Sunday, 18 November 2012

Nelson Piquet: The deepest valley and the highest mountain

The F1 follower is an odd breed. In most activities, participants are judged by their peaks. A writer will be defined by their finest works, not by the contents of their waste paper basket. Orson Welles is remembered for Citizen Kane and not for what he produced during his long decline. Bob Dylan is considered great because of Highway 61 Revisited and Blood on the Tracks, and almost no one considers that his later producing of Slow Train Coming diminishes that.

Same goes for sport too. Name any great sportsperson, Ali, Nicklaus, Maradona, Borg, and it's their crowning achievements that people most associate with them, not what they did (or rather, didn't) when not at their best.

Nelson Piquet - in his Brabham glory days
Credit: Zocchi Massimiliano / CC
But in F1 things are different. We seem to insist on viewing an F1 career holistically; everything - good and bad - is thrown in for scrutiny. And no matter what the achievements subsequent (or previous) struggle is factored in, weighted against the glory. With the struggle we seem to rarely miss an opportunity to ask 'was he that good after all?'. Perhaps it reflects that F1, unlike most activities, is a measure of a combination of man and machine; definitive evidence of the driver's contribution, over and above the supremacy of their equipment, is next to impossible to come by. Therefore, possibly we view it as necessary to not discount any available evidence to form our judgments. But whatever the case, Nelson Piquet has more cause than most to regret this state of affairs.

Piquet won three world titles in his F1 career, along with 23 Grands Prix. Yet you'd hardly know it (not in the English-speaking world anyway). His name rarely features in debates about great F1 drivers, nor even in debates about great drivers of his era. Indeed, when his name is mentioned it's often merely to seek to demonstrate the point that statistics don't mean everything in judging drivers.

The common narrative is that Piquet had success in a team of one at Brabham, but then moved to Williams to pair up with Nigel Mansell and was 'found out', which heralded a lingering decline to his career, and which was ended by a young Michael Schumacher booting him out of the sport. But is this fair?

Arguably not. One of the beauties of an F1 championship is that it's almost impossible just to luck into. And to do it not once but three times suggests that Piquet must have been doing something right.

It cannot be denied however that Nelson Piquet's F1 career splits into two distinct periods: the Brabham era and the post-Brabham era. And it's worth reflecting that if Piquet had retired at the end of 1985 (for whatever reason), at the end of his time at Brabham, he'd in all probability be considered somewhere among the very best F1 drivers ever.

Don't believe me? Well you only need to look at contemporary accounts to see that this was the case. In an era not short of rapid drivers (Prost, Rosberg, Lauda, Mansell, an emergent Ayrton Senna etc etc) Piquet broadly was considered to be among the very best of them. And many rated him as the very best. Among those was Niki Lauda (who admittedly was a friend of Piquet's) who had this to say at the end of the 1985 season: 'Over my years in Formula 1, four drivers have made an especially strong impression on me: Piquet, Hunt, Villeneuve and Prost. If asked whom I consider to the best driver in the world, I need go no further than the first of these: Nelson Piquet. He has everything that a world champion requires: stature, poise, an ability to concentrate on the essentials, intelligence, physical strength - and speed. He seldom makes a mistake, he is always fast, he is always on form.' And at roughly the same time, when compiling its annual driver ratings Autocourse said thus: 'The argument still stands; Nelson Piquet is considered by many to be better than Prost and Senna'.

And looking at Piquet's Brabham days it's easy to see why. His story there was a copybook tale of a rise to F1 supremacy. Having impressed in Brazil as well as, after moving to Europe, in F3 in 1978 he got his first taste of F1 in an Ensign then in an outdated McLaren. Then, in the season-ending round in Montreal, the Brabham team entered Piquet in a third car alongside regulars Niki Lauda and John Watson. Piquet made a strong positive impression, including outpacing both his team mates in a wet practice session, which led to his new boss Bernie Ecclestone declaring to Lauda and Watson (probably only partly in jest) that they should 'hang up their helmets'.

