It's hard to catch Lewis Hamilton these days, on or off the track. On track that statement is self-evident: ask Nelson Piquet Jr, who won three perfect races in a row and was still unable to catch Hamilton after a frankly astonishing race two in Istanbul gave the Briton one hand on the championship trophy ahead of this weekend's final round in Monza; ask Franck Perera, who was unable to catch his rival at the Nurburgring despite being able to beat the Briton almost at will in karts; hell, ask any of his rivals in the GP2 grid.
Off track it has become almost as hard to catch him too, albeit for reasons not of his making. At the start of the season Hamilton made it known that he was looking at GP2 as a two year programme, but his early season success has, paradoxically, put more pressure on the driver to continue in that vein just at a time that rivals Piquet Sports seemed to have found an edge over his ART team.
With many in the media actively campaigning for McLaren to hand Hamilton the vacant race seat next to Fernando Alonso next year, the team took the unprecedented decision from Hockenheim to impose a media blackout during a race weekend. While the move was made with the best of intentions – to take some pressure off his shoulders as he attempts to win the F1 support series – the unintended consequence has been that his normally engaging personality has been blunted by restrictions put on what he can say at a time that he was starting to be regularly beaten on track, and refusals to talk in Hungary left many in the paddock assuming he had cracked.
But what does the man himself think? Sitting in the ART office after his remarkable comeback in Istanbul, the old, sunny Hamilton was re-emerging after an enforced holiday. “Sure, the pressure gets higher and higher the closer you get to Formula One,” he reflected, “and when you get to Formula One it gets even higher. That's all just part of the learning curve, but I came into it quite relaxed and knew I didn't have to win, and the only pressure is from myself.
“I didn't go into it thinking ‘I have to win this year, and this is how I'm going to do it’; I came into it thinking ‘I hope to finish in the top three.’ But I'm leading the championship, and it's overwhelming to be leading the championship at this stage and to be the title contender.
“I know I can win, and I'd rather do it in my first year than my second, so I put extra pressure on myself to make sure I perform at my best.”
Begin the Begin
But where does this pressure, this inbuilt quest for perfection come from? Simple observation points to the relationship between Hamilton and his father, Anthony. Hamilton Sr acts as his son’s manager and, in a world populated by Driver’s Dads, the pair are almost impossibly tight. Like two peas in a pod, it’s clear that both would do anything for the other, the filial admiration obvious no matter how hard they try to get away it (Hamilton rarely refers to his father as Dad, preferring instead to direct anyone looking for some time with the driver to “just check with Anthony to see if that’s okay”).
As is common in racing, it’s clear that a lot of the momentum behind Hamilton’s career comes from his father. But whereas many fathers of racers, many living vicariously through their sons as they attempt to achieve a life they were unable to gain themselves, use everything from guilt to outright aggression to prompt their progeny into performing, a large part of the impetus behind the Briton is a combination of his own drive to get to Formula One, respect for his father, and appreciation for the work he’s done behind the scenes to get him where he is today.
But how did the pair get started in racing? “I was, I think, 4 years old, and I was going off to spend weekends with my Dad because my parents were divorced,” Hamilton begins, sitting on a wheel rim being stored in the office as his team cheerfully pulls down the temporary structure outside after watching his extraordinary drive earlier that morning. “Me and my Dad bought a remote control car, and on weekends we entered into a club championship. When I was five years old I went on Blue Peter, and I was winning these small championships racing against adults.
“We did that for a couple of years, and I think my Dad just thought that maybe the hand-eye coordination that I do have would work in a real kart. So he bought me a kart: it was about fifth hand, we entered our first six races, and we won all six. You're a novice when you get into it, on black plates, and they're in the same race as the guys that were qualified, on yellow plates. And I was finishing third or fourth with the yellow plates, so I was quite high up.
“It really started from there: it was a weekend thing, a hobby, and my Dad said if you continue to work hard at school, I'll continue to work my arse off to keep you racing, which he did. It's slowly progressed as we won British championships, eventually European championships, World number one: it just progressed, and I just got better and better.”
DC: What was it about karts that made you want to just keep doing it?
