Heading into his second season in Formula 1 with Renault in 2009, Nelson Piquet Jnr insists he is 'sharper' than he was during his troubled rookie campaign last year - and boldly targeting a top five position in the final drivers' standings.

The Brazilian graduated to the top flight after finishing as runner-up in the feeder GP2 Series to Lewis Hamilton in 2006, and a year spent testing for the R?gie in 2007, but it was far from an easy adjustment, as a lack of circuit knowledge and the pressure of having a double world champion team-mate in the car alongside him saw Piquet struggle to produce results.

No points were forthcoming until the French Grand Prix more than three months into the campaign, and on only one occasion in the first seven races did the son of former triple title-winner Nelson Piquet make it through to Q3 and the top ten shoot-out in qualifying. The daggers were out, and there were rumours he would even be replaced before mid-season, but a mark?d improvement in the second half saw the 23-year-old end proceedings with a respectable 19 points to his name.

That was enough to earn a reprieve for 2009, when Piquet knows he must perform - and he is entirely optimistic of doing so.

"It's been a lot of hard work," he confessed. "Fernando [Alonso, team-mate] has been in F1 for several years and he's the top of the tops, so I had to learn quickly. I had to try and reach my best at every track, and every track was a new situation, a new thing I was facing.

"I had to adapt myself to it, but generally by the end of the weekend I was nearly on a par with Fernando. Then a new weekend started and everything was back to zero - new track and getting used to things again, having to take it corner-by-corner...

"Comparing the beginning of the season to the end, tracks that I didn't know at the end I learned much quicker than at the start of the season. I was more confident and I knew how to work around the problems much better than at the beginning. I certainly learned a lot and made a lot of progress last year. I will therefore be much sharper this season."

Be that as it may, the considerable shift in technical and aerodynamic regulations for 2009 in the name of cost-cutting and improving the show have moved the goalposts to such an extent that nobody really knows how the pecking order will shake out come the opening race of the season in Melbourne in March. Piquet admits that - particularly with the new ban on in-season testing - preparations in the run-up to the Australian Grand Prix are now more critical than ever.

"A lot of things are changing," he acknowledged. "New tyres, new aero package, KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) - everything is going to be new for us, and the start of the season should be very interesting. I think the driver who works hardest and can adapt quickly to the new rules is going to have an advantage.

"For the drivers [the return of slick tyres] doesn't make a difference - the only thing is it might give a bit more mechanical grip. Also, we're going to have less wing on the car, less aerodynamics, so it's going to be different to what I was used to in GP2. I don't think a slick tyre and one with grooves is going to help or take an advantage away from some of the drivers.

"It's always fun to be sliding, but logic says that the quickest way is never sliding; the quickest way is always to be on the perfect line. Still, it's going to allow us to slide a bit more."

Renault's new R29 may have had an initially disappointing debut in Portugal last week - Alonso lapping more than two seconds shy of the quickest '09 spec car, the Williams of Nico Rosberg, at Portimao - but 'Nelsinho' remains hopeful that the Enstone-based concern will be able to resume Down Under in the same manner as that in which it concluded 2008, regularly challenging for podium positions and even victory. And if that is the case, he makes no secret of where he wants to be battling.

"I know this season will be easier for me as I'm feeling much more comfortable in the team," he underlined. "I know the circuits and how to approach a grand prix weekend. I'm sure it's going to be much easier for me to handle everything. I'm going to start 2009 where I left off in 2008, and am determined to improve race-by-race.

"[He and Alonso] have a very good working relationship, and we always have the same answers to the problems that we encounter. We always agree on the same things [and] we always have the same ideas, so I reckon that helps the team with the development of the car.

"The team is even more motivated [than before]. The performance at the end of 2008 was very important, Fernando is committed to the team and everybody is optimistic at the moment. We must keep up this determination [and] remain focussed on our winter development programme, and I'm sure we will be in a strong position in 2009. I would love to be in the top five in the drivers' championship; that would be excellent."



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