Joe-Pinions: Sports

30 Dec 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 7)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 30/12/2011

We continue now with my countdown to P1 amongst my personal top 10 F1 drivers.

In case you missed them, please read my posts on #10 Nigel Mansell, #9 Jean Alesi, and #8 Gilles Villeneuve.

And now, lucky number 7.

7.  Nelson Piquet

Perhaps unbelievably, Nelson Piquet is somewhat underrated.  Hardly anybody thinks of Nelson the elder when people compile their personal lists of top F1 drivers.

Nelson Piquet's helmet livery: One of my all-time favorites.

I certainly can’t be guilty of that.  After all, here he is, taking the seventh spot on my own personal version of an F1 top ten list.

Chances are, though, if you ask F1 fans to name the drivers who won more than two Drivers’ World Championships, if there’s a name that’s going to get left out, it will be Piquet’s.  (For the record, here is the list of drivers who won the World Championship more than twice:  Michael Schumacher; Juan Manuel Fangio; Alain Prost; Ayrton Senna; Nelson Piquet; Niki Lauda; Jackie Stewart; Jack Brabham.)  Why that is is a mystery to me.

Nelson Piquet was the second great Brazilian F1 world champion.  He followed in the footsteps of Emerson Fittipaldi, who lifted the champion’s cup twice (1972, 1974) for both Lotus and McLaren.  Because of his victories in the Indianapolis 500, Emmo probably enjoys more fame and notoriety than Piquet today.

Piquet may also be a bit of a forgotten man despite his three world championships because he preceded the most recent Brazilian F1 world champion, the late Ayrton Senna.  Senna, unsurprisingly, is probably the only Brazilian F1 world champion that more casual F1 fans (meaning, fans who never cared to study the sport’s history to any depth) would be able to name today.

All this is a bit unfair, in truth, since Nelson was one of Grand Prix racing’s great drivers.

He entered F1 in 1978 with one race start (the German GP) with the tiny Ensign team, then had three starts in a non-works McLaren.  He saw out 1978 with a drive for Bernie Ecclestone‘s Brabham team.  He spent 1979 serving as Niki Lauda’s apprentice, earning his first points in the Dutch Grand Prix (for fourth place), before being thrust into the role of team leader after Lauda’s surprise retirement in the penultimate round of the 1979 season (the Grand Prix of Canada).

As the 1980s began so did Nelson Piquet’s winning habits in Formula 1.  His first GP victory was that year’s United States Grand Prix West in Long Beach, ironically on a street circuit, the type of track that he openly detested.  He would win twice more that year, at Zandvoort and at Monza, and would finish second to Alan Jones in the Drivers’ World Championship.

1981 saw Piquet win three more Grands Prix (in Argentina, San Marino, and Germany).  Entering the final race of the year, in Las Vegas, Piquet was one point behind points chase leader Carlos Reutemann (49pts) and five in front of Jacques Lafitte (43pts).  Reutemann claimed a dominant pole position, with his Williams teammate Alan Jones the only likely threat based on the times set in practice and qualifying.  Nelson, meanwhile, was suffering horrific neck and shoulder pains, the legacy of the Las Vegas temporary circuit’s counter-clockwise configuration (uncommon in Grand Prix racing even today) and relatively high average speeds for a temporary circuit.

In the race, Reutemann faded after a bad start, failing to score any points.  But as he had a razor-thin one point advantage over Piquet (Lafitte was never a factor in the season’s final grand prix), the Brazilian still had to score at least one point to win the World Championship.  Piquet duly earned two on a day when his physical capabilities were stretched to their absolute limits.  His 1981 season’s total of 50 ensured he lifted the world champion’s cup at season’s end.

The following year, Piquet only won once (in Canada).  However, that 1982 Canadian GP victory was special, since it was the first-ever win for BMW in F1.  It was also a harbinger of greater things to come.

1983 saw Piquet win his second world championship.  His Brabham-BMW arguably fell a little short of Alain Prost’s Renault for most of the year, but when the chips were down towards the end of the year Piquet and his team came on increasingly stronger.  The final race, in South Africa at the mighty Kyalami circuit, saw Nelson finish third (to teammate Riccardo Patrese, the winner, and second-placed Andrea de Cesaris), thereby earning enough points to pip Prost.  Piquet not only won his second world crown, he also became the first driver in history to win the championship with a turbocharged car.

Piquet in the beautiful Brabham-BMW BT53

The following season, Piquet demonstrated that he still had the hunger and the ability to contend for the world title despite being a two-time world champion.  He took pole position nine times; unfortunately for him, the McLaren-TAG/Porsche tag team of Lauda and Prost had faster and more reliable machinery during the races.  Piquet won twice, in Canada and in Detroit, but failed to finish nine races out of sixteen.  His twenty nine points for 1984 was good for only fifth in the world championship tally.

