- August 17, 1952
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Nelson Piquet is a famous Brazilian race car driver and three-time Formula 1 champion. He competed in Formula One between 1978 and 1991 with six teams, winning the titles in 1981, 1983 and 1987. He scored 23 Grand Prix victories in 204 races he started.
Nelson Piquet Souto Maior was born on August 17th, 1952, in Rio de Janeiro, but he spent a childhood in Brasilia as a son of a government official. His first contact with the sports was when he played tennis as a teenager but soon discover motorsports and started participating in Brazilian kart championship at the age of 14.
In those first years, he raced under name Piket (not Piquet) to hide his activities from his family. Very soon his success was so big that he couldn’t hide under a false name anymore when he become Brazilian champion in 1971 and 1972.
Formula Vee and Formula 3 champion
Piquet switched to formula type cars from 1974, participating in the Brazilian Formula Super Vee. In 1976, Nelson won the Formula Vee championship title and after that he decided to move to Europe, mentored by Emerson Fittipaldi, the first Brazilian Formula One champion.
Piquet's first European competition was the European Formula 3 championship with Scuderia Mirabella. He finished third in his debuting season and moved to Britain for next season. In 1978, he becomes the British Formula Three champion with eight victories in 14 races, breaking the previous record of the most wins in a season, held by Jackie Stewart.
Nelson Piquet debuted in Formula One with Ensign
Later in the season, on July 30th, Piquet made his Formula One debut at German Grand Prix. He was driving Cosworth-powered Ensign N177 for the Team Tissot Ensign. He qualified 21st and retired after 30 laps due to engine failure. Nelson signed a deal with the BS Fabrications to race their McLaren M23 in the next three races. After two more retirements at Austrian and Dutch Grand Prix races, Nelson finally crossed the finish line at the Italian Grand Prix, scoring ninth place.
Ecclestone was first to recognize Nelson's talent
Piquet negotiated with McLaren for the future arrangements but Bernie Ecclestone signed him to compete for Brabham (officially named Parmalat Racing Team) at the last race of the 1978 season. Nelson qualified 14th and finished 11th in Canada. This result secured him a longstanding agreement with the team and he stayed with Brabham until 1985.
In new team and in the new championship, Nelson Piquet had a very good teacher, the famous Niki Lauda. The Austrian ace and double world champion taught the young Brazilian driver many important skills. During his first full season, Piquet was driving three different cars and he finished just four of 15 races.
First Grand Prix victory in the United States
Lauda quit racing before the end of the season, so Piquet suddenly became the team's number 1 driver. Ricardo Zunino replaced Lauda and stayed with the team in the first half of 1980 season. He was later replaced by Hector Rebaque. The Cosworth-powered Brabham BT49 was a good car and team finished third in the manufacturers' standings. Nelson scored three wins and finished second, 13 points behind title winner Alan Jones. Piquet took his first F1 Grand Prix victory at the 1980 United States Grand Prix West. Later in the year he won two more times at Zandvoort and Imola.
One point gap for maiden world championship title
Next year, Nelson Piquet was dominant and become the world champion in the Brabham BT49C Cosworth-powered race car. It was an unbelievably exciting championship, with five drivers finishing inside seven points gap at the end. Piquet won his first F1 title with just one point advantage over Carlos Reutemann. Piquet's teammate was again Hector Rebaque and they took second place for the team. In his victorious season, Piquet was the one who gets the biggest champagne bottle three times - in Argentina, San Marino and Germany.
Struggling first year with BMW turbo engine
In 1982, Brabham team changed engine supplier and started using BMW turbo engines, which were very powerful but the technology was not reliable enough. Piquet struggled during the season and finished far from the top, in 11th place.
Despite overall bad results, he managed to win one race, the Canadian Grand Prix. He was the provisional winner of the Brazilian Grand Prix, in which Brabham was using an old Cosworth-powered car, but he was later disqualified for his car being underweight.
Nelson Piquet earned first world title for BMW
However, in 1983, BMW engines become dependable and Piquet scored his second Formula One championship title. He also became the first champion of the Turbo era, with BMW-powered Brabham BT52 as a first turbocharged to win the championship. It was also BMW's first and only championship title in Formula One.
The title was taken after a fierce battle against Alain Prost, who drove turbocharged Renault. Piquet won three races, Prost was the winner four times, but decisive was the last race in South Africa. Piquet was leading the race until he saw that Prost retired after his turbo failed on lap 44. After that, Piquet slowed down and let his teammate Riccardo Patrese won. Piquet finished third and took the title with two points advantage over Prost.
