Arrogant. Spoilt rich kid. Lucky. Wanker. A lot of people have an opinion about Nelson Piquet Jr, and not many of them are positive. But why do so many people feel such enmity for a driver who, although competing for the GP2 title this weekend, has yet to have been seen by most motor racing fans? Sitting in the back of his team's truck, the man himself has his own opinion on why so many people don't like him: "I think it's jealousy, probably.
"In motorsport, a lot of people hate me. Fans, I wouldn't know why they hate me; maybe because of my father. But everybody has people that like them and people that don't: that's normal."
Statements like that do a lot to promote the reputation of arrogance that surrounds him, and yet if it had been uttered by his famously caustic father, who made a name for himself by bad mouthing others (referring to Ayrton Senna as "that Sao Paolo taxi driver" was just one of his more well known putdowns), it would have been laughed off as 'typical Nelson.'
So why is something that would be okay from the father not acceptable from the son? A lot of the difference could be down to something as simple as personality: Nelson Sr was, and remains, a flamboyant personality, larger than life, sought out for his opinions almost as much now as he was in his racing heyday. Nelson Jr has, almost inevitably, spent his life in the omnipresent shadow of his three-time world champion father: it was a comparison that was never going to come out in his favour.
"I'm a quiet and shy person really, and it just takes me a while with a person to open up," he notes, a statement that is painfully obvious to anyone who has had any dealings with the driver at all: despite talking to him every other weekend, it took me months before I could get Piquet to say much more than "I'm pretty happy / I'm quite disappointed" about whatever session or race had just passed.
"So I'm shy, and if I wasn't Nelson Piquet they would see me a shy person. Who is a shy person in GP2? Ammermüller? If he was Nigel Mansell's son, they would think he was completely arrogant, but because Michael isn't the son of anybody he's not arrogant, he's just a shy guy. Some people think I'm arrogant because of the name: they look at me and they remember my father, and I don't know what goes on in their heads. People that know me, know me: maybe I can over-react a bit when things go wrong, but that's something that all drivers do, like Alonso in Hungary [when he was penalised for brake-testing Robert Doornbos].
"I think, with Formula One being the way it is, I have to be even kinder than I should be, just because of my name: if I didn't have my name I could be however I want, but because I'm Nelson Piquet I need to me more nice and more kind, and be exaggerated for people so they think 'oh, he's okay, he's not arrogant.'"
While denying that it was largely a British problem arising from his father having the temerity to beat 'our Nige' when the pair were teammates at Williams ("in England they are all passionate about racing; it doesn't matter if the guy is Brazilian or Japanese or anything - Sato has millions of fans in England"), he also acknowledged that it has coloured his relationship with the British media in the past.
But, in a display of stubbornness cut straight from his father, he doesn't care what people think of him off-track: it's his abilities on-track that he thinks people should note. "I've proven to everybody that I'm a quick driver, maybe quicker than everybody else out there, because I've got six poles already this year; I've just had a bit of bad luck.
"But the championship is still open, and I'm sure I can win it, so I'm going to prove to everybody that it's not just my name, that I have talent as well."
The Go Team
Like so many Brazilian racers before him Piquet grew up on a kart track, learning the skills that were to change his life while seemingly just messing around with his friends: "I was too young at the time, and it was that thing of liking to do something, like if you just want to play with your friends or something: I liked to go to the circuits, liked the ambience, liked my mechanic, loved staying there until it was dark and then going home.
"I didn't like going to school, and when you're very young that's how it starts really: you don't start because you want to be a future Formula One driver, you start because you like to play, and you're too young to think about the future.
DC: I guess because of your father you were exposed to that at an early age.
Nelson Piquet Jr: "Sort of, but my father never really went with me. My school was until 3pm, and from there I went straight to the go kart circuit and would drive as much as I wanted until it got dark. That was most of the time, and then after a few months, in the beginning of 94, I started doing races.
"When I was practicing I saw the races, and my father said not yet, there is still time, let's just practice; there's no rush to start. It's the same thing as now: [in GP2] we look at Formula One and we want to be there; of course there's no rush to be there, but we want to be there. That was the feeling we had in go karts: oh wow, I want to go for the races."
DC: Was there anything that kept pushing you to move up the categories?
Piquet: "Yeah, I won every category I was in! I think the only category I didn't win was the first go kart category I did, and after that one … in Brazil at the time, it's different now, but they had cadets, then small junior, high junior then graduate B, graduate A, and then the senior A and B. So I did cadets and didn't do very well - I was very young - and then I did small junior and was Brazilian champion, big junior and was Brazilian champion, graduate B and was Brazilian champion, and then before going to graduate A I stepped into Formula 3.
"Then I won Formula 3 in South America, came to England and won Formula 3 there, then I came here, and I'm going to win this year."
3 is the magic number
If karting was playtime for Piquet, then Formula 3 was when the concept of racing as something more than a game first became clear to the young Brazilian and, not coincidentally, it is also the stage when large amounts of money start to become involved.