Lewis Hamilton: “It's difficult to explain. In every sport that I do, I have to put 110% in so I have to be really careful; I can't go and play football like other people who are able to control themselves. I mean, I can do it, but I always want to win. When I got into karting, just the adrenalin rush of braking late, lunging up the inside of someone, doing a quick lap, being on the edge: your heart is pounding. There's a lot of different factors that go into it but that's what kept me going, and now I've grown up I've grown to love it more and more; the feel of winning is something you can’t simulate anywhere else.”
DC: Was it a feeling that racing was easy for you, that no matter what happened you could just easily beat anyone else?
Hamilton: “It wasn't easy: it's never been easy, but it's something that … as I said, anything that I compete at, I put my heart and soul in, and it was something that I was able to put my heart and soul in and get so much enjoyment out of, as well as winning, the excitement of winning. And, I was good at it; finally there was something that I was really good at. I was good at playing football, I was good at lots of other sports, but I was really, really good at this. And I could feel it when I was driving the car; I could feel and really know how to do each corner, how to do this, how to do that. There were lots of different factors involved, but ultimately it was one thing that I could do really well; I wasn't as interested in my school as I was into my racing, I was away a lot so it was really difficult to keep up, but as I said it was the one thing I could do phenomenally well at that age, and that's what I wanted to do.
“None of the wins came easy: I had to work, my Dad was my mechanic/engineer for quite a few years, even when I was racing in Europe. And it is hard racing in karting: we were racing people like [Tonio] Liuzzi and Franck Perera, who were the most amazing kart racers I'd ever seen. It was no way near easy to race against people like that and to keep the momentum, keep winning, keep coming back and learning from your mistakes.
“So it's never been easy: there have been hard years, like 2001 when me and Nico had a bad kart and just weren't able to be at the front; that was a hard year. But there have been this year, last year in Formula 3, Formula Renault: I can't pick out one point, but there have been several times each year that I've raced that have been so hard, when I've raced and I've had to dig down so deep to really pull something out of the bag. For example, today: I had to dig down so deep, deeper than I've ever really gone. Silverstone and maybe Nurburgring were other races where I've had to do something like that.
“But today was the deepest I've been; it was an emotional roller coaster.”
The Wonder Years
Hamilton’s career is implicitly intertwined with that of close friend Nico Rosberg: born just six months apart in 1985, the pair have grown up in racing together from the first time the Briton raced in Europe, culminating in the pair spending two years as teammates before graduating to cars; Hamilton moved to British Formula Renault 2000 in 2002 while Rosberg went to German Formula BMW, claiming the title in his first year in series.
The pair were competing once again in 2004, when Hamilton moved up to the Formula 3 Euroseries after claiming the Renault title to join the German, who was in his second year in the series and driving for his father’s team. The next year Rosberg moved up to GP2 with ART, the new team formed off the back of Euro F3 champions ASM, who had signed up the Briton for a run at the title. Both men won: Rosberg took the inaugural GP2 title in the final race in Bahrain to secure a drive with Williams in F1, while Hamilton dominated the season, taking 15 wins on the way to the title and Rosberg’s seat at ART for 2006.
Hamilton has a good opportunity to repeat his friend’s series win this weekend, after which Formula One beckons. With McLaren backing it seems to be only a case of when, not if, he rejoins Rosberg in a series once more, and their fierce rivalry can be resumed. Despite their friendship each driver tried constantly to get one over on the other as teammates: the rivalry increased over their time together to progress from all night PlayStation sessions to Hamilton learning how to ride a unicycle just because Rosberg had already done so before suggesting a one-wheeled race.
All of which made it interesting that Hamilton singled out two other drivers as his main competition in karting, rather than his teammate. Did that mean he thought he had Rosberg easily under control? “No, no, no: I only say Franck Perera because he was world champion, Liuzzi was world champion: I only say them because they were world champions!
“There was me and Nico, and we were both going through the same experiences: Nico was my closest rival throughout karting, but when you get to Europe I think Franck Perera was a little bit more experienced than me and Nico; he was world champion so he was someone you look up to, even if he was only a year older or something, he was already world champion and he had won everything. That's why it was so hard: these guys were on the top, they had the best karts, they had the best teams, and to defeat that you've really got to put it all together and work like a team.”