Piquet won his first world title in 1981
Credit: Eric Verplanken / CC
With Watson leaving the team for McLaren at the season's end, Bernie had few qualms about signing up Piquet to replace him full-time for the 1979 campaign. The BT48 was a difficult machine, built around the unwieldy, complex and unreliable Alfa Romeo V12 engine. But Piquet made a favourable impact, and indeed frequently out qualified and out raced Lauda (so much for the later claim that Piquet had never succeeded in an intra-team challenge in his F1 career). Admittedly it was a rather de-motivated Niki he was beating, but it still was not an achievement to be sniffed at.

Before the year's end infamously Lauda walked out on the Brabham team, and the sport, mid-practice session at the penultimate round, roughly at the same time Bernie finally decided to ditch the Alfas for a Ford Cosworth, which in turn would allow designer Gordon Murray to benefit from full ground effect mod cons. The new car immediately joined the front-runners, and Piquet qualified fourth and second in the final two rounds of 1979.

Then in 1980 Piquet was a consistent presence among the leaders, and drove with a maturity that belied that it was only his second full year in the sport. He scored consistently when his car wasn't the best, and then when the car had the legs of everyone he drove imperiously. It added up to three wins and oh-so-nearly to the drivers' title. Indeed, had it not been for a controversial accident with title rival Alan Jones in Montreal, and more to the point had someone not forgotten to replace the high-revving but not long-lasting qualifying engine with the race engine in the spare car he had to use as a consequence, then perhaps the 1980 title would have been his.

But Piquet put that right in 1981. There were hiccups along the way, especially in a patchy early part of the season when he got into an ill-advised off track spat with the doughty Jones, which seemed counter productive where it mattered, on track. But in the second half of the year Piquet knuckled down, and claimed the title at the last, taking the two points he needed in the final round in Las Vegas, semi-comatose in the car and driving by instinct alone. But even then he relied on a late-season implosion by Carlos Reutemann to triumph.

And championship-in-pocket Piquet seemed to grow in maturity. Results were meagre in 1982 as driver and team persevered with new BMW turbo engine, which while quick rarely was still in one piece by the race's end. But Piquet always had absolute enthusiasm for the project, and was happy to forgo one year in return for longer-terms rewards. And it all rather gave lie to a claim that dogged Piquet for a lot of his career, that he was a lazy playboy. Brabham team manager Herbie Blash takes up the story: 'The BMW was uncompetitive, it wouldn't stay together at all. As we went further along, Piquet was the one who was determined to make it work. Nelson gave the impression to the outside world that he was a bit of a playboy, but really he was technically very strong and on top of everything.' Paul Rosche of BMW concurs: 'Nelson was our test driver, if you like. He was always behind the project and asked very good technical questions.'

And it all bore fruit in 1983, and it was this year that probably we saw Piquet at his very best. This year he demonstrated consistent speed and flair, all blended with sufficient mechanical sympathy (important in an age wherein car reliability wasn't nearly as strong as it was to become) and avoidance of error. And a late season charge, wherein Brabham found pace as its rival teams (especially Renault) dithered, won Piquet his second title in the final round.

At this point Piquet seemed a driver with everything, and there was a growing consensus that he was the sport's standard bearer: he seemed quicker and with more flair than Prost and Lauda, smarter and more mechanically sympathetic than Rosberg, more consistent than Arnoux, plain better than Tambay.

Piquet in his final Brabham year, in 1985
Credit: Lothar Spurzem / CC
In his final two years at Brabham results were hard to come by for Piquet, mainly because the car became woefully unreliable, and the woe was added to in 1985 when Bernie made the odd decision to go with Pirelli tyres, which were almost never on the pace. But if anything Piquet's reputation improved in this time, particularly in 1984 wherein he took nine pole positions and led everywhere it seemed while the car lasted (Gordon Murray reckoned he drove better in 1984 than in 1983). And in 1985 he again showed his commitment to test work, completing the equivalent of 75 Grand Prix distances in testing the Pirellis. Autocourse that year noted that his Brabham circulated the Kyalami track 'like a demented clockwork toy'.

