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The 2008 newcomers - Nelson Piquet Jr 11 Mar 2008

Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault. Formula One Testing, Day Two, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday 20 February 2008. World © Hartley/Sutton Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault R28 Formula One Testing, Day Two, Barcelona, Spain, 26 February 2008. World © Moy/Sutton Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault Formula One Testing, Day One, Barcelona, Spain, 19 February 2008. World © Bumstead/Sutton Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault R28 Formula One Testing, Day Three, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday 21 February 2008. World © Bumstead/Sutton Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault walks down the pit lane. Formula One Testing, Day Two, Barcelona, Spain, 26 February 2008. World © Patching/Sutton

For Nelson Piquet Jr, the wait is almost over. Since he first began racing aged eight, Piquet has aspired to take charge of a Formula One car. And in just a few days’ time, the 22 year-old will finally fulfil his long-held dream and make his debut for Renault at the Australian Grand Prix.

As excited as Piquet may be, it’s nothing compared to the buzz currently taking hold in his native Brazil. For Piquet is not just any up-and-coming South American rookie, but the son of a three-time world champion. And though it might have been some 20 years since his father - and namesake - last graced a Formula One grid, Brazil is on tenterhooks to see just what Piquet Senior’s offspring can achieve.

A nation’s expectations and the weight of his father’s legacy is a lot of pressure to rest on so young a pair of shoulders, but Piquet is more than just a famous name - he has also inherited the same determination and flair for driving that made his father one of the greats. You don’t win a seat at a top-flight team through nepotism, you win it on merit. And by taking two Formula Three titles - one in South America and the other in Britain - and finishing runner-up to Lewis Hamilton in the 2006 GP2 series, Piquet had proved himself worthy of his Formula One opportunity.

Having signed him as a reserve driver in late 2006, and then watched him complete over 8,000 testing kilometres, Renault have had the chance to closely evaluate Piquet’s potential. And in giving him the nod over the incumbent talents of both old-hand Giancarlo Fisichella and budding talent Heikki Kovalainen, it seems the team like what they see. Having won their admiration, Piquet must now hope that Renault’s latest car is better than last season’s effort - Kovalainen’s rookie campaign was hamstrung by the R27 and a similarly tricky machine in 2008 could deal the same blow to Piquet’s chances - and confidence.

Like any rookie, his inexperience is a potential stumbling block. With testing regulations effectively ruling out any Friday running last season, there will be several circuits that are new to him. On the plus side, being used to driving without electronic aids, outlawed for 2008, means he could have something of an advantage over his older rivals. He also has a master to learn from - team mate and returning double world champion Fernando Alonso. There is no better benchmark for a young driver than a former champion hungry to regain his crown and Piquet will be watching the Spaniard like a hawk, carefully studying every aspect of his craft.

Could that lead to a replay of the rift between rookie and champion we saw at McLaren last year? Like Lewis Hamilton, Piquet is clearly ambitious and many commentators have intimated that the young Brazilian could become another nemesis for Alonso over the coming months. His father famously bated several team mates during his career, but it’s clear that team boss Flavio Briatore does not want anything similar repeated at Renault. And so far at least, Piquet Jr looks happy to play along. His relationship with Alonso has been smooth-running in testing, where Piquet has looked far from a threat to his more-experienced team mate. That’s not to say he can’t go faster - many touted him as quicker over a single lap than Hamilton in GP2 - but, for now at least, many feel it unlikely that Renault, with their returning protege’s bruised sensibilities to protect, will let the 22 year-old flex his muscles too much.

Clipped wings or not, of all the 2008 rookies, Piquet is arguably the most anticipated. Like Williams counterpart Kazuki Nakajima (son of Satoru), he’s got racing in his genes, but how quickly can he adapt to the pace and discipline required in Formula One racing? How competitive a car Renault can provide will determine much, but what is certain is that Piquet - and those watching from the sidelines - will sure have fun finding out.