DC: What was it like when you were working with Nico?
Hamilton: “Oh, I had probably the best times of my career. Racing with Nico, we stayed in the same hotels together, in the same rooms, we were so close over those couple of years, and it was almost like the older brother I never had. He's a great guy: we had so much fun together, we went on holidays together, and I learnt a lot from Nico; not just on the track, but mentally and how to relax, how to bounce back. Nico was very strong mentally, so he was able to absorb the bad weekend and really pump out some positive energy, and I thought that's what I've got to do; he was so smart to be able to do that, and I think I learnt a lot from him.”
DC: Despite it being so competitive between the two of you?
Hamilton: “Yeah, well that's the thing: we were so competitive but we were able to manage it, and despite being so competitive we were able to remain best friends. And that's something you very rarely see: it's very difficult to be best friends with your team mate when you're beating them, and that year I won quite a lot of races, he won a couple, but we were both able to stay best friends.
“It was tough; it was extremely tough, because you know he's out there, he was the best up and coming driver when I arrived and I blocked some of his limelight, but it was still me and him all the way. I think we were just very professional and very mature; that was what it came down to, I think. And we're still very good friends now.”
The Racing Thing
It is a commonly held fact that the best way to get fit for a racing career is to drive a racing car; in the same, self-referential way the best way to win in a racing career is to drive for a team that can win. There is no doubt that Hamilton has had good tools to use along the way – drives for Manor, ASM and ART are as highly prized in each of their respective categories as a drive at Ferrari has been in Formula One – but equally certain is that he has made best use of the tools he has had at every level.
And the best way for a driver to impress is to achieve something that seems impossible to those watching. In Hungary Hamilton’s rival Piquet did just that: fast in practice, pole position, race one win and fastest lap followed by race two win and fastest lap gave the Brazilian the first ever perfect weekend in GP2’s history. Against that Hamilton crashed in practice, spun on the opening lap of qualifying and stopped on the racing line (only avoiding a penalty because he was due to start at the rear of the grid anyway, and a penalty must be applied to the next race), finished out of the points in race one and came a distant second in a soaking wet race two.
With Piquet having another perfect race one in Istanbul the momentum had completely switched camp, and Piquet was the man most talked about in the paddock. It seemed impossible for Hamilton to find a way back to title favouritism, but the impossible happened in race two when the Briton somehow managed to find a way back from a spin that dropped him to sixteenth to overtake everyone but eventual race winner Andreas Zuber (who must have been happy the race ended when it did) in a drive that firmly put him back in the driver’s seat in the title run.
If you’re only as good as your last drive, then Hamilton is very good indeed. Indeed, there were many in the paddock afterwards who were prepared to compare the Briton to his great hero Ayrton Senna: the way that he sliced through his competitors to take their position as if they weren’t even there was reminiscent of the great Brazilian, and the yellow helmet in a red and white car promoted the comparison even further.
Inevitably Hamilton will be employed by McLaren next year, although in what capacity remains to be seen. There is a argument to be made that current tester Garry Paffett should be promoted to the race seat, considering his year in testing and the experience that has given him in a Formula One car and environment, but Hamilton has the larger media profile and is on the record saying that he has nothing to fear from racing with Fernando Alonso, having never been beaten by a teammate in the past, as wilful but quoteworthy a statement as any from the man he may (indirectly) replace, Juan Pablo Montoya.
But with such limited experience of Formula One, what does Hamilton think he has learnt from the junior categories that would help him hold him own in the big paddock? “There's too much to say. Those nine years I did in karting, there's no substitute for the time I did in karting; I would have even liked to have given it one more year, just so I could win the world Super A championship.
“The racecraft you get from karting, there's just no substitute for it: you can't have that close, wheel to wheel racing in any other category. Well, now we're getting it in GP2, but it's all come from karting; I've brought that on, that experience. I've had to learn about the car and its interesting features, learning pitstops, learning how to pull out a quick lap, control and look after your tyres; there's so many things, I couldn't name them all, but there's a lot that goes into being one of the best.”
DC: What about learning to manage championships?
Hamilton: “Yeah, well over the years in karting it wasn't as hard; you're just pounding away to win every race, whereas higher up you have to conserve your tyres, you have to make sure you finish your race, you have to think about more, and be more mature with the strategy of your race.”
