Over in Argentina there will be great celebrations today in honour of former Grand Prix driver and 1981 championship runner-up Carlos Reutemann, who turns 70 years old.
Reutemann was a truly unusual breed of Formula 1 driver. He was utterly unpredictable: one some days, he would drive like the true World Champion many felt he deserved to be, while on other days he would drive so appallingly that it was simply embarrassing.
Perhaps the comedian Clive James put it best. “With Carlos, an awful lot depends on his mood,” James once said. “If he feels like winning, he goes like the Argentine air force; if he feels unhappy, he fades away like the Argentine army.”
Whatever the case, Reutemann was an intellectual and a perfectionist, but never able to summon up enough of the consistency and ticker needed to mount an ultimately successful championship challenge.
A cattle rancher’s son born in Santa Fe, he started racing in 1965. He initially competed with some success in touring cars before making the switch to single-seater racing in 1968.
His success was enough to earn him a scholarship of sorts to Europe, where he earned his stripes competing in a Brabham BT30. He returned home to more success – finishing third in an elderly McLaren M7C at the non-championship Argentine Grand Prix – and then went back to Europe to finish runner-up to Ronnie Peterson in the 1971 Formula 2 championship.
Brabham’s new team owner Bernie Ecclestone was quick to notice Carlos’ potential, and signed him to his Formula 1 team for the 1972 season. His first Grand Prix appearance came on his home soil at Buenos Aires, and Carlos stunned everyone by putting the BT34 on pole position. He faded in the race to finish in seventh, but went on to win the non-championship Brazilian Grand Prix.
He suffered a smashed ankle in a Formula 2 crash when he returned to Europe, and it wasn’t until mid-1973 that he started to show form once again, which also coincided with the new Brabham BT42 making its first appearances.
His upward trajectory continued into 1974. He led the first two races before claiming his maiden victory at the third, at Kyalami, but his form immediately vanished during a horror mid-season slump, and then returned for two more wins later in the year.
Hopes that he could mount a championship challenge in 1975 proved to be sorely misguided. Despite one win and six podium finishes, he seemed unsettled by the presence of new team-mate Carlos Pace.
The team’s partnership with Alfa Romeo in 1976 didn’t do the team any favours early on, and a frustrated Carlos wormed his way out of the team’s clutches to sign for Ferrari in the wake of Niki Lauda’s shocking accident at the German Grand Prix – he only raced for the team once before the Austrian made his remarkable recovery.
Nonetheless, he was part of the team’s armoury full-time for the 1977 season – much to Niki’s disgust – and despite winning in Brazil, he spent the rest of the season in Lauda’s shadow. Niki took great delight in his being able to utterly demoralise Reutemann at every turn.
With Lauda off to Brabham in 1978, Carlos was now team leader at Ferrari, and much happier, he claimed four excellent wins but found his contract wouldn’t be renewed, and so he joined Lotus for 1979, with the team set to embark on its disastrous campaign with the Lotus 80 chassis.
Reutemann plugged away with the older 79 challenger – occasionally putting in some surprisingly good drives – and earned himself a call-up to the Williams team for the 1980 season as Alan Jones’ team-mate. Despite claiming a stealthy victory at Monaco, he was unable (or unwilling) to challenge Jones’ canter towards the championship crown.
He was a stronger prospect in 1981. Two wins and podium finishes over the first five races – including a win against team orders in Brazil – put him in a seemingly untouchable position in the championship race.
Finally, it looked as though the championship would be his. But then came the inevitable form slump. Nelson Piquet closed inexorably on the title, and it was down to the final race at Las Vegas to decide the battle.
Reutemann mustered all he could to claim pole position in the Caesars Palace carpark, but, true to form, he faded dismally in the race to finish seventh, while a barely-conscious Piquet claimed the vital fifth place needed to claim the championship title by a single point.
He returned for another season at Williams in 1982. After claiming an excellent podium in the opening race at South Africa (where he ran at the pace of the turbo runners in his normally-aspirated FW07C), he appeared just once at Brazil and made the surprise – and still unexplained – decision to quit for good.
Carlos turned to politics, where he has been a leading light on the Argentine stage for almost three decades – there are rumours he is behind the latest push for the country to return to duties of being a Grand Prix host once again.
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