crankandpiston.com grabs a few words with Nelson Piquet Jr to discuss his NASCAR conquests, his budding World Rallycross Championship career, the difficulties of rookies in Formula 1, having a two-time Formula 1 champion as a teammate, and ‘that’ race at Singapore in 2008.We cannot display this gallery
After more than a decade working his way up the single seater ladder – including stints in Formula 1, GP2 and the highly-respected British Formula 3 series, Nelson Piquet Jr has begun his motorsport career anew across the pond, specifically in NASCAR. Piquet – son of three-time world champion Nelson Snr – may have taken temporary leave of America’s favourite motor racing series, but his enthusiasm and will to win remains string, as crankandpiston found out at the British round of the 20914 FIA World Rallycross Championship.
Finding a gap in the traffic and just before the serious stuff begins, we’ve got a few questions in mind for Fernando Alonso’s former Renault F1 teammate and one of the only non-American drivers to make a realistic presence in NASCAR.
Nelson, we have a surprisingly long career to get through already including stints in Formula 1, GP2, NASCAR and a 24 Hours of Le Mans outing. But since we’re at Lydden Hill, why don’t we start with Rallycross. Bit of a change for you, isn’t it…?
“Well yes but also no. I did two or three races last year and competed in Barbados earlier this year [FIA World Rallycross, round 1]. Obviously it’s very different to what I’m used to, but it’s fun. And I think it could mark a big future for motorsport, y’know. It works very well for TV and new fans whilst being commercially very interesting. So I think, in the hands of the right promoters, it has a very good chance of succeeding. I mean, the races are fun as well.”
How did your deal come about then with SH Racing?
“I had a good offer! But the racing is fun, I want to be in a race car winning races, and yeah, I think it has a great chance of being a very successful sport. Rallycross has all the ingredients to be as big as NASCAR or any of these other big series.”
That’s as good a segue as we’ll get so let’s discuss your NASCAR career. You made quite a name for yourself in your first ever Camping World Truck Series race by finishing higher than any other Brazilian driver before or since, and even made your Nationwide series debut. But again, straight out of F1 in 2009, it was a big momentum change in your career…
“Yeah, I mean, obviously when I got the offer to go to NASCAR, that was a chance to try something different. When I moved to NASCAR I had no clue what it was about. I just wanted a big change. I wanted to start afresh, and it was a big adventure obviously. I think it was probably even a bigger change than I expected. That really was a big change I terms of everything, in terms of driving style and culture.
“Honestly when I started, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I saw a few races, thought it was cool, but this really threw me.”
Given that you were predominantly a single seater racer before then, how much of a learning curve was it moving into NASCAR and tin tops?
Well you have to adapt as quick as you can obviously, but it takes a while. And I’m not just driving on an oval, but the racing itself. There being so many other drivers and so many restarts so close to each other. There are a lot of different things happening… I mean, I would be driving every week and I would still be learning and getting a little better.
“It takes a lot of effort, a lot of – how can I say it? – a lot of dedication, because it’s like you said, the competition is very close, the cars are very similar. There’s no teams dominating like you see in Europe. So when a driver is working hard, putting all his effort in and taking a step above everybody else, it’s big news.”
But this is a series that, alongside 40-strong grids, has up to 35 races a year, and three tiers to its name. How much a culture shock was that after an 18-race F1 season?
“That was something I thought was going to be hard, but I LOVED it. Every week I had something scheduled, so I knew I’d be training Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, flying Thursday and being on-track Friday, Saturday and Sunday, then back home. So it was always the same thing, and I loved that. I raced a lot and my racecraft – in the Nationwide series and the Trucks – got much better, because I could learn from my mistakes much quicker. With the trucks you’d race one weekend, take one or two weeks off then race again, so that actually makes it more difficult. But when you’re racing every weekend and in the longer races, your learning curve goes sky high.”
You clearly put that to good use with wins in both Nationwide and Trucks. In fact, you were only the second non-American driver in history to win a NASCAR Truck race…
“That basically showed that I am capable of winning races wherever I go. I’ve won a few heats in FIA World Rallycross but I still want to win a main race. Plus I have a podium in F1, I won races in the GP2 championship, I won a British Formula 3 title, I’ve won in each discipline I raced in on the way up.
“One of my dreams is to win a NASCAR championship, and that’s very very hard. I would say it’s close to impossible. You would have to be doing full time NASCAR for many years and have the sponsors, so it’s just not the right timing for me. But one thing I can do and one thing I want to do is win the Truck championship, There’s less races, it’s a smaller budget, the level is a little bit lower, but you’re still fighting against a lot of good drivers. So there’s a lot I still want to achieve.”
Do you think those NASCAR victories also helped put to rest a frustrating F1 career?
“Well it just showed that I could win in anything. I mean, it was clearly just the wrong time and the wrong place for me in F1, y’know. During my rookie year with [Fernando] Alonso, you had to drive the car at 110 per cent the whole freaking race! I look at F1 nowadays, and the cars…the young drivers are lucky because the cars are so dependent on the tyres, so you can’t drive 100 per cent. Most of the time you need to drive the car at 90/95 per cent, either because the tryes go away or something breaks. So for me, at the time, that was really, really tough.”
