From Austria with love
“I don’t actually come to many races anymore,” says Nelson Piquet. “I’ll maybe go to a couple more at the end of the season, but it really doesn’t happen a lot.”
So this made it an even bigger honour to welcome the three-time world champion as a presenter of the Pirelli Pole Position Award in Austria, handing over an engraved ultrasoft wind tunnel tyre to Valtteri Bottas – who took his first pole position of the season.
“I never won here myself, but I think I took pole,” remembers Nelson (more than once actually: he was on pole in 1982 at the Osterreichring in the Brabham BT50, again in 1984 with the Brabham BT53, then a third time in 1987 with the Williams FW11B). “I’m not sure I was ever on the podium though...”
In that respect, Nelson is wrong: he finished on the Austria podium no fewer than four times, but a hallmark of most drivers who have tasted so much success over the years is an inability to remember their lesser triumphs.
Some, however, stick permanently in the mind. And one of them is Nelson’s 23rd and last victory, at the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix. From eighth on the grid, Nelson sealed a remarkable victory in his Pirelli-equipped Benetton – which would be the last for the Italian firm of the previous era, before it returned in 2011.
Adding to Pirelli’s success in Canada was second place for Stefano Modena in the Tyrrell-Honda – from ninth on the grid. And Pirelli also came very close to claiming the final win of its previous era, at the 1991 Australian Grand Prix.
In a deluge, Nelson was benefitting from Pirelli rain tyres to close in relentlessly on Ayrton Senna as their rivals skated off the track, but Senna managed to get the race stopped after 16 laps, and the results were declared after 14 laps. It remains the shortest grand prix in history.
From the last to the first
In any case, Canada wasn’t Nelson’s only victory with Pirelli. As well as sealing the last win of the previous Pirelli era, he also took the first. That happened at the 1985 French Grand Prix in Paul Ricard, when the Brazilian reeled in Keke Rosberg and Ayrton Senna. Driving for Brabham (in the spare car, after his race car developed a gear selection problem on the warm-up lap), Nelson claimed Pirelli’s first Formula 1 victory since Stirling Moss won in a Vanwall at Monza in 1957.
So the Brazilian is probably more intertwined with Pirelli’s Formula 1 history than any other driver. Having him present the Pirelli Pole Position Award in Austria closes the circle, another chapter in the remarkable story that links the name Piquet with that of Pirelli.
Yet while Nelson may not get to that many races – he has a burgeoning business empire in Brazil to look after – the Piquet name is still very much present at grand prix weekends.
That’s thanks to 19-year-old Pedro Piquet, who is a frontrunner in the GP3 Series (which has also used Pirelli tyres, since 2010). Pedro, driving for the Trident team in his father’s familiar red and white helmet colours, also had a strong weekend in the red and white land of Austria.
A place in history
The Pirelli Pole Position Award was inaugurated at the start of this year, with some of the star names presenting the award including Sir Jackie Stewart and Carlos Sainz Senior. Up to Austria, the only recipients had been Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo (once). Mercedes now enjoys the distinction of being the only team to have claimed pole position with both drivers so far in 2018.
The Anglo-German squad has dominated since the start of the hybrid era in 2014, cleaning up every title, but one of the remarkable things to remember about Nelson Piquet is that he is the only driver to have won the F1 title twice with a team that did not win the constructor’s championship in the same years – a sign of just how competitive Nelson was behind the wheel, despite a laid-back exterior and a reputation for frequently falling asleep.
And he continued to challenge himself, with the biggest crash of his career coming after he had quit F1, in practice for the 1992 Indy 500. But he remained undeterred. His very last race was actually as recently as 2006, when he won the famous Mil Milhas in Brazil with an Aston Martin DBR9, aged 54.
After that, exhausted, he said he’d never drive a racing car in competition again. He kept his word.