“Nelson, we need to take a couple of portrait shots of you,” I said. It was the afternoon before the first Formula E race in Monaco. Current E photographer Dan Bathie and I were stood in the bustling pit lane under hazy grey skies. A crowd had gathered, drawn by the close proximity of well-known racing drivers. Gaggles of green- and blue-vested media people cluttered the garages.
A month earlier, Nelson Piquet had won in Long Beach. It had been a very special weekend – his first Formula E victory came 35 years to the weekend after his father had claimed his first F1 win. Piquet, an unobtrusive figure who had simply gone about his work without fuss and who had dipped under the glare of the media spotlight for the first half of the season, suddenly found himself centre stage.
Having spent time with Piquet at every race, I knew he wasn’t overly fond of having his picture taken. Given his hectic schedule and queue of clamouring interviewers, I expected him to ask us to come back later. Instead, he turned to his manager: “What’s next on my schedule?” A lot, came the response, although there was a 20 minute window. “We’ve got time,” he said to me. “Where do you want to do the shots?”
There’s only one answer to that when in Monaco: the harbour. That involved quite a hike from where we were, however. Handily, Piquet had a scooter parked up at the entrance of the garage. “I’ll meet you down there,” said Bathie, picking up his cameras for the march to the waterfront. Piquet’s response was instant. “Just jump on,” he said. He pushed the scooter through the crowds and, with Bathie on the back, disappeared down to the glittering blue waters and soaring white hulls to have his photo taken.
That was the Nelson we came to know over the course of the first season. He was often withdrawn, introverted almost, but overjoyed to be racing single seaters again after exile from F1. For him, Formula E was a road to redemption, a chance to show the racing world (and himself) that he had an awful lot more to give.
He always had time for fans, he always had time for media. (He called me once when he was in the middle of moving house because I had some questions about the previous race. When the signal dropped out – twice – he called me back to make sure I had everything I needed.)
He drove carefully when he had to, aggressively when the situation called for it. He developed a silky-smooth style that gave him incredible speed on top of incredible energy efficiency. He built a signature strategy and then tore it up to keep his competitors guessing.
Piquet won the first Formula E drivers’ title by a single point, in a thrilling three-way battle that intensified, round by round and city by city, until the last lap of the last race. After some wilderness years, he proved he’s back where he belongs.
More than the driver, through Formula E Piquet emerged as a person. His passion for racing was evident in his steely standoffs with rival Lucas di Grassi, his determination to pay tribute to his father in Long Beach and his tears in London upon being told he’d triumphed. Fittingly for a sport critics derided as silent, it was the quiet man who became a deserving champion.
This is an excerpt from the October 2015 edition of the Current E magazine.