DC: How do you think the step from GP2 to Formula One will be?
Hamilton: “I think Formula One's going to be extremely hard: you can see that Nico is finding it very hard, and a lot of the up and coming drivers as well. But it's possible: you need to show that you're really quick, the other young drivers have shown that they're really quick but still have a lot to learn. Hopefully I'll have an experienced teammate, or I'll learn a lot from the test driver; whatever goes on, I'll just have to work as hard as I've ever worked.”
DC: Do you think there's anything that can actually prepare you for Formula One? Everyone says it's a completely stand alone series, that there's nothing else like it.
Hamilton: “It's difficult to say because I've not been there, so I can say how different it is, but from what I can see there's a lot of politics involved; a lot more than in GP2. So that's probably one of the biggest parts of it, but the actual driving the car bit, well, Sebastian Vettel came up this weekend and drove the car as quick as all the others. I think the driving style is very different, so it's going to very difficult, but I'm well prepared for the challenge. I think GP2 is the closest thing you can get to it, and it's got to be the best way to get to it.”
And with that he excused himself so that he could get up to the McLaren centre to watch the start of the Formula One race, as well as to take the acclaim of the well-wishers who had seen him all but wrap up the GP2 series with a drive that had seemingly halted Piquet’s challenge in one swoop. Piquet may be the first of the pair to officially enter Formula One, but Hamilton may yet leapfrog the Brazilian into a race seat in the senior category to fulfill Ron Dennis’s (and his own) ten year dream.
Watch the GP2 races this weekend, and catch the future.
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.
This time last year no one really knew what to expect - GP2 was a new concept, sure, but it was replacing the increasingly creaking Formula 3000, a series whose best years had been and gone, leaving little more than a shell of what it once was. And while the GP2 line up was impressive on paper, more than a few people wondered if a feeder series for Formula One was even viable anymore.
And then the races began, and the doubts evaporated in the minds of everyone who watched them.
The racing was fast and furious, with frequent overtaking and lengthy battles for the lead. The two title contenders claimed five wins each, two of the ten men to win during the season. Sixteen drivers claimed at least one podium, and 23 drivers scored during the year, pointing to the depth of talent throughout the field.
The recipe for success for the series was a simple one - take almost all of the best young drivers in Europe outside of Formula One, put them in equal cars in front of the main paddock with solid engineering support, point them in the right direction and let them race.
In a spec series, the best driver with the best engineer should make a championship winning package, and looking at the incredible Formula One debut enjoyed by reigning GP2 champion Nico Rosberg, it's not hard to argue that this was exactly what happened (although runner up Heikki Kovalainen's gritty season means that it's by no means clear cut), which is exactly what most race fans want to see.
And, given the set-up of the series, the 2006 season is almost guaranteed to be more of the same.
Picking the overall winner from the 26 drivers is next to impossible at the moment, given how close most of the field has been in pre-season testing. Lewis Hamilton, Alex Premat, Nelson Piquet, Adam Carroll and Jose Maria Lopez all have justifiable arguments to be included in the favourites list, but on current form, up to ten drivers could also have a serious run at the title in what may be the closest racing series on earth.
One other point that should be noted is that this time last year Rosberg wasn't even being considered as a title contender - his biggest claim to fame at the time was as one of the Three Princes, the sons of former F1 world champions on the grid, and he wasn't even the most favoured of the three. In a competition this tight, just about anything can happen.
After fine-tuning the programme throughout 2005, there was little to change for this year, with the exception of the tyres. Gone are the Formula One style grooved tyres in favour of slicks, which has had obvious ramifications - at testing in Paul Ricard, lap times have tumbled, and a top speed of 325km/h has been whispered about in the pitlane.
Brembo have had to come up with a new braking system to deal with the new tyres, and while a few teams have struggled a little in testing, most have now come to terms with them. Mecachrome has taken over the engine programme from Mader, and with the engine programme now based at the same location (Aubigny, France) that handles Renault's Formula One engines, reliability should not be an issue this year.
The only other changes for 2006 are that the fastest lap in both races will now only gain the driver one point instead of two, and while the races remain the same length (180km and 120km), they will be limited to a maximum of 75 minutes and 45 minutes respectively.
