered flag
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But after a frustrating two-year spell there, with Lotus getting trounced by McLaren using the same engine unit in 1988 and then losing that deal and being forced to run Judd engines in ’89, Piquet ended his career at Benetton.

There, he produced some stunning performances. By winning the final two races of the year, Piquet leapt to third in the 1990 drivers’ standings. The following year he scored his final victory in Canada – at great rival Nigel Mansell’s expense.

At season’s end, having encountered rising phenomenon Michael Schumacher as team-mate, Piquet retired from F1.

By then he had scored 23 grand prix wins across the Brabham, Williams and Benetton teams from 204 starts in total. He retired to concentrate on his business interests – and was especially successful with a GPS tracking system product for commercial vehicles.

He also attempted to conquer the Indianapolis 500 in 1992, only to suffer severe leg injuries in an horrific practice crash – before recovering and returning to compete there in 1993.

Nelson Piquet at Indy in 1992
#39 Bigazzi Team McLaren F1 GTR: Nelson Piquet, Johnny Cecotto, Danny Sullivan
#42 Team BMW Motorsport McLaren F1 GTR BMW: JJ Lehto, Steve Soper, Nelson Piquet
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Piquet and the Le Mans 24 Hours

Piquet also twice contested the Le Mans 24 Hours, finishing eighth in a Bigazzi-run McLaren F1 GTR alongside Johnny Cecotto and Danny Sullivan in 1996, but failing to finish a year later teamed with JJ Lehto and Steve Soper in a works BMW Motorsport car.

His final race was the 2006 Mil Milhas Brasileiras at Interlagos, where he shared victory in an Aston Martin DBR9 with son Nelson Jr, Helio Castroneves and Christophe Bouchut.

Piquet quips today: “When I stopped racing, I realised how good my vacation was!”

But in retirement his outspoken nature cost him dear in 2023, when he was fined $950,000 by a Brazilian court for using racist and homophobic language against Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton.

Piquet soon apologised for his remarks, stating his language "was ill thought out, and I make no defence for it". 

Nelson Piquet

Nelson Piquet

Photo by: Jose Mario Dias

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