Frustrated by what Nigel Roebuck called Bernie's 'withered spending muscle' Piquet joined the resurgent Williams team for 1986, both for millions as well as with the expectation of further titles. One more title would be claimed in two years there, but the sojourn would all be to the considerable detriment of his reputation as it was perceived that his team mate Mansell got the firm upper hand (winning 12 races to Nelson's seven), and that his third title, claimed in 1987, was won by Piquet almost in spite of himself.

So, what happened? One theory is that Piquet's attitude to the job had been allowed to slip. For most of his Brabham years Piquet was considered something of a throwback, getting a child-like enjoyment from racing, not being paid much in F1 terms, and never envisaging doing anything else with his life. But as is often the case, the crowning glory was the start of the decline, and it is even there that the seeds of destruction were beginning to sprout. In Piquet's case, he was all set to quit the sport at the end of his triumphant 1983 season, exasperated with the travel and the like, and was only convinced not to by following Niki Lauda's advice to purchase his own private jet, thus greatly easing this logistical business of being a racing driver. But it at the same time greatly added to the cost of it. Related to this or not, it seemed that money, and the amount of it Bernie was offering to him, preoccupied Piquet more and more. As mentioned, it was a major factor in him leaving Brabham for Williams, and some in the Brabham team reckoned it started to impact where it mattered too. One mechanic commented: 'During the last season with us (1985), Nelson was different. We started to think he was doing it mainly for the money. Little things changed. He spent less time in the pits after practice than he'd always done before, didn't seem as dedicated to it'. And a drawback of always talking the holistic view of a driver's career described at the outset of this article is that it doesn't necessarily factor in that drivers can improve or get worse within an F1 career.

For as long as he'd stayed at Brabham it's likely few would have noticed this slippage, at least not for a while, bereft as he was of an intra-team yardstick and in a collective among whom he could do no wrong. But, at precisely the wrong moment, he joined a new team, and one which had long ago been warded off giving a driver unequivocal number one status, and with a team mate who had no qualms about beating him. The tide had gone out, and Piquet had been caught swimming without trunks.

Possibly so, up to a point. But perhaps things weren't quite as simple as that. For one thing, possibly the shock of Mansell getting on terms with Piquet was amplified, initially at least, by Mansell being underestimated. When Piquet joined Williams Mansell was seen as little more than a gritty journeyman; up to that point there was little in his five-and-a-bit years in F1 to suggest he'd amount to more than that. But, with a couple of Grand Prix wins under his belt from late in 1985 Mansell found a totally new level, and as we were to see was transformed into a great driver in his own right.

And perhaps there was more to the Piquet-Mansell match up than posterity has assumed. Early in the 1987 season Piquet had a high-speed crash of sickening violence in practice at Imola, due to a tyre failure. On the outside, having missed the San Marino race Piquet was back for the next round and all seemed normal. But the accident had a major effect on Piquet that he didn't let on at the time, including that he was having much trouble concentrating and, a man previously famous for liking his sleep, struggled to sleep for more than a few hours at a time. It all seemed to have a major impact on Piquet's driving, and the stats back this up. Before Imola the qualifying match up at Williams was Mansell 9-Piquet 8, with Mansell taking five wins to Piquet's four, very little to choose in other words. But after Imola the score for qualifying was 8-4 to Mansell (and him outpacing Piquet by the tune of more than six tenths of a second on average) and the win match up was seven to three to the Englishman.

And while all this was going on Piquet could count on little backing from much of the media. The narrative, in the English-speaking media especially, tended to be unremittingly negative to Piquet. He was never one to spend much time cultivating the press and thus had a rather distant relationship with them, which in itself meant he didn't have much of a reservoir of goodwill to draw on when the going got tough.