Teams and Drivers
ART Grand Prix
Alex Premat and Lewis Hamilton
ART started 2005 hoping for a race win and ended the year with both driver and team titles, a slightly overwhelming level of success for the team in their first year out of the F3 Euroseries, which they had dominated. Consequently all eyes will be on the team, and in particular Euroseries star Hamilton, who will be in what the paddock half-jokingly refers to as 'the magic car' (the 2005 car 9 of champion Rosberg).
Hamilton tried to downplay expectations at a recent test, stating that he was just hoping to do well but that he was not targeting the title, but expectations will be high for the pairing. He will, however, be competing against drivers with far more experience with the cars, including teammate Premat, fresh from claiming the title in the off-season for the French A1 Grand Prix team and wanting more of the same.
The pair are likely to work well together over the season - Premat in particular has a history of becoming best friends with his teammate over the season, sometimes to his disadvantage - but expect fireworks between the pair on track, where it counts.
Michael Ammermueller and Nicolas Lapierre
Arden, as the form team of Formula 3000, were expected to dominate the series with pre-season title favourite Kovalainen, but with team boss Christian Horner moving up to run the Red Bull Racing Formula One team, things did not go to plan, and second in both championships was the result, one which stung a team long used to winning everything in sight.
New lead driver Lapierre looked out of his depth at times in 2005, having to learn the circuits as well as how to work within a big team while trying to find a way out of the shadow of his experienced teammate. The amiable Frenchman was unable to claim a win in GP2 last year, but a winter spent in the A1 series resulted in six wins and the title; he now needs to prove that he can rise to the challenge of leading Arden's attack on the GP2 championship.
Ammermueller arrived at Arden on the back of his Red Bull connections and a second place in last year's Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup. While the German has shown speed in testing, it's unlikely that he'll be able to fight for the championship this year and will instead fall into the traditional Arden role of strong rookie next to the more seasoned team leader.
Super Nova International
Jose Maria Lopez and Fairuz Fauzy
Super Nova are a difficult team to predict anything about - every year they run fast in testing and then seem to fall off the pace during the season, and for no discernable reason. Stuffed full of strong engineering staff, nonetheless last year saw Giorgio Pantano's early challenge snuffed out by a string of DNFs, only to have the car gremlins seemingly switch to Adam Carroll's car and extinguish his chance at the title as well.
Nonetheless, the talent is there, as can be seen by Carroll's three strong race wins, and Pantano must have been the unluckiest driver of the year to not claim a win. This year, Lopez leads the driver line-up after an up-and-down season with DAMS, and with so much on the line career-wise, he almost has to win to ensure his progression in the sport despite his young age - his paymasters at the Renault Drivers Development Programme will demand nothing less.
Fauzy, on the other hand, has no such grand expectations on his shoulders. As the only regular driver in GP2 not to score a point last year, any result at all will be a vast improvement in form and will probably be celebrated on his side of the garage like a win will on the other.
Ernesto Viso and Tristan Gommendy
iSport's team principal Paul Jackson is a zero bullshit kind of boss, running his team very much in the mould of sister team Williams. For an outfit that came together for the first time last year to join the GP2 series, their results were remarkably strong, and it would be one of the bigger surprises of the year to see them drop off the pace this year.
Viso will have no excuses this year - a lot of the problems he suffered last year were quietly blamed (and not entirely unfairly) on BCN's sometimes lackadaisical work ethic, but the move to iSport means the Venezuelan will have nowhere to hide on that score. Flashes of brilliance, particularly in the latter parts of the season, will need to take over from the moments of brain fade that also marred his season - if Viso can manage that, he will fight for the title in 2006.
Gommendy, on the other hand, will be well placed to learn as much as possible about how the series works, and will be hoping to build towards a title run in 2007. Fourth in the World Series by Renault last year, and a former Macau GP winner, the Frenchman's year will be an education for him.
Adam Carroll and Javier Villa
Racing Engineering are a team going places - all the way to Formula One, if the governing body accepts their application for a 2008 entry. While team boss Alfonso de Orleans confirms that he is looking into the move, right now his principal focus is on adding a GP2 title or two to the multiple Spanish F3 titles his team have won.
