Where did it all go wrong for Piquet?

REN2009011987350 PVToday s announcement that Renault have dropped Nelson Piquet from their team does not come as a surprise to anyone within Formula One.

Forumula1.com’s Ewan Marshall asks where it all went wrong for the Brazilian, a driver who, on paper at least, was destined for F1 stardom.

By Ewan Marshall

When Nelson Piquet decided to follow the route of his father into motorsport there were always going to be questions about whether he would measure up to the three-times world champion.

Compared to many drivers on the grid, Piquet s record in the junior categories was strong. In 2004 he became the youngest ever winner of the British Formula 3 championship at nineteen years and two months, notching up an impressive five poles and six wins in a highly competitive series.

Championship victory, and continued financial and personal support from his father, elevated the young Brazilian into the GP2 feeder series, where he would learn his trade for the next two years. After winning in his debut year and finishing in a credible eighth position in the championship, Piquet cemented his place as a rising star in the single seater world. In his sophomore GP2 season, he emerged as the main challenger to Lewis Hamilton and pushed the Briton all the way down to the final two rounds of the season. A bright future looked assured.

It was also over this period, from 2005 until 2006, that Piquet starred in a number of other racing series. Victory in both the sprint and feature races during the inaugural A1-GP event at Brands Hatch was further complimented by a respectable fourth placed finish in the GT1 category during his first ever Le Mans 24 hour race.

Eventually Formula One came calling and under the management of Flavio Briatore, Piquet was soon snapped up as Renault test driver in 2007, finally graduating into the race team in 2008 to partner the returning Fernando Alonso.

So what exactly went wrong for Nelson Piquet?

From the beginning of his Formula One career, Piquet was hampered by bad luck. In his first ever race the Brazilian driver was forced to retire with a clutch problem, a sign of things to come for the rookie. Piquet’s debut was plagued by unreliability and he retired from four of the first six races alone.

Although Renault was a shadow of the team which had won back-to-back titles in the preceding years, Fernando Alonso was still able to achieve the maximum out of the car, whereas Piquet was not.

Despite scoring the most points of any Brazilian driver in their rookie season, Piquet was flattered by the larger points-scoring system and by a number of freak results. His highlight of the season came at Hockenheim where he finished on the podium in second place. However this was not through his own skill, but arguably by a lucky strategic call made by his team during a Safety Car period.

Once Renault had finally produced a competitive car at the tail end of the season, Piquet failed once again to come close to his teammate. While Alonso outscored all of his rivals in the final four races of the season, including victories in Singapore and Japan. Piquet could not extract the same performance from the car and did not become a regular points scorer for the team.

After a below-par debut year, Piquet was granted a reprieve by Renault and offered a contract for 2009. Although the terms of the contract were unfavourable, including a performance clause where Piquet had to achieve at least 40% of the points scored by his teammate, the driver could not complain.

To warrant a drive in Formula One you must first believe in your own ability and although the contract stipulations were unfair Piquet knew exactly what challenge awaited him in his second season. No longer would he have been granted the same excuses as a rookie.

Piquet s troubled 2009 season failed to inspire and only increased the speculation of his future. Today s announcement does not come as a surprise to anyone within or outside the Formula One World.

Conceding that fact that Piquet may not have had the same car as his teammate, or ran the same amount of track time, his downfall was mainly brought on by his own misjudgements. Too many of his retirements, this season, were down to driver error and not the reliability that had plagued him at the start of 2008.

Indeed he was not helped by a poor car, but instead of growing as a driver, Piquet often underachieved, continually being eliminated in the first segment of qualifying while his team mate dragged his ill-handling Renault into the top-ten shootout.

Contrary to popular belief, Junior was never expected to beat Alonso, nor was he expected to out qualify the Spaniard. However in this environment he had the opportunity to thrive, close the gap to Alonso in terms of lap time and always be there to pick up the pieces. However he never fulfilled any of this. Briatore would not have sharpened his lance had Piquet managed to finish the race at the chequered flag, and not the tyre wall.

Many will now question Piquet s future in Formula One. If reports are to be believed, then he might well find himself in a drive at the reincarnated Sauber team next season, funded, like throughout the majority of his career, by his father.

However, if such a move falls through, do not expect Piquet to be on the Formula One grid anytime soon, unless of course it is as a pay driver.

For all his confidence about remaining in the sport, many teams will view Piquet as unfulfilled promised, “damaged goods”, no matter how gleaming his junior years were.