Nelson Piquet Jr. Hopes to Follow Father's Footsteps
Brazilian drivers have produced some of the greatest memories in the history of Formula One. In 2008, the next star for the South American country has come to the fore as Nelson Piquet Jr. hopes to follow the path laid out by his countrymen, including his own father. Neal Jones looks at the rise of the son of the three-time World Champion.
Entering the 2008 Formula One World Championship, one driver carried all these pressures. His home country, Brazil, is the second most decorated country in World Championships with eight; and three of those titles were produced by his father. It was impossible for this young driver to live up to the early expectations and any mistake was magnified by his last name and before mid-season the questions were already mounting about how long he would remain in F1.
Well, after earning his first points in France this past June, 23-year-old Nelson Piquet Jr. went on a tear of three points paying races out of four, including his first podium (second) at Germany. The questions about the security of his seat at ING Renault have subsided and now the young Brazilian has his sights set on adding his name to the long list of Brazilian drivers who have had great careers in F1, including former World Champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Ayrton Senna and, of course, his father, Nelson Piquet.
Technically, Piquet isn’t a true Brazilian as his father and other compatriots are; he’s more a man of the world. He was born in Germany, and then spent the first eight years of his life in Monaco with his mother before joining his father in Brazil (his parents divorced shortly after his birth). “They kind of swapped me,” Piquet said. “My mother wanted me to get to know my father, she wanted me to know Brazil and the language, and she realized life in Brazil would be better for a child.”
Almost immediately after re-joining his father Piquet began his karting career. From 1993-2000 he raced karts, capturing virtually every title available in the country. Piquet credits Agnaldo Furlani for much of his early success. Furlani was a karting mechanic who Piquet Sr. enlisted to help his son learn the basics of the sport since he was busy with his own racing career in Europe at the time.
“I started when I was eight and it was my father who taught me initially,” said Piquet. “But after
a few months he got me a mechanic who he trusted (Furlani) and after a year it was just Agnaldo and I. He’s like my second father and I was with him all the time from eight to 19 years old.”
In 2001 he made the jump to formula cars as his father funded a team for him to compete in the Formula Three Sudamericana series. It was
a great time for Piquet as he captured the 2002 title with four races left in the season and even competed in a Brazilian Formula Renault event. That success propelled Piquet to racing in Europe as he and Furlani headed to England for the 2003 British Formula 3 Championship.
“He (Furlani) moved with me to England where we shared a house,” Piquet continued. “He was just a go-kart mechanic originally, but learned all about car mechanics and gearboxes so he could make the step up to Formula 3 with me. He stayed two years in the UK, before he had to go back to Brazil to be with his wife and kids, so he didn’t come to GP2 with me unfortunately.”
It was in Britain that Piquet showed the world of motorsports that he was more than just another second-generation driver living off his father’s famous name. He scored a third-place finish in the championship after winning six races and added five more podium finishes to go along with eight pole positions. By the time the 2004 season ended, Piquet was on the fast track to F1. He became the youngest champion in British Formula 3 history (19 years, two months) and that was good enough for Sir Frank Williams to offer the youngster a test with his WilliamsF1 team. While he showed well in the test, it was still clear that Piquet needed some more seasoning before heading to F1.
He competed for Brazil in the A1 Grand Prix series in 2005 and then started the HiTech/Piquet Sports team in the GP2 series. In A1GP, he got the team off to a fast start by winning both the Sprint and Main races and recording the fastest lap. After a strong season of GP2, Piquet headed into 2006 as one of the top contenders for the championship. It was a stellar campaign for
Piquet as he battled all year with Lewis Hamilton before settling on the runner-up position against Hamilton’s powerhouse ART squad.
While Hamilton was able to make the jump to F1 with McLaren in 2007 and contend for the championship, Piquet was quietly waiting in the wings as Renault’s test driver (he also did some testing with BAR Honda in 2005). Renault paid close attention to Piquet’s 8,000 testing kilometers and were impressed enough to give him a seat next to two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso when Heikki Kovalainen went to McLaren.
“(Testing) Helped quite a bit, but the bad thing was that in a period of one year there wasn’t enough testing,” Piquet said. “I mean, obviously, if you put all the testing in one month it’d be okay, but one or two days of testing a month is not a lot.”
The time had arrived for Piquet to make his F1 debut and when Australia rolled around this past March, the young Brazilian was full of hope and idealistic about his future. However, things got off to a poor start as he had contact with another car in the opener and ended up not classified in the final results. The string of misfortune continued for Piquet as he struggled to finish races, spinning out of some and suffering mechanicals in others. By the time the Monaco Grand Prix arrived, Renault was publicly calling for Piquet to improve his performances in races. While it was not outright admission that Piquet was in danger of losing his ride, it was obvious that he needed to get some better results soon or he would no longer be in F1.
But you can’t keep a driver named Piquet down and by mid-season he was starting to show people why Renault Team Principal Flavio Briatore once said that Piquet “is an intelligent, fast boy.” After crashing out of the Canadian Grand Prix, Piquet returned to Europe looking for a breakthrough in the final results and hoped to finally live up to the praise of his own father. “My son is much better than I was,” said the senior Piquet before the season. “He’s faster and his approach is better.”
At the French Grand Prix Piquet took that step as he earned his first-ever F1 points with a seventh-place result and it appeared he was ready to turn the corner. His race at Silverstone in the British Grand Prix was going well until the heavy rain flooded the track and he spun off the course, but he was given a pass on that result as several drivers spun in the horrific conditions. Piquet, however, still needed some consistent results as one good finish was not going to answer the critics. Well, they got their answer a few weeks later as Piquet made his debut on a Formula One podium with a second-place run at Germany and then followed it up with another points paying finish (sixth) at Hungary.
After starting the year with zero points in the first seven events, he now has 13 in the past four (as of press time). With those results adding layers of confidence to the youngster, it will be no surprise to see him capitalizing on that success and consistently challenge the top drivers in the series. The Renault is too far behind the Ferrari and McLaren cars, but Renault is now a legitimate threat to the number three BMW Sauber squad and the past few races have shown that Renault is closer to catching BMW than the Bimmer team is to catching the top two.
Now that he has gone through the media circus of following the likes of Fittipaldi, Senna and his father into the world of F1, he can focus on his own career much like Jacques Villeneuve did after his rookie season dealing with comparisons to his father Gilles.
Some thrive under pressure while others wilt, Nelson Piquet is proving that he is one driver who can excel no matter what the expectations are and in F1 that can be half the battle.