Born Nelson Sautomaior, on August 17, 1952, he used his mother's surname Piquet to hide his early racing adventures from his disapproving parents. His father, a prominent Brazilian government minister, had been a regional tennis champion and when Nelson showed early promise in that sport he was encouraged to pursue it. At 12 he was one of Brazil's most promising junior prospects. At 16, to further hone his tennis skills, his parents enrolled him at a school in California. But whacking a ball around a tennis court began to take second place in Nelson's mind to driving a car around a race track, particularly when his countryman Emerson Fittipaldi started making inroads abroad. And so Nelson Piquet began racing in his home state of Brazilia. Winning championships in karts and sportscars failed to win over his parents, who sought to distract him by sending him to university. But studying philosophy, engineering and management proved no substitute for the lure of racing and Nelson dropped out after a year. He sold his road car to buy a Formula Vee and in 1977 became the Brazilian champion in that category.
On the advice of Emerson Fittipaldi his next career move was to Europe, where he arrived in 1977 with enough cash (L10,000) to embark on a Formula Three program. In 1978 victories in 13 of 26 races made him champion of one British F3 series and runner-up in another. Formula One teams were impressed and he was given outings in an Ensign and a privately entered McLaren before being hired by Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone to serve as understudy to Niki Lauda for 1979. When the Austrian veteran walked away from Formula One racing at the end of that season the Brazilian newcomer became Brabham team leader by default. He was still learning on the job, but proved entirely up to the task of helping develop designer Gordan Murray's promising car and extracting the best performance from it. In 1980 Nelson won three races and finished second to Alan Jones in the championship. In 1981 his upward mobility continued and, with three more wins and a succession of high finishes in a brilliant Brabham BT49, he became World Champion.
His 1982 season, hampered by an unreliable new BMW turbo engine, produced only one win, though Piquet considered that Canadian Grand Prix victory the best of his career. Throughout the race an oil radiator subjected his feet to 100 degree temperatures that made him scream with pain. And yet the thrill of victory was always worth it for this driver who once confessed: "Winning is a feeling which you cannot imagine. I sometimes piss my pants on the slowing down lap." His sometimes outrageous comments would eventually get him into trouble, though never with the Brabham personnel, who in appreciation of his earthy humour and hard work set up The Nelson Piquet Fan Club.
In 1983 Piquet powered his turbo-charged BMW-Brabham BT52 to three race wins and, after a season-long battle with Renault's Alain Prost, sensationally snatched his second driving title. At this point, having grown tired of all the travel, Nelson considered retiring but was persuaded by the noted aviator Niki Lauda that a private jet would make it easier to enjoy private life. Thanks to his personal jet Nelson was able to enjoy more of his version of the good life. In the harbour at his Monaco base he kept an 18-meter motor yacht manned by a permanent crew and capable of cruising at 28 knots. On his much-loved Mediterranean voyages laid-back Nelson enjoyed swimming, water skiing, watching TV and entertaining a series of gorgeous female companions. With them he fathered several children and always provided for his extended family.
His costly lifestyle made making more money a priority and Nelson began looking for a better deal from Bernie Ecclestone. More championships might have helped the financial cause but the 1984 and 1985 Brabhams were far from world beaters. To continue with the team Nelson asked for his $1 million retainer to be doubled. While Ecclestone baulked at this Frank Williams offered to triple it and so began two tumultuous years at Williams-Honda. The car was a winner and so were the team's drivers: Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. The problem was the team mates hated each other and in 1986 were so preoccupied with their personal feud that Alain Prost sneaked in and beat them both to the driving title. The bothered Brazilian accused Williams of favouring their British driver and tried to destabilize Mansell by publicly calling him "an uneducated blockhead" and defaming his wife. "Piquet is just a vile man," Mansell said.
In the 1987 edition of the Nigel versus Nelson conflict Mansell won more battles, (six wins to three) but Piquet won the war by means of a better finishing record that brought him his third driving title. Some critics decided his refusal to play a role in the showbiz aspect of his sport made him an unsatisfactory World Champion. "What do they mean by that?" Nelson wondered. "Do they mean doing a lot of publicity? I don't want to make friends with anybody. I don't give a shit for fame. I just want to win."
With few wins in his future his fame duly declined. He left Williams in a fit of pique and moved to Lotus for a couple of seasons at a time when the team was on the wane, then spent two years at Benetton where it was his motivation that waned. After winning twice in 1990 and once the next year he left Formula One racing at the age of 40, though he wasn't yet finished with motorsport.
An attempt to qualify for the 1992 Indianapolis 500 ended in the worst accident of his career, leaving him with badly crushed lower limbs. Thereafter he raced occasionally in Brazil and abroad in touring cars and long-distance events. He became a successful businessman in Brazil, establishing a satellite navigation company that earned him a fortune and enabled him to fully support the promising career of his son, Nelson Piquet Jr.
Text - Gerald Donaldson