Wednesday, 14 January 2009

My tribute to Nelson Piquet Sr

(I wrote this for a competition being held on RLB. It asked for a roleplay in tribute to Nelson Piquet Sr, so here it is and I hope you enjoy!)

Look about the Formula 1 paddock and all you really see are drivers who are never really interested in the media or do nothing but working with and for them just to keep the sponsors happy. Nowadays, drivers don’t seem to have a real sense of personality or humour about them. Some do, but decide never to show it when they’re at work. Kimi Raikkonen is a classic case in point. So where have all these characters gone? What happened to them all? Sponsors is what happened to them. That and a hectic schedule of briefings and track time. Back in the days some 20-25 years ago, drivers were at least allowed to show off a lighter side to their role. And no-one did or ever has done it better than Nelson Piquet.

This man who could not only drive fast but also probably make it as a comedian is known as one of Brazil’s finest ever talents to grace a racing car. But even growing up, it was never easy. His father was strongly against him taking up a career in motorsport so in order to hide it he chose to race under his mother’s maiden name purposely misspelt so he could develop his skills without him finding out. But that’s not what we remember him for. That does beg the question – what is it about this charismatic clown from Sao Paulo that will stick in our minds forever and be the first that comes through when his name is spoken?

His racing career was certainly one to be highly accredited for. His rise from karting through the lower formulas to a drive with Mo Nunn’s Tissot-backed Ensign was meteoric. The initial effort one weekend in Germany in 1978 got him a few races in a private McLaren before Bernie Ecclestone offered the young gun a ride at the last race of the year in the BT46 Brabham. This transformed into a 7 year long partnership that would bring Nelson 2 of his 3 titles. The amazing Gordon Murray-designed BT52 was one of the most difficult and powerful F1 cars of all time, yet Piquet made it look as easy as driving a hatchback. To be fair, driving a car that has a power to weight ratio of almost 3000hp/tonne is something that would probably scare any normal person to death. But not Nelson. After Brabham came Williams and title number 3 in 1987. His achievement put him in that prestigious elite group of drivers who have won the crowd at least 3 times. But that’s not what we remember him for.

He raced alongside and against the some of the greatest of his era – Lauda, Villeneuve, Prost, Senna, Mansell, Rosberg, Schumacher. He was sometimes one for rivalry, particularly that 2 year grudge with “our Nige”. Reportedly making bad remarks about his wife with Mansell returning with the same against his. Who can forget the dummy Nelson was sold by Nigel at Silverstone ’87 for the home race hero to claim the win the whole country wanted. He won the battle that day, but Nelson won the war. What about the fist fight with Salazar at Hockenheim, the way he added a karate kick in there for good measure. His exploits back in 1981 where he produced his first title – at the last round by a single point. He was always quite an exciting driver to watch. The way he could storm to the front and sometimes completely dominate a race. One moment on the racetrack that always sticks is that unbelievable manoeuvre on Senna at Turn 1 at the Hungaroring in 1986 around the outside. The way the Williams-Honda’s rear end squirmed sideways under braking, Nelson staying cool. He truly was a driver to be feared. But that’s not what we remember him for either.

No. What sticks in our minds about him was unbelievable charisma. The way he would joke around in the pitlane with the other drivers. Getting into a prank war with one of the mechanics at Williams, such as rewiring the windscreen wash to come through the dash. Having his expensive shoes filled with food, only to have the guy's own superglued to the side of the team transporter. He was always one to be smiling and making funny faces when the camera was on him. Whether it be being interviewed after his ’87 Imola shunt or in the drivers briefing, he would always bring out the cheeky little boy in him. He was always joking around. Wearing one shoe on the podium after winning the 1984 Canadian GP because he had a blister. Collapsing from exhaustion on the top step after winning a race. Making fun of Alain Prost by bending his nose to look like the Frenchman’s while being interviewed. Making bunny ears and trying to hug Jean-Marie Balestre on the ’91 USA GP podium. Fooling around with Murray Walker and Mansell while the BBC commentator tried to record the intro of the TV coverage.

These are all little things that make an everlasting impression on us. When you see the group photo of Prost, Senna, Mansell and Nelson, the latter was always the one who would seem to be enjoying himself the most. Sure, the latter part of his career wasn’t as successful as before, but it doesn’t matter. Seeing Nelson with a cheeky smile on his face would bring even the most downbeat person in the paddock to do the same. As we’ve asked at the beginning, why can’t there be more personalities like this in the F1 world now? Why does everything have to be so serious? If they want to know how to inject a little fun into the pitlane, perhaps they can look to the past and see how it was done – the Piquet way.