Nine pole positions in one season, but just two wins
Next two years, Piquet stayed on the top of the grid but Niki Lauda and Alain Prost took the championship titles. In 1984, Nelson's BMW-powered Brabham BT53 was the best qualifying car and he took nine pole positions. He converted that number to just two victories at North American races, at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and Detriot street circuit. He finished fifth in the final classification. In 1985, only Nelson's victory was the one at French Grand Prix and he finished 8th in the standings.
Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet together in Williams
In 1986, he moved to Williams and gets Nigel Mansell as a teammate. According to Piquet, he had a verbal agreement with Frank Williams to guarantee him a place of a leading driver in a team. Unfortunately, shortly before the beginning of the season, Frank Williams survived a serious car accident that kept him away from the team for a long time. The team was then led by technical director Patrick Head, who allowed a free fight between two drivers.
That situation resulted in exciting races but their rival Alain Prost became the champion with McLaren. Although Piquet won four races, more than in any other season, he finished just third, accusing the second-placed Mansel for his loss of points.
Third world's title with exceptional FW11
In 1987, the Williams FW11 was the best car on the grid, so Piquet and Mansel again had the leading roles in the championship. Piquet won three times, Mansel was the winner six times. Despite winning fewer races, Piquet was more consistent and he scored eight more podiums, to took his third championship trophy. Piquet announced that he had signed with Lotus as the undisputed number 1 driver for 1988.
Forgetable results with Lotus
When driving for Lotus, his career started to decline. The Lotus 100T was not competitive and he was not as fast as he wanted to be, although it had the same engine as victorious McLarens of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, who fought for the title.
Piquet reached just three podiums to finish third in the championship standings. The season1989 was even worst. Lotus was using Judd's engines and Piquet finished 8th in the standings with three fourth places as best results.
Two wins and third place with Benetton in 1990
In 1990, he moved to Benetton after Lotus announced that they would be using the Lamborghini V12 engines. He claimed that the engine didn't develop enough and tough he would be uncompetitive. The late season announcement by Lotus meant that there were almost no free seats for 1990, so he signed the deal with Benetton. It was a payment-by-results deal so Piquet was motived enough to do his best with the Ford-powered car. He was performing well during the season and finally took his first victory with Benetton at the Japanese Grand Prix, the penultimate round of the championship.
Last Formula One victory in Canada
The second victory followed at season's finale in Australia. A number of points from last two races moved him from 7th to 3rd place in the championship standings, behind Senna and Prost. In 1991, Piquet scored his last F1 victory at the Canadian Grand Prix, still driving for Benetton. At the end of the season, although he had offers from some teams, Piquet announced his retirement from Formula One to concentrate on his business activities.
Bad crash at Indy 500 debut
In a post-F1 career, he recorded few notable attempts at famous races. He was hired by Team Menard to drive in the 1992 Indianapolis 500. During practice, he was injured in a serious accident and was forced to sit out the race. He returned in 1993, again with Team Menard, to qualify in good 13th place. During the race, he suffered engine problems and finished in 32th place.
In 1994, Piquet joined BMW Fina Bastos Team at the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps. He finished 4th with BMW 318is, sharing the car with Johnny Cecotto and Ingo Hoffmann. He raced one more time at Spa 1997, sharing the cockpit of BMW with Cecotto and Joachim Winkelhock. They finished second.
Two Le Mans participations with McLaren F1 GTR
His next adventure was Le Mans 24-hour race. He debuted at Circuit de la Sarthe in 1996, driving Team Bigazzi's McLaren F1 GTR alongside Johnny Cecotto and Danny Sullivan. They finished 8th overall. Next year, Piquet returned to Le Mans with Team Schnitzer's McLaren F1 GTR, sharing the car with JJ Lehto and Steve Soper. They retired after 236 laps.
The same trio in the same car was much successful in December 1997 when they won the Mil Milhas Brasileiras. Piquet repeated the participation and victory at Brazilian race one more time, driving Cirtek Motorsport's Aston Martin DBR9, and it was his very last race.
Two juniors are following the father's racing footsteps
Nelson Piquet is often called one of the best Formula One drivers of all times. His talent and skills and his off track playboy persona and dynamic personal life were interesting for the audience in those days. The fact that he becomes the champion in very powerful and highly unstable turbocharged car proves that his instincts and skills are so rare and only a few people in the world could drove those cars right.
His legacy of driving is not only alive trough his success and legend but through his sons, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Pedro Piquet. Nelson Junior also raced in Formula One but his biggest success is the title of the Formula E champion in the inaugural season of electric formula while Pedro entered the Formula 3 European Championship in 2016.