INTERVIEW

Nelson Piquet

On Sunday at Hockenheim the Benetton team looked a very real threat for victory against the mighty McLaren and Ferrari. This increased competitiveness is due both to the new Ford Series IV V8 engine and to the fast-developing B190 chassis. Although Nelson Piquet retired, Sandro Nannini led the race for 16 of the 45 laps. Ultimately Senna took the lead, but Sandro finished second, matching the performance of Piquet at the Canadian GP.

Piquet is enjoying the season after two years of struggle at Lotus. This week he is expected to re-sign for Benetton for the 1991 season -- which will be his 13th full year as a Grand Prix driver.

Nelson has many detractors, particularly in the last two seasons, when his performances at Lotus were not exactly sparkling.

When asked what he thinks about these critics in the light of recent performances Nelson smiles mischievously and then frowns. He is always like that -- his face moving from one emotion to the next at great speed. He's a bad boy one minute, an angel the next.

What he says about his critics is hardly polite but, time and again, he says the same thing: "I don't care. They do not know."

The German Grand Prix was Nelson's 181st. He is the second most experienced F1 driver of all time. He has 20 GP victories and three World Championships to his name. He has accumulated more championship points in his career than anyone else in F1 history except for Alain Prost.

But to him all this means nothing. They are just figures.

"When you do a good race and you finish well you get pleasure. Winning the championship is the result when you do enough good races. I really don't believe in what I have done in the past. I believe in what I am going to do in the future."

Nelson doesn't say it, but you know he is enjoying his new-found competitiveness. He is poking the critics in the eye and there's a lot of humble pie sitting around which no-one wants to eat.

Despite his retirement in Germany, Nelson has been a regular points scorer this year and lies fourth in the World Championship.

He is relaxed, happy and motivated. Much more motivated, it would seem, than in the past.

"No, that's not true," he says forcefully. "I always have the motivation. I had two bad years and I haven't forgetten that. That was a bad decision at the time. If I was back there now I would probably do the same thing. Even when I was at Lotus and sometimes I was P20 or P19 I was giving the most I could.

"When you are there missing three or four seconds, there is not much you can do. I said: 'Okay I have to do the best I can to get another team for next year'.

"You see today that Lotus is still in the shit. The team has no money, they don't have development. In motor racing you always have to invest, not for this year, but for the next three years."

By switching to Benetton Nelson found himself is just such a situation. The team which was busy beating itself in 1989 began to settle down. The new management recruited John Barnard from ferrari -- and with him came an influx of new blood on the technical side. At the same time Commercial Director Flavio Briatori instigated major investment for the future.

The fruits of the new regime have yet to be truly seen, but the signs are that in 1991 Benetton will be right there with Ferrari, McLaren and Williams.

"I see some future here," explains Nelson, "and it is exciting. I never in my life went for a team that was already winning races. When I went to Williams, it was in a bad situation and then it started to win. When I went to Brabham it was the same. Here it is coming the same. Next year we will be very close to fight for the championship.

"The new Series IV engine is a step ahead with some more horsepower. How much I cannot say because I don't know, but you get a little more acceleration and you get a little bit closer.

"But," he adds, "everybody is also working. So it's very difficult."

The question everyone would like to know is whether the B190 can win races this year?

"No," says Nelson immediately. He pauses. "Maybe yes. If they come with more development. With the car as it is now it is very difficult to win races with this engine.

"You have to organise everything to do one thing -- to make a quick car for the races. When that car is ready everything goes much easier and John (Barnard) knows that. Next year will be a strong year."

Nelson is 38 years old, but he has no thoughts of retirement.

"I'm going to go on racing until they throw me out," he laughs. "You know how, when you start racing, every year you are looking for a sponsor. Suddenly people make a contract and you do well and you say: 'Now I can stay in Formula 1 for the next 10 years'.

"Those things used to worry me a lot but now what frightens me a lot more is what I am going to do next in my life.

"I can think of only one thing," he continues. "I have a thirteen year old son who is doing the go-karts and he is doing very well. He's tough. If he will be good I can come and follow him here in the next years.

"Apart from that I don't know. I think about building and selling boats -- because I built my own boat.

"It's so difficult, I don't know what the f**k to do."

To the world Nelson, more than any other, typifies the image of what a racing driver should be. His life away from the tracks is one of luxury boats, planes and helicopters.

Nelson doesn't see it that way.

"Why do I have a glamorous lifestyle? Okay, I live on a boat. Why do I live on a boat? Because I have no wish to live anywhere in particular. I don't want to live in France, Italy, England. I change my address any time I want to.

"I don't like houses so I move my house around. I built the thing and I will not lose much money when I sell.

"Everybody talks a lot of shit about me being glamorous. Everyone in F1 has a big house. Prost has a castle in Switzerland. I have a boat."

What about the helicopter?

"To live on a boat I have a helicopter. It's like having a car. I have a very old Renault Espace and I have a Ford company car, but I sold all my cars and bought a helicopter so instead of having three nice cars as everyone has I have a helicopter.

And the plane?

"A plane? Today everybody has a plane. The only difference is that I learned to fly. I like to fly.

"It's nice to learn. It's something different. I just bought an Eagle with a journalist friend. It's a cheap plane to learn to do aerobatics. That's a kind of hobby."

Glamorous or not, it is an expensive lifestyle, but Nelson is worth a lot of money to F1 teams -- and he knows it.

"In the beginning I hated negotiating contracts," he laughs. "Now when you have the cards in your hand it is good. I know my value and I know how to get it. Flavio is a very good player, so it is fun.

"But," he adds, "I don't like to change teams. It takes more than a year just to know everybody. I spent seven years at Brabham and I knew everybody. We hardly had any changes. I liked that. I hope Benetton can be like that."

Nelson, it seems, is in F1 to stay. He mutters about "maybe four or five more years", but he doesn't really know. The only thing he truly knows on the subject is that he doesn't know any other way of living...

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