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F1: Court fines Piquet for racist Lewis Hamilton comments

March 26, 2023

A court in Brasilia has ordered Nelson Piquet to pay almost a million US dollars for public use as "moral damages" for his use of racial slurs describing Lewis Hamilton.

Nelson Piquet, pictured at the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Piquet has a track record of controversial comments and insults against other F1 driversImage: Costas Victor Eleuterio/ATP/picture alliance

Retired three-time Formula 1 world champion Nelson Piquet was fined 5 million Brazilian reals (roughly $950,000 or €890,000) for using racist derogatory language to describe British driver Lewis Hamilton in a 2021 interview.

He had also used racist and homophobic language describing Hamilton in another interview. 

Who was suing Piquet and why? 

The court in Brasilia handed down its verdict late on Friday. 

It ordered Piquet pay the sum "in collective moral damages, to be allocated to funds for the promotion of racial equality and against discrimination of the LGBTQIA+ community." 

File photo dated 11-07-1986 of Nelson Piquet (right) and Sir Frank Williams, founder and former team principal of Williams Racing.
Piquet (right in picture) was among the top drivers of the 1980s, winning championships with Brabham and Williams, but had a reputation as a difficult character even as a young manImage: PA Wire/empics/picture alliance

Several human rights groups including Brazil's National LGBT+ Alliance had brought the civil case, arguing Piquet's comments had violated the norms of human dignity as described in Brazil's constitution. 

The judge said Piquet's comments matched the definition of racial discrimination put forward in a 2010 statute. 

Piquet later apologized for the comments, which courted international criticism.

In a statement, he said he regretted using the "ill thought-out" racial term but said it was "one that has widely and historically been used colloquially in Brazilian Portuguese as a synonym for 'guy' or 'person' and was never intended to offend." 

Judge Pedro Matos de Arruda said that "subtlety is one of the characteristics of contemporary Brazilian racism" and that the word is "not an affectionate nickname," when explaining his decision. 

In a separate allegation of using homophobic language in his bid to explain why he thought Hamilton had lost the 2016 world championship to Nico Rosberg, the judge said Piquet had implied that if Hamilton had not been gay, "he would have won the championship. Therefore being gay would be a negative characteristic." 

Hamilton has never said anything to indicate he is gay, but Piquet has a track record of calling people he dislikes homosexuals.

What was Piquet talking about at the time? 

Piquet was discussing a crash at the 2021 British Grand Prix between Hamilton and his championship rival that season, Max Verstappen. 

Verstappen, who was taken to hospital for checks after the incident but was not seriously hurt, and his Red Bull team were furious after the crash, allocating the blame to Hamilton. Piquet felt the same.

Hamilton received a 10-second stop-go penalty for causing the collision — a fairly severe penalty but not the toughest available — but was nevertheless able to win the race. 

Piquet's daughter Kelly is Verstappen's girlfriend and the pair had comparatively recently made their relationship public at the time. 

Max Verstappen und Kelly Piquet kissing at the Monaco Grand Prix.
Piquet's daughter is in a relationship with Max Verstappen, who was in direct competition with Lewis Hamilton for the 2021 title at the time of the commentsImage: Luca Bruno/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Hamilton responded by condemning the "archaic mindests" on show and said he had been "surrounded by these attitudes and targeted [my] whole life." 

Hamilton, currently the only Black F1 driver and someone who often professes his admiration for the next Brazilian F1 champion after Piquet, Ayrton Senna, was given honorary Brazilian citizenship last year. 

Undated archive image of Aytron Senna in the cockpit of a McLaren Formula 1 race car, likely taken in either 1990 or 1991.
Hamilton, meanwhile, has long expressed his admiration for Piquet's great Brazilian rival of old, Ayrton SennaImage: picture alliance/dpa

Bolsonaro donations and Lula comments also under scrutiny

Piquet also had a reputation in the paddock as a prickly and difficult character, dating all the way back to his fierce animosity with his 1980s teammate at Williams, Nigel Mansell. He had serious personal run-ins, usually involving public insults, with several other drivers over the years.

Contemporary rivals Senna and Piquet cast something of an unofficial dividing line in Brazil in the 1980s and 90s.

Close-up of Nelson Piquet in his crash helmet in the cockpit of his Williams on the starting grid at the 1987 German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring circuit, July 27, 1987.
Piquet came to be defined by his relationship with his younger Brazilian rival Ayrton Senna and their differing worldviewsImage: Schrader/dpa/picture alliance

Although Senna was not formally politically affiliated, his charitable endeavors working with impoverished children and repeated appeals for work to bridge the gap between the wealthy elite he hailed from and Brazil's poor stood in sharp contrast to Piquet's more hard-nosed opinions.

Piquet would often describe Senna, who was single or in a relationship kept out of the public eye for much of his career, using homophobic slurs.

He's become a polarizing figure in modern Brazilian politics, too, and faced criticism for donating around $100,000 to former President Jair Bolsonaro's failed re-election campaign last year.

Piquet claimed it was the first time in his life he'd become truly partisan on the question of a national election. He was one of several prominent sports stars, past and present, whose support Bolsonaro courted.

In November, the human rights commission in Brazil's Senate recommended Piquet face another legal investigation for comments released in a social media video soon after President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva's election, in which Piquet said he wished to see Lula "in a cemetery." The video appeared to have been recorded while Piquet was taking part in a pro-Bolsonaro demonstration against Lula's narrow election victory. 

msh/ar (AFP, AP)