Formula 3 is where a lot of drivers come undone, and it's also the level where Piquet's famous father started to take a much more active role in his son's burgeoning career. Having a world champion for a father certainly can't hurt, although Christian Jones, referring to his world champion father Alan's financial problems as he was trying to make contact with teams, once noted: "I'd rather have a rich Dad than a famous one."
Piquet had the advantage of a famous Dad who was rich as well, as well as a fairly shrewd negotiator. He started a Formula 3 team (Piquet Sports) in Brazil, originally paid for by his fleet monitoring company Autotrac before bringing in sponsorship from some of the Brazilian companies with which he did business. After winning the Brazilian Formula 3 title the team was sold to the father of current teammate Xandi Negrao, and they stepped up to the British series, sponsors in tow.
DC: When you started doing Formula 3 your father got more involved, and there were suddenly budgets and all of those things involved with the racing. How did you see that change from playing to the real thing?
Piquet: "In Brazil it's a bit different: if I'd started in Europe I would have a different view of things, because in Europe everything is much bigger. It's still the centre of the world for motor racing. Brazil was more for me to learn, so I didn't have the real vision of a racing driver because I would still go to school, on weekends I would go to the races, and I won the championships quite easily.
"I think I really saw motor racing when I first came to Europe, and I think it's something that not even Europeans drivers, or British drivers, see: I would like to see what it would be like for them to come from a country of good weather, nice girls, nice food, people earning a normal amount of money and living in houses like that. Coming to England and a place that doesn't have nice weather, far from your family, live in a small house and have to cook for yourself: for us it's very difficult, and many people in England don't see that. Having to stay away from your family for a long time, having to do everything yourself, being beaten by people of that country and trying to keep your head up and try to get better and better: I think that's the most difficult thing that we go through."
DC: Did you have anyone come over with you?
Piquet: "I came with Felipe [Vargas, engineer and team manager] and my two mechanics, we built the team, and that was it. And we won the championship. In South America we had about ten guys, but in England we had about four."
DC: When you came over for Formula 3, did you spoke English?
Piquet: "Yeah, yeah, yeah: my first language is English: I was born in Europe, and I only speak English with my Mum. For me it wasn't a problem of language, thank God, but for fifty or sixty percent of the drivers they've got to learn to speak English. For a team like mine, Felipe didn't speak English, and none of my mechanics spoke English."
DC: How hard was British Formula 3 for you?
Piquet: "It was tough. I learned a lot. I don't know how much of a gain it was for me before GP2, I don't know how I would be as a driver if I'd come straight from Brazil to GP2 like Xandi did: Felipe says it would be much tougher for me, like it is for Xandi. I don't know. I think I just learned a load of shit circuits in England, learned how to drive in shit weather, cold weather, but it was a good experience and I made a lot of friends, got a lot of stories to tell to my kids.
"It was less pressure, but the whole thing of us here being stuck in this little cage down in the GP2 paddock and then going up there to the F1 paddock, where everyone is looking at you, it's all a lot of pressure. Formula 3 is one of the steps, and you have a lot of tests there so it's kind of a more relaxed thing there: you're racing near home, so you've got to travel two or three hours to the track, it's kind of more relaxed. There's a lot more pressure here: that's the main difference."
My Lucky Number Is Two
After a dominant period in Formula 3 (12 wins, 24 podiums, 1 championship) Piquet took the obvious next step up to GP2, bringing his team with him (albeit originally merged with HiTech Racing, in a move that was supposed to strengthen the squad for the category jump but ultimately fell apart amid rancour and sniping between both sides). Piquet was one of the Three Princes, the sons of Formula One champions (the others being Nico Rosberg and Matthias Lauda) and, as the reigning Formula 3 champion, Piquet was one of the favourites to claim the first ever GP2 title.
It did not go to plan at all. "It was very frustrating, because I know I could have been top five easily. I didn't have the best car, the car broke down quite a bit, but I think it's part of learning with my own team: I can't expect to build a team and do well in the first year, have a perfect group of mechanics, a perfect group of engineers and all that, you know. It takes a bit of development, a bit of time."
Time is a luxury you don’t have in racing, particularly in GP2, which gives the drivers just thirty minutes track time before a qualifying session which largely determines the course of a driver's entire weekend. While Piquet was struggling to pull his team together, rivals Rosberg at ART and Heikki Kovalainen at Arden romped away with ease. One win and five podiums was scant reward for his efforts, and already people were writing Piquet's career off as the men who beat him sailed into Formula One.
Nonetheless, there was always a feeling about the 2005 season that the team who failed the least would win the most, and so it worked out. This year all the teams (bar Trident) have an extra year's experience with the car, far less mechanical breakdowns, much tighter grids and the emergence of Lewis Hamilton, who is already being talked about as a future Formula One great. Against all of this, Piquet has five pole positions (plus another lost at Silverstone due to a penalty), four wins and seven podiums so far in a season that has featured nine different winners to date.
