After a short career in tennis, Nelson Piquet began racing cars in the Brazilian Super Vee championship. This led to his graduation to European Formula 3, and then to the British Formula 3 championship in 1978, where he won 13 races over the course of the season.
This dominance led to a Formula 1 debut in 1978 with Ensign (DNF), quickly followed by second, third and fourth drives with McLaren the same year (DNF, DNF, 9th), which led to his debut for the Brabham team in the last race of 1978 (11th).
Spotting Piquet’s obvious potential, Brabham team boss Bernie Ecclestone quickly signed him on a three-year deal from 1979 to partner Niki Lauda.
A second season with Brabham in 1980 brought a first win for Piquet in a season where he finished second to Williams’ Alan Jones in the World Drivers Championship following another two wins.
With 1981 came Piquet’s first World Drivers’ Championship, pipping Williams’ Carlos Reutemann in the last race of the season.
Brabham signed a deal with BMW as an engine supplier for the 1982 season, and while powerful, it suffered from reliability issues and Williams driver Keke Rosberg took the World Championship.
A second championship followed in 1983 when the Brabham-BMW was the class of the field, but this wasn’t to last. McLaren had raised the bar with its Carbon Fibre monocoque and Brabham were struggling to overcome problems with the Pirelli tyre they’d signed up to use.
Brabham’s heyday was over, and Piquet, unhappy with the contact terms he’d been offered by Ecclestone, left to join Williams, who reputedly offered twice what was on the table from Bernie.
On signing, Piquet was allegedly assured that he would be Williams’ number 1 driver. This was halfway through 1985, and Nigel Mansell, in his debut season with the team was yet to hit his stride. By the season’s close however, Nige had started winning and was fully intent on beating Piquet in 1986.
This did not bode well for after a win on his debut at his home Grand Prix in Rio, eight winless races followed, during which Mansell had racked up four race wins. Worryingly for Piquet, Williams didn’t seem interested in enforcing Mansell’s number two status, arguing that other than priority over the spare car he had no special privileges when it came to racing.
It could be argued that the competition between the two robbed Williams of the championship as Alain Prost sneaked in at the last to take it from under their noses in a season where Mansell and Piquet had been continually taking points from each other, but credit must go to Williams for sticking to their principles and allowing their drivers to race.
Despite a huge crash in practice for the 1987 San Marino Grand Prix which left him nauseous and unable to sleep, Piquet took his third and final championship in his last season with the team before he left, along with Honda, to join Team Lotus, and the #1 driver status he so longed for.
Lotus, already at the start of their sad decline despite a works Honda deal and plentiful funding from title sponsor Camel, was unable to give Piquet a car he was able to win with in either 1988 or 1989, finishing sixth and eighth in the World Drivers Championship respectively.
Still convinced he was capable of winning races, he left Lotus to join Benetton, reputedly on a pay-per-point basis, so assured was he of performing well. And perform well he did, giving Benetton a couple of wins at the tail end of 1990 and another at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1991 at the expense of his old foe Nigel Mansell whose Williams died on the final lap.
Piquet was dropped by Benetton at the end of 1991 in favour of Michael Schumacher, and Piquet tried his hand at the Indianapolis 500, where he crashed heavily in practice, signalling the end of his racing career.