Piquet though didn't always do himself favours. While at Brabham as mentioned he had indulged a rather ill-advised off track spat with Alan Jones, as well as in 1982 infamously and haphazardly sought violent retribution on Eliseo Salazar after he'd taken him out while being lapped, at the time they were seen broadly as growing pains, or blips. But given subsequent events they instead seemed more a portent of character flaws that were to be evidenced with more regularity later.

Having found at Williams a team not willing to give orders from the pit wall to ensure Mansell stayed behind, Piquet dug in for warfare, psychological and otherwise, with his team mate. But in some of his actions it was impossible to defend Piquet. He was always one with a wicked sense of humour, which while often charming could on occasion reach spiteful levels, most notably in early 1988 when in an interview with Playboy he decried Mansell as 'an uneducated blockhead with a stupid and ugly wife', as well as, elsewhere, commenting on Senna's private life. It was all further grist to the media mill. And as Fernando Alonso was to discover some 20 years later, the narrative of a conniving foreigner, seeking to thwart the noble British golden boy, is one that much of the British media struggles to leave alone, and is also one that can gain all the traction of a runaway train in no time at all.

For example, at the Hungarian race of 1986 Piquet won, but afterwards it was alleged by Mansell (and subsequently by many in the press - particularly the British contingent) that Piquet had contrived to keep the benefits of a new differential, much improving the car's handling through the Hungaroring's many slow corners, a secret from his stable mate. Of course, the story offered in most outlets was that Piquet had been underhand, not played fair, had not been a team player. But both Piquet and his engineer Frank Dernie insist it was all a storm in a tea cup, as Mansell had also tried the new differential and for whatever reason had chosen not to race it (but as you might imagine they weren't given much of a hearing). In any case, Piquet lapped Mansell in that race, if that was all down to the differential it must have been one heck of a differential.

Piquet had a difficult time at Lotus
Credit: Paul Lannuier / CC
For 1988 Piquet left Williams for Lotus, and some optimists reckoned that there, with a team entirely focussed on him (Honda sop Satoru Nakajima was in the other car), some of the magic from his Brabham days could be rekindled. It didn't work out that way. In two years there the Lotus wasn't a competitive offering: in the first year, 1988, it had the Honda engines that McLaren swept the board with, but a lousy chassis. In year two it had a much improved chassis but by this time Honda had taken its units away, to be replaced with Judds which weren't up to the task. But it also has to be said that Piquet rarely looked better than his car, and Nakajima often was a lot closer to him than you felt he should be (he even outqualified Piquet at Spa of all places in 1988). At the end of it all one Lotus team member opined that Piquet was 'quite the most disappointing number one driver we have ever had' (apparently his tone when saying this spoke volumes). And the cheery joker of the Brabham days seemed long gone, Piquet barely ingratiating with his new team. It all revealed another criticism that could be levelled at Piquet with some justification: that his motivation seemed to vary with the competitiveness of his machinery.

There was therefore a certain amount of sniggering behind palms when Benetton announced it was signing Piquet to its driving staff for 1990. But it was to prove a masterstroke.

His Benetton Indian Summer demonstrated that Piquet's talent in the main hadn't disappeared, more that it hadn't had the circumstances it required to thrive. Indeed, it was at Benetton that he finally found an environment with close parallels to his Brabham glory days: a close-knit, happy-go-lucky collective, and one capable of producing a handy set of wheels. And just as he had at Brabham with Gordon Murray, Piquet found a genius designer at Benetton, this time John Barnard, with whom he enjoyed a close and productive relationship. Barnard was greatly impressed by Piquet's technical knowledge and drew on his experience at every opportunity.

Apparently Benetton also, minded by Piquet's wavering motivation, gave Piquet a token basic retainer but with a healthy bonus (reported as being in six figures) for every point won. Thus we were treated to a year in which Piquet couldn't pass a rival without commentators speculating about how much richer it would make him!