But how much extra work is involved in running a team as well as driving for it? "I always have to … keep my head turned on to things that we can improve as a team: it's not like Lewis, who gets to sit in the car, drives the car, then that's it, he gets his luggage and goes back home. Sometimes Friday night, Saturday night I stay here until 12.30 at night, just talking and thinking about things that we can do. When things go better, of course, you can relax a bit more and go home a bit earlier, but when things aren't going well you're always trying to think 'what can we do?' and try to imagine how we can do things differently.
"The first step is to find something, to get the light bulb in your head, and then to convince the engineers to do it. And of course we have a budget, so we can't just do anything we want. Most of the time the truck isn't in the workshop because it doesn't have time to come back to England, but even so many of the things we do on the car are because we say what about this, why not try this.
"It is one more worry in my head. I know I shouldn't do it; it's Felipe's job and he doesn't make me do it: I do it because I know we can go better, I know you're never perfect and each team is going to get better. One day the other teams catch up and go better and we'll say oh shit, we fucked up; what can we do to make things go better?"
DC: Do you ever feel envious of a guy like Lewis who just drives for a team, and one that's set up well and is a top line team?
Piquet: "He has it easy: like I told you, he just has to sit and drive, and that's all he does. For me it's a bit different: I'm working to get a seat in Formula One, I don't have a manager, it's only me and my father, and I want to win the championship more than anything in my life; it's my second year, it's only his first year. So for him I think it's much more of an easier life; he lives in his own house with his parents, and you have everything you need: you have clean clothes, you have food on your table whenever you want, you're family come to the races if you want, or not; it's not like you're on the other side of the world."
DC: Do you ever wish you could be in that situation?
Piquet: "Sometimes, of course; everybody wishes they could have an easier life. But one day people are going to realise how much more drivers like me have to go through to get to Formula One, how much more than somebody from England, you know?"
After GP2 the next thing, the last thing left to do was to get into Formula One. Without a deal winning the championship would be a huge boost to his profile, but with Piquet now announced as a test driver at Renault the pressure will be off to a large extent, allowing the Brazilian to race for himself rather than to impress those watching. The deal also points to Piquet Senior having done a strong job behind the scenes to promote his son in the big paddock.
Piquet actively chose to go against the current received wisdom that suggested a driver should sign a deal with a Formula One team and then hope for the best. It's a philosophy that hasn't worked for Piquet's long time friend Adam Carroll, who has recently broken off relations with Honda after getting no time in the Formula One car as well as, more crucially, no help with his budget.
But how hard is to go it alone? Speaking before the races in Istanbul, with the deal as yet unannounced, Piquet noted: "It makes it harder, but there's a good reason for it: I can go anywhere I want, any time I want. I can go to whatever team I want, I can sign with any manager I want, I can do anything I want. Lewis cannot do anything without Ron Dennis saying yes or no, he probably cannot say anything to the press without Ron Dennis letting him.
"I can do whatever I want, and it's like getting a driver that is ready for Formula One and can do whatever we want to do, and anyone can choose him: most of the drivers that are ready to go to Formula One are tied up with someone else."
DC: Because you don't have any ties to the teams or anything, how hard is it to get your name around and get people thinking of you?
Piquet: "The thing is not getting ... well, it is getting the name out, but if I show some good results in the next few races I'm sure that it's something that people will be talking about. People just talk about Lewis, Kovalainen, Nico and Kubica, but for sure if I do well in the next few races they'll talk about something else. It's always up and down."
DC: Do you still think you can win the championship?
Piquet: "I'm one hundred percent sure I can win it."
DC: How much of a difference do you think it will make for your future?
Piquet: "A huge difference, because I'm going to prove to everybody that I can win the championship with a new team, my own team, a thing that I operated and practically built myself, you know: I'm not going to lose to the best car, and to who they say is the best driver. I'm going to win: I'm going to prove I'm the best driver, with a good team, not the best team but a team that has worked very hard together, and I'm going to do it."
DC: How important do you think GP2 is for a Formula One career?
Piquet: "It is important, yeah: a quick car, good drivers, it's a very, very important preparation for Formula One."
DC: You're quite hard on yourself often, even if it's not in public: do you think you're ready for the step up to Formula One?
Piquet: "Yeah. I should get one year testing and then go to the races there. As always the first year will be difficult, but that's the way it is, you know. One day you have to learn, and you have to make mistakes to learn."
Nelson Piquet Jr has made his fair share of mistakes, and in the full glare of the publicity that comes with his famous name. They have shaped opinions on the driver, without acknowledging the successes that show what he has learnt from them as well. Perhaps it’s time to form some new opinions, ones that take into account the man himself, rather than just his name.
Perhaps it’s time to let him emerge from his father’s long shadow, to let him be himself, at last.