Nelson Piquet: From the boot of Bernie Ecclestone's car to three-time champion
Four decades on from Nelson Piquet’s maiden victory, the man who discovered him is recalling their first shared Formula One memory. “When we found Nelson in Brazil, he came to the track locked in the boot of my car,” explains Bernie Ecclestone. “We didn’t have any passes for him but Nelson didn’t care.
He was old school. He would clean the car. He would pitch in with the mechanics.
He was willing to sleep on the floor if he had to. He would do whatever you wanted. He was desperate to be in Formula One.”
Piquet would go on to become a triple world champion.
Monday marks the 40th anniversary of his first of 23 victories in the sport, ranking him 12th on the all-time list. Under deep blue Californian skies on March 30, 1980, Piquet delivered a trademark lights-to-flag victory for the Ecclestone-run Brabham team at Long Beach. It was perhaps ironic that he would claim his maiden triumph on Californian soil, for it was there where his disapproving father, a prominent Brazilian politician, packed him off as a teenager to tennis school.
But Piquet’s ambition was to become a Formula One world champion. He returned to his homeland, dropping the surname Souto Maior and adopting his mother’s maiden name of Piquet, in a bid to conceal his four-wheeled obsession. He won back-to-back karting championships.
A move to Europe beckoned, and, after romping to the British Formula Three title, he was picked up by Ecclestone.
Bernie Ecclestone shaking hands with the Duke of Cambridge (Chris Jackson/PA)
“When Nelson came to England, he didn’t know where he was going to stay, so he told me he would happily sleep under the truck,” continues Ecclestone. “So, on the first day of testing in 1979, I said to one of our mechanics, Bob Dance: ‘Put a sleeping bag under the truck, and tell Nelson that is where he is sleeping. Then we will see if he is really that keen.’ He had no problem with it.
“Nelson suddenly discovered a good English sense of humour. He was special. He was a super competitor.
He wanted to win.” Piquet would deliver 13 victories and two titles across six seasons for Brabham. A big-money move – reported to be in the region of a then-record GBP3million – to Williams followed.
Piquet teamed up with Nigel Mansell at Williams for two seasons (PA Archive)
It was with the British team where Piquet would be paired with Nigel Mansell, leading to one of sport’s most bitter and vicious rivalries.
Mansell hunted down and passed Piquet to win at Silverstone, in one of the best displays by a British driver in F1 history, but it was Piquet who would go on to take the 1987 title despite winning three races to Mansell’s six. John Watson, a five-time grand prix winner who competed against both men, said: “Nigel was a formidable team-mate, and a very courageous driver but he wasn’t as astute and smart as Nelson was. “Nigel would always say: ‘The car let me down’.
So, Nelson would play on Nigel’s weaknesses. He would use any unpleasant mechanisms to get under the skin of his team-mate.
John Watson celebrates winning the 1981 British Grand Prix for McLaren (PA Archive)
“Nelson knew how to garner a team round him. The Brabham guys loved him for that, and it was the same at Williams, too.
Nigel relied solely on what he could do in the car. “Nigel was the better racer. He was a street fighter with big balls.
I never thought that about Nelson, but he understood how to win a world championship.” Piquet’s 1987 triumph would prove to be his best, but final title. He left Williams to join Lotus and then to Benetton, but when he departed the sport in 1991 – making way for Michael Schumacher – his stock had fallen.
In an interview with Playboy magazine the season after he left Williams, Piquet described Mansell as an “uneducated blockhead with a stupid and ugly wife”.
“I thought that was disgusting and outside the rules of engagement to bring in a third party,” added Watson. “If he had said that about anyone I was with at the time I would have f****** hit the guy smack in the face, and I don’t know why Nigel didn’t. He should have because Nelson deserved it.
“There was a nasty streak to Nelson and that is why my respect for him as a person is low.” Does Ecclestone concur? “Don’t forget that Nigel is very English and we have got Nelson who is very Brazilian,” the 89-year-old replies.
“They are two completely different type of people, who think differently and sometimes say things that they don’t really understand. “If you are in an argument and you want to put something over very strongly it is not easy to be thinking about English grammar.”
Ecclestone, who is hunkered down on his Brazilian farm amid the coronavirus pandemic, says he remains in close contact with his former driver.
“He is in good shape,” Ecclestone says of Piquet who will be 68 this summer. “Normally we would have caught up with each other, but with how the world is now it is not easy to do that.”