There is only one team in Formula One that started this season with the intention of running a subservient number-two driver. Ferrari, McLaren, and BMW may be letting their pilots fight each other for victory, but Renault are not adopting such an approach and their 2008 campaign is centred entirely around Fernando Alonso.
Flavio Briatore was able to woo the Spaniard back to Renault this year with the promise of team leader status. That was the main condition Fernando sought in his contract after the tumultuous battle with Lewis Hamilton at McLaren.
With that in mind you have to feel a little sorry for Nelsinho Piquet.
Almost all of Renault’s attention will be directed to towards Alonso. Piquet may have the same equipment as the double World Champion, but he does not have the same support. That must be a very tough situation for a newcomer who needs all the help he can get. It is not easy to get to grips with Formula One and it must be even harder if the team is not looking after you.
Perhaps that is why Piquet is having such a torrid time so far this year. He has been woefully off the pace and has combined this with a few mistakes. Renault might have to start giving Nelsinho more assistance before they inadvertently ruin the career of a driver they worked so hard to develop.
Piquet Junior arrives in Formula One with a solid pedigree. He dominated Formula Three in South America and produced similarly strong performances in the British Championship, claiming twelve victories and a title over two years.
Nelsinho landed a few F1 tests with Honda and Williams, and won the first races in the A1 Grand Prix Championship. He also moved up into the GP2 series where, after a quiet first year, he challenged Lewis Hamilton for the 2006 title. He took four wins to Hamilton’s five and lost out simply because the young Brit was more consistent. His performances were strong though and he finished the season miles ahead of the third placed driver. It was enough to land him the coveted testing role with Renault.
Piquet Junior has more racing success on his resume than most other rookie drivers, so it is difficult to see why he would fail to impress on the sport’s largest stage.
You would think the lack of support from Renault must be a factor.
Or perhaps Nelson just isn’t quick enough. He provided the following assessment of his driving during winter testing. “Fernando carries more speed into the corners than I do. Sometimes I brake later than he does but I then have a problem going into the apex. Sometimes I go into the corner well, but then give away time to him at the braking point.”
It seems neither fair nor realistic to blame Piquet’s early woes on a lack of raw speed, especially since he has the maturity to identify exactly why Alonso is quicker than him. Nelsinho may be looking decidedly average but it is too early to write him off yet.
His dad also had a difficult start in Formula One, but went on to claim three World Championships.
In fact, comparisons between the two were somewhat eerie at the Australian Grand Prix. Nelson Piquet Senior qualified 21st on debut and retired from his first race on lap 31. Piquet Junior also qualified 21st in Melbourne, and retired after finishing 31 laps.
That is seriously freaky.
Piquet Senior’s F1 career started in fairly meagre fashion. He retired from five of his first seven races and took three months to qualify higher than 20th. Those early performances barely marked him out as a future World Champion.
Nelson made his Grand Prix debut halfway through the 1978 season. He had strong results in the lower formulae and started in F1 with high expectations. He lined up on the grid for the first time at Hockenheim where he replaced Derek Daly at the Ensign team.
It certainly wasn’t a stunning performance. Piquet qualified behind his mediocre pay-driver teammate, Harald Ertl, and was off the pace in the Grand Prix until his engine failed. His efforts were made to look even worse by the unexciting Ertl, who would have scored a point if not for a similar engine problem.
Derek Daly had his old seat back at the very next race.
Piquet got another chance however, and took a drive at the Austrian Grand Prix with a team called BS Fabrications who ran customer McLarens.
Sadly, Piquet’s second race was no better than his first. He qualified behind his teammate, Brett Lunger, whose most memorable on-track moment was pulling Niki Lauda out of his burning wreckage at the Nurburgring. Piquet crashed on the second lap in Austria, and was again embarrassed as Lunger raced well into eighth, the team’s best result of the season.
Piquet got no closer to Lunger in the remaining two races he contested with BS Fabrications.
Thirty years later, his son has gone though a similar experience.
Nelsinho was a long way behind Fernando Alonso in Melbourne. The only car he outqualified at Albert Park was Anthony Davidson’s Super Aguri, and his fastest lap was a thumping 2.7 seconds slower than Alonso’s.
That is simply appalling. He may have had technical problems during practice, and the team may have been focussed on Alonso, but that is still a miserable drive.
It becomes abysmal when compared to Lewis Hamilton’s efforts against Alonso at the same race last year.
Piquet Junior improved substantially in Malaysia and finished the race eleventh, but was still trailing Fernando by some margin. It was a similar story in Bahrain and although he improved once again, he ruined his race with a spin before a gearbox failure ended it altogether.
Nelsinho has been slow. He has been beaten by his teammate, and he has been making mistakes.
However, he is showing early signs on improvement and that is important.
It is exactly what his father did.
The fortunes of Piquet Senior turned around at the last race of his debut season. After parting ways with BS Fabrications, he found himself driving for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team. Nelson had been far from spectacular, so Ecclestone saw a great opportunity to sign up a young driver on a cheap long-term contract.
It was yet another example of Bernie being able to spot a phenomenal deal.
Piquet joined Niki Lauda full time at Brabham in 1979, and learnt a lot from the (then) double World Champion. The Austrian just had the edge on Nelson but Piquet soon became the dominant team leader when Lauda retired.
The Brazilian came alive in 1980 and won three races. A year later, he won the World Championship. He finished his career with another two titles and a total of 23 Grand Prix victories. Few men in the history of Grand Prix racing have done better.
And he managed all that after such a poor start.
You could argue that Piquet was very fortunate win three World Championships. He was lucky to have been grabbed by Ecclestone despite poor early showings. He was lucky that Lauda retired from the sport when he did. He was lucky to win titles despite having never taken the most victories in any given season, and he was lucky to claim the 1983 crown in a car that most people believe was running illegal fuel (it pays to have Bernie on your side).
However, you make your own luck in Formula One and now Piquet Junior has to do the same thing.
Renault is the team that sacked Nelson Piquet in 1991 (then known as Benetton) because he was thrashed by his teammate.
Here’s hoping that is one piece of history that doesn’t repeat.