While the Knives are Sharpened: In Defence of Nelson Piquet
With three races gone in 2009, it is never too early for some pundits to begin compiling a "hit list" of drivers who should be removed from their prestigious F1 seats, and few other than Nelson Piquet have made the top of most of those lists.
The Brazilian, son of the three-time world champion with the same name, had a difficult debut season in 2008, with most expecting that he would not be asked to continue with his Renault employers this year.
Eyebrows were raised, therefore, when it was announced that Piquet would be continuing alongside Fernando Alonso in the team for the new season.
In his F1 career so far Piquet has given plenty of ammunition for his critics. Often while teammate Alonso was pushing for a points position, and even wins as the season drew to a close, Piquet would be scrapping in the midfield or spinning off the racetrack.
He is afforded particularly low regard in the UK, perhaps partly to do with his father's much-publicised feud with British racing hero Nigel Mansell in the 1980s.
In reality, few here were willing to give young Nelsinho much of a chance, and pounced on him as soon as he began making the same errors made by most rookies during their Formula One apprenticeship.
Even allowing for the difficulty of acclimatising to the ultra-competitive world of Formula One, ascribing his uninspiring debut season to the rigours of learning how to race an F1 car around unfamiliar tracks, most of those problems should have been dialled out by now, and we should be seeing more of Piquet's promise.
So far, it must be said, that has not been seen, but there are reasons why we should hold off on the barrage of abuse hurled at Piquet and at least give him a few more races to finally prove his worth.
When Piquet was competing in GP2, the category immediately below Formula One, he was driving for his father's team, a small outfit with resources that paled in comparison to the top ranks of the series.
Yet Piquet made the best he could of the situation, and was Lewis Hamilton's closest competitor as the British ace flew to the 2006 title, a year before he made his stunning debut in Formula One.
Are we to believe, then, that the only man to mount a serious challenge to Hamilton, now an F1 world champion, in those days, is really so useless as to warrant his immediate abandonment at the side of the Formula One highway?
Hamilton's entry into Formula One was tinged with greatness from the very start, and with Piquet making a similar impression in the junior formulae, the most natural comparisons are between this pair.
Hamilton finished on the podium in each of his first nine races in F1 and lost the world championship in his rookie season by a single point, eventually scoring the same number of points and winning the same number of races as his double world champion teammate Fernando Alonso.
Piquet had the same teammate when he entered F1, yet scored only one podium in the whole season and finished the year with just 19 points, 42 behind Alonso. Even leaving aside the fact that the 2007 McLaren was a far more competitive car than the 2008 Renault, shouldn't we have expected a little more from Piquet?
Well, no. Hamilton came into the McLaren team having been groomed and funded by the Woking operation for over a decade; he knew the team and its staff intimately, almost as if they were family. Alonso, by contrast, was new to a team already accustomed to working with world champions.
Piquet was the "new boy" at Renault for 2008: Though he had tested with the team for a year, Alonso was far more familiar with the Renault "family" than he was.
Furthermore, Piquet's role as Alonso's understudy was clear and well-established; at McLaren, Hamilton and Alonso began the year on equal terms, an opportunity that Lewis did not hesitate to take.
Looking back on Piquet's rookie season, it appears to be one strewn with errors and a fundamental lack of pace: the Brazilian failed to outqualify Alonso once all year.
But attention must be paid to Renault's strategy guru Pat Symonds, and his unconventional solutions to routine problems in Formula One.
Ever since 2005, when it became apparent that Giancarlo Fisichella was not up to Alonso's pace, Symonds would put one of his drivers on a long, one-stop fuel load at the beginning of the race. If something unexpected, like a safety car at a crucial point, happened, then that driver would be in the reckoning for an excellent result.
If not, as happened so often to Fisichella and later to Piquet, they would be destined for an unspectacular finish. Fisichella had the advantage of a strong car, so was usually able to scrape some points from the situation; Piquet did not, and thus most of his races were spent mired in the midfield.
But the one race where it did unquestionably work was the German Grand Prix of 2008. There, Piquet took advantage of a safety car to leap to the front of the field; though he was eventually passed by Lewis Hamilton, he held on to second place for his best F1 result to date.
Many drivers would struggle with the unique challenges of running a long strategy in a Grand Prix: Most are too hard on their tyres to even contemplate such an approach.
We saw Hamilton himself, for example, learn the hard way in China this year how important tyre management is when running a one-stop strategy: his race was punctuated by spins and excursions off the track as his tyres gradually wore down.
So Piquet's skills at handling and nursing a car, though rarely apparent as he quietly trundles along in the midfield, are not in doubt. When refuelling is banned for 2010 and longer strategies become more beneficial, we could see a revelation from Piquet.
That's if he lasts that long: He has been criticised for a poor start to 2009, though this has not been helped by two wet races. Some drivers simply do not get on with wet conditions, although Felipe Massa has shown that these problems can be solved with time.
The Australian Grand Prix was actually an excellent race for Nelson; taking advantage of the carnage at the start to leap from fourteenth on the grid to ninth on the first lap, he remained in contention until his brakes failed at the restart from under a safety car.
It could have been some solid points for Piquet otherwise, and the first occasion on which he had truly outperformed Alonso.
The ease with which Alonso obliterated Piquet in qualifying for Shanghai is deceptive, too: Piquet had none of the new aerodynamic updates delivered for Alonso's car in time for the Grand Prix.
Alonso believes that the improvements Renault are making to their car still mean that he is a contender for the world championship: If that is the case, then we should see a step forward from Piquet as well.
It is up to him, in the next few races, to prove that he deserves his place in Formula One, and to show this reporter why he alone hasn't lost faith.
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