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Carlos Reutemann: 1942-2021. Obituary by Mark Hughes

by Mark Hughes
6 min read

Carlos Reutemann, a 12-time grand prix winner for Brabham, Ferrari and Williams, and the runner-up in the 1981 Formula 1 world championship, has died at the age of 79.

The Argentinian had suffered a digestive haemorrhage in May, followed by internal bleeding. He was discharged from hospital having made a recovery but then recently returned to intensive car and died on Wednesday.

Mark Hughes pays tribute to a driver who played a huge part in the greatest stories of a legendary F1 era:

Carlos Reutemann

Carlos Reutemann was a wonderful enigma of a driver, who scored 12 grand prix victories for Brabham, Ferrari and Williams in an F1 career that began sensationally with a pole position in Argentina 1972 and ended a few weeks after he’d driven to a wonderful second place in the 1982 South African Grand Prix, far clear of the next naturally-aspirated car and splitting the turbocharged Renaults.

An Argentinian of German extraction, he was leading-man-handsome and on his day stunningly fast. He cut a glamorous but slightly mysterious figure in an F1 era dominated by higher-profile stars such as James Hunt, Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti.

The closest he came to the world championship was in his final full season of ’81 when he entered the final round at Las Vegas ahead of his rival Nelson Piquet on points, stuck his Williams on a great pole position comfortably faster than Piquet’s Brabham – then proceeded to drive a lacklustre race to eighth place. Along the way he was overtaken by Piquet, whose fifth place secured him the title by a single point.

Carlos Reutemann Las Vegas 1981

Reutemann could offer no strong explanation for his performance afterwards and walked away into the desert night. At the halfway point of that season, with two victories and a string of podium places, he was leading the championship by 12 points but was distraught to hear that Williams was switching from his favoured Michelin tyres to Goodyears for the rest of the season. He bet the journalist Alan Henry that he would now lose the championship.

It’s a story that his friend, journalist Giorgio Piola, considers to be very characteristic.

“He was a very quiet man, but very clever, not talking a lot but his few words were very deep,” remembers Piola.

“Michelin’s Pierre Dupasquier reckoned him the best tyre test driver of all.

“But he was incredibly unsure of himself, always in doubt, always in conflict. He was never aggressive but was incredibly fast, clever and technical.”

Carlos Reutemann Brabham 1974

He had the temperament of an artist rather than a sportsman. His driving dripped with artistry and the races he won tended to be demonstrations of perfection, when no-one got close.

“When it was his day, he was incredible,” recalled Gordon Murray, Brabham’s designer of the time. “He was Senna-fast on those days. He had incredible feel and precision through fast corners in particular. But he didn’t always have those days. But even his poor days were still pretty good.”

He’d been recruited to Brabham in ’72 by owner Bernie Ecclestone as a quick F2 driver with a useful sponsor. The Brabham BT34 ‘lobster claw’ was a year-old design and had never been particularly quick. But Reutemann put it on pole on his home track of Buenos Aires, still one of only three drivers to set pole on their grand prix debut.

Gary Anderson on working with Reutemann at Brabham

As Gordon Murray said, on his day Carlos Reutemann was one of the best.

He had off days, like everyone, but if he had DFV 111 in the car and his helmet hadn’t been cleaned since the last race – especially if he won it – he would be on it from lap one.

An incredibly quiet man and a pleasure to know and work with. He used to put a gear ratio chart up on the inside of his hotel’s toilet door. And you could almost guarantee he would come in the next morning requiring a change of gear ratios!

RIP Carlos and lots of love to his family

After winning four grands prix in Murray’s beautiful BT44 in 1974-75, Reutemann transferred to Ferrari part-way through 1976, ostensibly to replace the injured Niki Lauda. The latter was deeply offended by his recruitment and their relationship as team mates remained cool through the following season, when Lauda’s more thrusting personality ensured he reclaimed the team leadership that Enzo Ferrari had offered to Reutemann.

But upon Lauda’s departure after winning the ’77 title, Reutemann blossomed at Ferrari and formed a great relationship there with new recruit Gilles Villeneuve.

Carlos Reutemann Gilles Villeneuve 1977

With Ferrari spearheading a new F1 programme for Michelin (initiated the previous year with Renault), Reutemann was the first to score a Michelin F1 victory – at the 1978 Brazilian Grand Prix (which he’d also won the previous year). He’d go on to score four victories that season despite the dominance of the ground effect Lotus 79.

Enzo Ferrari had recruited Jody Scheckter for 1979 but it wasn’t immediately clear if he’d be replacing Reutemann, who’d performed superbly in ’78, or Villeneuve, who showed immense potential and had just won his first race.

Scheckter, deciding he’d rather have the inexperienced rookie as a team-mate than Reutemann, took matters into his own hands.

“I arranged a meeting with Reutemann,” said Scheckter. “It was in a car park somewhere and was a big secret.

“He got into the car and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know what they’ve told you but I’ve signed as number one. I just think you should know.’

“He went very quiet and left. He must’ve got onto the phone to Lotus that afternoon.”

Reutemann didn’t enjoy his 1979 season at Lotus, the cars nowhere near the force they’d been the previous season, overtaken by more modern and better engineered ground effect interpretations from Williams, Brabham and Ligier.

Team boss Colin Chapman tried hard to get him to stay, even offering not to renew Mario Andretti’s contract. But Reutemann was already talking with Frank Williams about replacing Clay Regazzoni there in partnering Alan Jones.

Carlos Reutemann Williams F1

He won the 1980 Monaco Grand Prix and finished third in the championship but, more fully acclimatised, was in much stronger form in ’81 even at 39 years old.

His qualifying lap at Monza – when he put the Williams on the front row among the vastly more powerful Renault turbos, around 1s faster than the next non-turbo – drew particular praise from Villeneuve. “Did you see Carlos’ time?” he was quoted. “That has got to be the lap of the season.” High praise indeed.

After losing out in that title showdown he considered retirement but eventually decided to continue – only to then retire after two races! The first of which was that stunning performance at Kyalami.

Carlos Reutemann 1982 Kyalami podium

Strongly politically connected, it was rumoured at the time that Argentina’s imminent war with Britain over the Falklands Islands made Reutemann feel his place in a British team would be uncomfortable for all concerned. But it was never confirmed. He stood down – leaving his team-mate Keke Rosberg to win that year’s world title.

“He was a wonderful driver,” recalled Williams tech director Patrick Head, “but a complex one and it was a failing of mine and Frank’s that we didn’t properly understand him.

“He was super fast – faster, in all honesty, than Alan Jones. But Alan was on the limit every single lap and scared the living daylights out of other drivers.”

Reutemann’s wonderful natural ability was confirmed when he made an instant adaptation to a World Rally Championship car. Fiat entered him in his home round of the WRC in 1980 – and he finished third. It was a result he repeated for Peugeot in the same event in 1985, when he was by then 43 years old and three years in retirement.

Carlos Reutemann Ferrari F1 demo Buenos Aires 1995

At the 1995 Argentinian Grand Prix weekend, Ferrari gave him some demo laps in the previous season’s 412T2. At 52 years old, 14 years in retirement, he lapped it fast enough to have qualified 12th for that weekend’s race!

He could’ve been president of his country – he was governor of Sant Fe for a time – he could have been world champion in F1, quite possibly in rallying too. He left his mark. Almost despite himself.

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