GP2's off-season equivalent of the Alonso-to-McLaren shock was the announcement that Carroll was set to leave Super Nova for the Jerez-based team, and the pairing of the Ulsterman with former Formula One engineering guru Gary Anderson provides one of the strongest combinations in the series. If the Irish pair and their Spanish team can come to grips with the brake problems they've suffered in testing, they will be the men to beat for the driver's title.
Villa, on the other hand, has already admitted that 2006 will be all about learning what is needed to compete at this level. The team believe that the Spaniard, who narrowly missed out on last year's F3 title in his homeland, has the potential to be the next Alonso - time will tell if their faith is well placed.
Nelson Piquet Jr and Xandi Negrao
Nelson Piquet Jr has probably had more bad press over his racing career than the rest of the grid put together - for years he's been accused of being a dilettante, lazy, unable to compete, and of having every bad characteristic a racing driver can have.
Piquet is a chip of the old block - smart, funny and, most importantly, blindingly fast. So fast is he, that a number of other team bosses have coveted the driver (culminating in a will he/won't he rumour mill about the Brazilian potentially moving to ART in the off-season). Piquet has a history of learning a series one year and then dominating it the next - the driving ability is unquestionably there, but the biggest question is whether the team has sufficient expertise to help their favoured son to the title.
On the other side of the garage, Negrao is unlikely to pose much challenge to his countryman - a year on from his GP2 debut and the genial Brazilian has yet to show any real sense of urgency or desire to push himself forward. This can only provide more resources within the team for their more proficient team leader.
Ferdinando Monfardini and Franck Perera
DAMS began and ended the 2005 season with strong performances in the form of lead driver Lopez, but for the middle section of the year the team completely lost their way on set-up. That a team with the depth of DAMS could suffer thus is as good an indication of any of the push throughout the grid to improve, but a dominant off-season in A1 will have given the team a sense of achievement that should provide momentum into the new season back in their main job.
Monfardini is a mystery to most in the paddock - his speed would show from time to time, but it was only when threatened with losing his drive in favour of the disenfranchised Gianmaria Bruni that he showed his mettle with two strong performances in Monza. Two more tough drives while in huge pain at Bahrain gave an indication of his ability, and DAMS will be banking on this combining with a year's experience to push the team up the grid.
Perera moves up to GP2 after a strong debut year in the F3 Euroseries, where he placed fourth, and the 2004 Formula Renault Italia title. While it seems the French driver is being fast-tracked through the junior categories thanks to his Toyota connections, much is expected by his Japanese paymasters, and he has certainly provided value for them so far. Podiums will not be out of the question, and possibly a win if things go his way.
Luca Filippi and Jason Tahinci
During the off-season Coloni Motorsports morphed into FMS International when Formula One driver (and past rival of team boss Paolo Coloni during his driving career) Giancarlo Fisichella bought half of the team from the long time Italian racing family. The move brought much needed capital to the team, which has allowed them to bring in a number of Formula One engineers to help with the push back up the grid.
FMS will, however, struggle on the driver front. Filippi arrives in GP2 fresh from winning the Italian Formula 3000 title and looks to be a good prospect for the future. His lack of experience at this level will work against the Italian though, and it's unlikely that he'll be able to fight the title contenders at the front in his first year in the series.
Filippi would have gained from having a more experienced teammate alongside him in his first season, and the team spoke to a number of prospective drivers in that respect. However nothing came of the negotiations, and they signed up Tahinci instead, of whom the kindest thing that can be said of his driving record to date is that he provides the team's budget for the next two seasons.
Hiroki Yoshimoto and Timo Glock
BCN are an enigma - they stormed to second in 2004's Formula 3000 finale with Enrico Toccacelo (and were substantially closer than winner Tonio Liuzzi's seven wins suggests), but last year the team were horrendously up and down, with the low point of the season coming when they were unable to get Yoshimoto on track for qualifying in Monaco, compelling the driver to sit out of the race he had dreamt of competing in since he was a child. A lot of work will be needed to get the team back into contention this year.