Having a two-time F1 world championship-winning teammate at Renault must have been helpful though. How much did you learn from Fernando Alonso in 2008/09?
“[Pause] “I had no testing, I had a strong teammate, the cars were more reliable so you could drive as quick as you wanted, and the tyres were good. And it proved…how can I say it…well, it’s not just experience but he has a lot of talent. He’s the driver with probably the most talent in F1, so it’s a major step ahead. [Pause] But, yeah, I definitely learnt a lot from him. I learnt that my limit was much higher than I expected. Every time I drove with Heikki [Kovalainen, Renault test driver, ‘08] or with Giancarlo [Fisichella, Renault driver, ‘05-‘07] in testing, like in 2006 when I drove an F1 car for the first time, I was quicker than Heikki the first three days. And that made me feel pretty comfortable. But then, the first time Fernando drove the car, all of a sudden he was way quicker and I’d be thinking, ‘wow, this guy’s on another level’. After that I had to pick up my game, work really hard, and learn that I could always get better. There’s no limit. You always have to improve. You always have to push yourself a little bit more.”
Do you feel that the same situation applies with young drivers today?
“I don’t think things are that difficult now. The cars aren’t driven at 100 per cent and that just makes it easier for young drivers to prove themselves, and so you can see a lot of young drivers getting good results. The tough thing in F1 during my time was to be quick for such a long time and be mentally and physically prepared. There’s a lot of things that had to be perfect, and it was close to impossible. If you had simulators and stuff like that it would help. But my team [Renault] didn’t have simulators, and I had a very strong teammate and it was difficult. It was a big strong team but it was a team that was running around from 8th to 12th, so sometimes if you’re as good as Alonso you’d make into the top ten in qualifying, and if you weren’t you’d qualify 11th and ‘oh fuck, you didn’t make it’. So it was a hard period for sure for me.”
I doubt many would argue that your 2008-09 season and a half with the Renault F1 Team was fraught. Any of those 28 races stand out in particular…?
“Actually Monaco ‘08 was going pretty well until Buemi [Sébastien, Toro Rosso driver] ran into the back of me and took me out. The team and I was sure we were going to be in the top eight or top six and on a track I liked as well. But it was a difficult season. I mean I don’t remember each race because I have a pretty weak memory, but there were good races and bad races…”
Second place at the 2008 German Grand Prix must surely count as one of the better memories…
“Oh yeah, for sure. That was a great feeling being on the podium. Who hasn’t had one of those moments that you can’t quite believe it’s happening?! I managed to hold my place for a long time, and hold a Ferrari behind me [that of Felipe Massa], and it was great. Yeah, there was a bit of luck that I ended up in that position after the safety car, but on the other hand I held another car behind me – a Ferrari behind me – for 15/20 laps. It wasn’t like I was running by myself, so that made the feeling that much better.”
Then came Singapore and ‘Crashgate’…
“[Pause] Well it wasn’t my fault. I was the young guy, I was by myself, and I had a manager whom I trusted and who was the team boss, and not much really to say. I was following orders, because…well, he was my team boss and my manager, and it couldn’t have been more difficult than that. But also I was only 21/22, and I followed myself into a trap. Maybe if I’d had my father with me advising me, or at least someone there looking after my best interest, that probably wouldn’t have happened. But it was a long time ago, and honestly there’s not much more to say about it.”
Your father – a three-time F1 champion – was a big influence during your early career. Even today, do you still find the name ‘Piquet’ provokes comparisons between the pair of you?
“No. I’m hardly ever in a position nowadays where someone is comparing my performance or comparing our performances. No, I think too much has happened across both our careers for that to be the case.”
So, a season and a half of F1 came to an end in 2009. Five years later, do you consider Formula 1 unfinished business or a closed chapters?
“Well I’ve moved on. There was NASCAR and a lot of other things after that, so it’s difficult to…I mean I don’t think that much about it to be honest. I tried it, it didn’t work out and I moved onto to something else.”
Interesting to think that your last championship victory was your 2004 F3 title. Hoping to break that pattern on the tenth anniversary?
“There’s actually a lot I’d still like to do beside a championship win. I still want to race in Macau F3, I still want to win that race as soon as I get some time and have somebody to fund it, I want to go back to Macau and race over there. It’s a track I love, and it’s a ‘must win’. I still want to win Le Mans, still want to win Daytona 24 Hours, so there’s…I want to do all of these things, and these are one off races which you can do but not have to commit to the whole season. But I need to get settled first with some good financial partners who can help me achieve all of these goals, and when I do I want to check each of them off one at a time.”
“I’m still 28 and I still have a long way to go. I know that the last 10 years didn’t go quite as I’d planned but hey, I’m going to live until I’m 120! I’ve got time to tick off a lot of things.”
– Shots courtesy of Adam Pigott