1985 saw him win just one race, the French Grand Prix.  This would prove to be the end of two eras, as Piquet, fed up with Brabham’s declining status as a top-flight Formula 1 team, chose to join the Williams Grand Prix team starting 1986.  Piquet’s win in France was also the last win for BMW during the turbo era.  The famous German marque would not win in F1 again until 2001, two years into the manufacturer’s return to auto racing’s glitziest and most demanding stage.

Nelson Piquet should have won his third drivers’ world championship in 1986.  He won four races (in Brazil, Germany, Hungary, Italy); he drove what was considered definitively the season’s best car, the Williams-Honda FW11.  Unfortunately, he was also teamed with Nigel Mansell.  Mansell won five races.  Despite the dominance of the Williams-Honda combination, Alain Prost managed to outfox both and take that season’s world championship.  However, despite the failure to wrest the drivers’ crown from a growing McLaren stranglehold (McLaren drivers had won the previous two drivers’ world championships; Prost’s ’86 title victory made it three in a row), Piquet was credited with lifting the Williams team’s collective spirits as team principal Frank Williams suffered a road crash that resulted in near-complete paralysis.  Piquet’s enthusiasm, combative rivalry with Mansell (which, in 1986, energized the team), and built-in cachet as a two-time F1 world champion helped keep the Williams team together at a time when despondency might have ripped a lesser outfit apart.

On the surface, 1987 was arguably a more successful year for Piquet.  The Williams-Honda combination was again the best in F1, and Piquet won three more grands prix.  However, Mansell, determined to prove that he was Piquet’s equal (or superior) in terms of capability if not in contractual status, won six races.  In the fifteenth round of the championship, at Suzuka, Japan, Mansell made a mistake during qualifying and was forced to withdraw.  By virtue of finishing races and scoring points (when Mansell did not), Piquet thus won his third drivers’ world championship.  After Mansell crashed in Japan, Piquet rather unkindly said, “This is a victory of luck over stupidity.”  Mansell outperformed Piquet, but his penchant for not finishing races doomed the Englishman’s 1987 title challenge.  Piquet might have taken the title, but his unkind words and attitude towards his defeated rival dulled the shine from his championship.

Sadly for Piquet, 1987 would prove to be his final season of championship glory.  An ill-fated move to Lotus-Honda in 1988, the season of near-absolute McLaren dominance, meant that Piquet went without a grand prix victory for the first time since 1979.  1989 would prove to be even more disastrous, as Lotus, now bereft of Honda’s mighty powerplant, was firmly on the decline.  Piquet even suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify at Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix.  Piquet’s fall from grace was as dramatic as any could remember.  His two years with Lotus did much to submerge all thoughts and memories of Piquet as a great Grand Prix champion.

A move to Benetton to close out the final two years of his career saw him return to the grand prix winners’ rostrum three times.  He closed out 1990 with a pair of victories in the season’s two final races (in Japan and Australia), and in 1991 he was the beneficiary of old rival Nigel Mansell’s misfortune again when he took an improbable win in Montreal.  Again, Piquet’s luck won out over Mansell’s lack of it.

Alas, Piquet’s own luck would turn sour soon thereafter.  He found no takers for his services in Formula 1 for 1992, so he went across the pond to race in the Indianapolis 500.  During a practice run, Piquet’s Lola-Buick snapped out of control and hit the wall exiting Turn 4.  He suffered broken legs and feet and a concussion, but miraculously survived the crash.

I saw Piquet’s crash on TV, and at the time I was horrified at what I saw.  After seeing some of the stills from the crash, I’m still amazed that Piquet wasn’t damaged even more severely, even killed.

Piquet today is not considered to be one of the greats in Grand Prix racing in most people’s eyes, but I believe that is undervaluing the man’s achievements.  He was one of four great champions during what was arguably Formula 1’s most competitive era ever; of the four (Prost, Senna, Piquet, and Mansell), I consider Piquet to be the third-best.  After revisiting the man’s achievements, it’s still a mystery to me why he is undervalued in the decades after the end of his long career.  Perhaps perceptions are colored by the way by which his career ended; I’m sure even he would not challenge the notion that his last three race victories owed more to luck than to the sharpness of his talents and skills behind the wheel.  Nevertheless, this should not dull the fact that he won three world championships, all during F1’s most competitive decade ever.  As I said in the opening, he is one of only eight drivers to have managed this feat to date.

In my opinion, for Piquet to not be remembered as a true Grand Prix great is a triumph of stupidity over logic.

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