And it all showed in results, Piquet scoring points in 12 of the 16 rounds, and two wins in the last two races winning him third place in the drivers' table. Admittedly the first of those wins, in that infamous 1990 race at Suzuka, involved a large helping of luck as most other front-running contenders failed to finish, but the second win of the two in Adelaide was vintage Piquet.

Some even spoke of him as a championship dark horse for 1991, but sadly for him it never worked out that way as history repeated itself. Benetton chose to go with Pirelli tyres, just as Brabham did in 1985, and with similar results as its product was almost never of a standard to challenge the Goodyears that the McLarens, Williams and Ferraris counted on.

Piquet in his final year, in 1991
Credit: Stu Seeger / CC
Worse for Piquet, Barnard left the team mid-season amid acrimony, thus losing him a key ally, and shortly afterwards Tom Walkinshaw appeared in the team wielding a new broom and it became clear rapidly that he, fairly or unfairly, considered Piquet to be yesterday's man. Piquet's fate was then sealed when, late in the season, a certain Michael Schumacher was parachuted into the team overnight (literally) to partner him having made a gigantic splash on his debut for Jordan in Belgium, and proceeded to firmly show Piquet the way. But in my view all of this shouldn't dent Piquet's reputation too much, he was after all pushing 40 by now, and few drivers in history could have kept up with a young hot-shoe Schumi bursting onto the scene by the time they were of that age.

Thus, F1 gave up on Piquet. As many have found, and not just in F1, no matter our achievements few of us get to choose the time and circumstances of our departure. Indeed, more than two decades on Schumi himself was to find out the same.

So, what to make of Piquet overall? Not even the most ardent Piquet fan would likely argue he was a Fangio, particularly following his post-Brabham days, but I feel that there has to be a more worthwhile compromise in how he is viewed which takes into account his scaling of the high mountains in addition to the undoubted deep valleys. These days, it seems that his reputation is routinely trashed, and while the Williams and Lotus days were difficult in my view these just as much reflect circumstance and Piquet's waning motivation, rather than being him being 'found out'. They should not unduly detract from what he did at his best, when he was routinely mentioned in the same breath as Prost and other greats. Perhaps now is a good time for a Nelson Piquet reevaluation.

3 comments:

  1. A great story about a really good driver, I´m a great fan of the Brabham-BMW era and am ranking Piquet very high. He did after all win 3 championships.

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  2. Incredibly underrated
    Piquet is now:
    at 39 (39!)
    versus the strong 31 years old Alessandro Nannini
    you could see how good he was.
    New car, new team, but grat results.
    He lived badly in Williams
    as Alonso did in McLaren in 2007: he felt the team against him
    and the bad hit in Imola '87 gave him serious troubles for the rest of the season;
    he won the title in terrible conditions
    not able to tell it to nobody.

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  3. I am sorry
    for I said he was 39;
    that was a mistake:
    he was in fact 38;
    that doesn't change things so much:
    great
    great talent
    not great discipline in later years;
    some bad bad words spoken after the sad williams-lotus experiences.
    Second part of the career ruined by the Imola crash (he was then 35)
    and the falling motivation.
    If you see f1stats.com
    you will notice in 1987, after the crash, a big distance between he and Mansell
    in practice
    and you will see also
    also
    also
    that this gap becomes smaller and smaller as the season goes on:
    in the last 8 races they were even 4-4...
    great great talent
    great mistakes in his later years.
    I sincerely think that he should have stayed at Williams
    confident that he could regain a good physical and mental condition;
    he would be able to fight again against Mansell, who was strong but took more risks.
    One more title he could so have won. Or maybe even two.
    Incredible mistakes at Detroit 86 and Portugal 86
    and some bad luck (Spa86)
    took the title away
    that year.
    I will explain better in future.

    Regards to everyone.

    X

    ReplyDelete