Despite the heartache, Yoshimoto returns for a second year with the Spanish team in a move that suggests a win for heart over head for the gregarious Japanese driver and his Spanish manager. He showed what he is capable of on the few occasions he was given the car to do so - a strong second in France and a commanding drive in the lead in Turkey (albeit spoiled by a bad call on tyres from the team) suggest Yoshimoto will take his chances, if he gets them.
Alongside him this year will be newcomer, and former Formula One driver, Timo Glock. Still only 24, the German is one of the strongest competitors outside of the top series, and a Rookie of the Year season in Champ Cars will have done him no harm at all. In one of half a dozen other teams, Glock would be seen as a genuine title contender, and he will be hoping that BCN have rediscovered their 2004 form as he attempts to get back into the big game.
Olivier Pla and Clivio Piccione
Sponsor turned team owner, as Direxiv bought into the former David Price Racing team in what could be a precursor to a move up into Formula One as the junior McLaren team. Before then, the team will be hoping they can build on last year's two wins and challenge the top teams on a regular basis.
Pla returns to his old team in the hope that they can get more of what they achieved together last year. The Frenchman is generally amiable company, but as the races get nearer he becomes notoriously intense and introspective and has been known to psyche himself out of contention by overthinking the race before it started. If Pla can overcome this - and it was notable how much calmer he became after the wins started last year - he could be an outside contender for the championship.
Piccione moves over from Durango this year at the behest of his sponsor, and it will provide an interesting contrast between the two drivers. As laid back as his teammate isn't, the Monegasque driver has to beat Pla this year to feature in Direxiv's future plans.
Lucas di Grassi and Sergio Hernandez
Durango spent a good part of the off-season as the subject of rumours about a possible sale to a number of different suitors, with Trident, FMS and Carlin among the bigger names linked to the team. None of the gossip came to fruition, and the team returned to testing this year hoping to shrug off the inevitable black clouds and prove their worth. While it's unlikely the team will be fighting for wins, they will be keen to prove that they are at least the top team in Italy outside of Formula One.
Di Grassi arrives fresh from the F3 Euroseries, where he was best of the rest by placing third behind the ASM pair, and a career-strengthening win at Macau. Moving up to second position in RDD behind Lopez, the Brazilian will not be expecting wins in his first year in the series, but he'll be hoping he can spring the odd surprise on the other rookie drivers while he learns the circuits and car ahead of a title tilt in 2007.
Hernandez should have the upper hand in his team by dint of experience, although he struggled last year to come to terms with flamboyant teammate Juan Cruz Alvarez, who was sadly unable to find a budget to compete this year. A reliable car should help him improve this year, although it's unlikely anyone could have as much unreliability this year as he suffered through in 2005.
Adrian Valles and Felix Porteiro
Campos limped through 2005 with a diabolical reliability record, which looks to have killed off the career of Alvarez, who was on course for a podium no less than six times, only for his car to breakdown. He was unable to find any backing due to his results, and almost did in Hernandez. The Valencia-based team are talking up their challenge this year, but only time will tell.
Valles and Porteiro, second and fifth respectively in last year's World Series by Renault, are exactly what Campos were looking for - fast Spaniards with respectable CVs looking to move up, and with the means to pay for it. Both drivers have been reasonably fast in testing and have the potential to push the team forward. Both drivers, however, will be at the mercy of their team and will be hoping that their testing form doesn't evaporate when the races start.
Gianmaria Bruni and Andreas Zuber
The new team on the block have hit the ground running in their first official GP2 tests and are hoping that buying in talent from around the grid, including former Formula One designer Sergio Rinland, will provide the Italians with a shortcut to the front of the grid. On testing results, it seems to be working so far, and the team are not embarrassing themselves against their more fancied competition.
They could have done worse than to build the team around Bruni, who provides Trident with a strong benchmark with which to judge themselves. The Italian won a race last year, should have won more but for a string of car problems, and has Formula One experience - all that, and he is still only 24 years old. Bruni showed he can fight for a championship if he has the car to do it with - Trident now have to show that they can give him that car.
Alongside Bruni will be yet another WSR race winner in the form of Zuber. The Austrian has looked reasonable in testing and will be looking to learn as much as he can from his highly experienced teammate throughout his rookie year, with the hope of pushing him competitively in the latter stages of the season.