Nelson Piquet is a small Brazilian race driver whose real name is Nelson Sauto Maior. When he began racing, he had to keep it a secret from his disapproving father, a wealthy Brazilian government minister and rancher who wanted his son to be a lawyer. So for three years Nelson entered races using his mother's family name. His dad didn't find out until the day Nelson's picture appeared in the papers. By then it was too late, so Nelson kept on racing, and he kept using the name Piquet.
Last Monday morning Nelson Piquet Sauto Maior's picture was in a lot of papers, for he had driven a 3-liter Brabham to his first Formula-I win, in the Long Beach Grand Prix. Thus he had moved into a first-place tie with Rene Arnoux of France in the world championship standings. It was a race that had its share of exciting moments, but few of them were suspenseful. It had looked as if there might be a rousing race between Piquet and Arnoux in his yellow turbocharged Renault, but that battle—or any other—never materialized. The 27-year-old Piquet led for all 80 laps of the 11-turn, 2.02-mile circuit and was never threatened, winning by 49.28 seconds in 1:50:18.550.
A year ago Piquet had been pegged as a man to reckon with by none other than Dan Gurney, co-director of the Long Beach race and the only American ever to win a Formula-I race in an American car (the Belgian GP in 1967, driving his own Eagle). After Piquet smashed the Long Beach lap record last week to win the pole position by a remarkable .99 of a second over Arnoux (the differential between Arnoux and Emerson Fittipaldi, whose car was the slowest in the 24-car field, was only 3.66 seconds), Gurney said, "The speed you see out there from Piquet is youth. He's going for it all the time now, and that works—as long as he doesn't come unstuck."
Like many young Formula-I drivers, Piquet has come unstuck more than once in his early races, but after only one full season in Formula-I driving he has matured. After some late-season Formula-I rides in 1978, Piquet was hired by the British Brabham team last year as understudy to two-time world champ Niki Lauda, but soon he was going faster than Lauda. When Lauda abruptly retired during practice for last September's Canadian GP—a retirement possibly speeded by Piquet's driving down his neck—the Brazilian slipped into Lauda's shoes.
However, in the three races preceding Long Beach this season, it was the French Renault team that had emerged as the strongest. Renault, a famous old firm but a Jean-come-lately in postwar Grand Prix racing, got into Formula I in 1977. It has been spending about $4 million a year to campaign and develop its car, which has a tiny (1.5 liter) turbocharged V-6 engine. Through two years of repeated breakdowns the team had remained optimistic. They got it all together last year at the perfect time. In July Renault won its first Grand Prix, the French Grand Prix. It was the first time a French car had won that race in 73 years—Louis Renault's own chauffeur turned the trick that day—and it was a glorious occasion for the fervently nationalistic French. With a new, faster car for this season, Renault rolled its 30-man operation into Long Beach on the momentum of consecutive wins in Brazil and South Africa.
But Long Beach isn't particularly suited to Renaults. The cars handled extremely well on the city's choppy streets, but because of a lag in acceleration inherent in turbocharged engines, they couldn't come out of the tight turns quickly enough. They also had braking problems at Long Beach, one of the slowest GP circuits. When the Renaults of Arnoux and his teammate, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, pitted, they left acrid trails of black dust from overworked disc brakes. In the race, Arnoux obviously had trouble slowing from 165 mph for the course's 35-mph hairpin turn. Even so, he ran much of the event in fourth position, only to be forced into the pits on the 63rd lap to change a flat tire, which dropped him to ninth. That is where he finished.
That, however, was a whole lot better than where Mario Andretti wound up. The 1978 world champion is now in his second straight year of repeated frustration and disappointment with yet another new Lotus. When Andretti could do no better than qualify 15th, the 85,000 Long Beach fans had to pin their hopes on 23-year-old Eddie Cheever. Born in Phoenix, Cheever was taken to Rome by his family when he was three and has lived there since. This is Cheever's first full season of Formula I, as well as the first season for his team. His car is an Italian-built Osella; his striking blonde wife, Italian as well, served lasagna to the mechanics in the garage. Cheever qualified 19th, which wasn't bad considering his brand-new car, tight budget and inexperienced—though game—crew.
The home track was downright nasty to the two American drivers, however. Long Beach maintained its perfect record for first-lap, first-turn crashes, as once again cars ran over each other's wheels and ricocheted into walls at the hairpin following the start. Both Andretti and Cheever were casualties; Andretti made it one more lap with broken steering gear, while Cheever completed 11 more before he retired with axle damage dealt him when he was hit from behind. Still, neither driver was injured, which wasn't the case with the Swiss veteran Clay Regazzoni, whose Ensign lost its brakes on the 51st lap. Unable to decelerate for a hairpin coming after the fastest portion of the course, Regazzoni crashed into a wall of tires, put up as a safety measure, and suffered a compound fracture of the right leg and spinal injuries.
With Piquet running easily and Arnoux fading, the only real racing excitement was generated by last year's winner, Gilles Villeneuve of Canada, who charged from 10th to third in his Ferrari; but he, too, retired, as did Alan Jones, then running second, whose Williams was damaged in a collision with Bruno Giacomelli's Alfa Romeo. Eventually inheriting second place was Riccardo Patrese, the young Italian who was suspended for reckless driving just a year ago, with Piquet's countryman Fittipaldi climbing up to third.
Can Piquet go all the way? Tune in again at Watkins Glen in October, and watch the papers for the pictures.
Piquet, 27, scored his first Formula-I victory.
Clay Regazzoni, 40, lost his brakes and crashed.
Piquet consistently steered clear of the problems that slowed or eliminated most of his top rivals.