Reutemann – Mean or Magnificent

(I adapted the title, which was originally just, “Reutemann”, after reading the comment left by Ernesto Ruiz.)

Carlos Alberto Reutemann (nicknamed Lole) was one of Formula One’s almost-men, who spent most his ten years in Formula One not quite in the right place at the right time, until 1981 with Williams, when he lost the World Championship by one point at the last round in Las Vegas, perceived by many to have lost his bottle when it came to the crunch. There are some drivers, such as Lauda, Villeneuve or Jones (all team-mates of Lole in their time), that had the charisma and assuredness to get a team behind them, but Reutemann was absolutely not of that ilk, being perhaps far too sensitive, introspective, and doleful for the harsh pressures of F1.

Born the son of a cattle rancher in Argentina in 1942 (April 12th), it was not until 1965 he started his racing in saloons, quickly becoming a top driver in his home country. By 1968, this led to the opportunity to show his talents in Argentine F2 (probably cars that had seen top-line racing in Europe some years earlier), resulting in the Automovil Club Argentino providing Reutemann with the sponsorship to compete in a Brabham BT30 in European F2 in 1970. Carlos spent the year learning, managing a few top-six finishes, doing enough to be given another season’s support. In 1971, he amassed six podiums, including one win, in the eleven Championship rounds, finishing second overall to Ronnie Peterson.

Bernie Ecclestone, who had recently bought the Brabham team, signed Reutemann to drive alongside Graham Hill for 1972. The first round was Carlos’s home Grand Prix at Buenos Aires, at which he became the third driver to get pole for his debut race*. Unfortunately, it being a transition period for Brabham, the only other highlights of the season were one points-finish for fourth in Canada and victory in the non-championship Interlagos GP. For 1973, Gordon Murray had been promoted to Chief designer, Reutemann achieving a couple of podiums and seventh in the ‘Championship. In 1974, Lole won for the first time at Kyalami in South Africa, plus two other victories to finish sixth in the title-chase, and then third the year after, only winning one race but scoring more consistently.

In 1976, the team switched from Ford Cosworths to Alfa Romeo Flat-12s, with a dearth of results, and Reutemann was released from his contract to replace the horribly injured Nikki Lauda at Ferrari (no doubt with a decent chunk of capital moving from Italy to Uncle Bernie’s pocket in return). Unfortunately for Carlos, it was just in time for Nikki to make his miraculous comeback having only missed two races, relegating the Argentine to the sidelines, except for a third-car drive at Monza for ninth.

Clay Regazzoni was shown the door for 1977, and Reutemann kicked off the season finishing third in Argentina, followed by a win in Brazil, but Lauda quickly re-asserted his team-leader position winning his second title whilst Carlos finished fourth in the points. It would have been very difficult for the South American to take on the incumbent driver, especially with Ferrari’s strong policy of the junior driver supporting the senior (although Lauda was actually seven years younger). In 1978, Lauda had left Ferrari, and Reutemann was paired with Gilles Villeneuve. The French-Canadian driver had previously only three GP starts, one for McLaren and two for Ferrari since Lauda had left early following his decision to move on. Carlos won four races (to Villeneuve’s one), but in ’78 there was no stopping the onslaught of the new ground-effects Lotus-Fords, so third was the best that could be salvaged.

In 1979, Reutemann transferred to Lotus, now against established team-leader, Mario Andretti, in a season that saw the team hit the doldrums as others made better use of the ground-effects technology. Neither driver won a race but Carlos scored 25 points (dropping 5) to finish sixth, with the Mario only getting 14 points for 12th in the standings, albeit with reliability favouring the incoming driver.

In 1980, Lole joined Williams, definitely the right team at the right time (usurping Regazzoni to Ensign once more), but yet again up against a driver deeply established with the team, this time Alan Jones. The Australian is surely the only driver they ever had that was more obdurate and opinionated than even Frank Williams amd Patrick Head, and they seemed to love him for it. In 1994, David Coulthard thought he was being asked by Williams why he could not be more like Alain, who had driven for the team the year before, but they meant Alan Jones from more than twelve years earlier (never mind Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna or Nigel Mansell who had all driven for the team since). Following Clay Regazzoni’s debut win for the team at the ’79 British GP, Jones had added four more victories to the team’s tally before the season was out, and carried the momentum through winning five races and the 1980 title over Brabham’s Nelson Piquet, with Reutemann only winning at Monaco, but scoring more regularly to finish third in the title for the third time in six years. (Carlos Reutemann finished in the points (top-six) fifteen consecutive times from Monaco ’80 to Belgium ’81, which back then was a record, in those days it being incredibly rare anyone had a car that finished anything like that many consecutive races. He rather spoilt it by stating Monaco was the easiest circuit to score at, because of the attrition, before retiring there to end the run.)

The off-season was the time of the FISA-FOCA power-struggle over F1, with Bernie and his then cohort Max Mosley wresting control from Jean Marie Balestre. The 1981 South Africa Grand Prix was scheduled for February 7th, a date Balestre refused to accept insisting it be delayed, probably with a large element of face-saving to show he had some power left after his recent defeat, but the race had been heavily promoted in South Africa, and the organisers had a contract with FOCA, so it went ahead as a non-championship Formula Libre race. The continental teams, Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo and Ligier (Matra-engined) had aligned with FISA and stayed away, but all the FOCA Ford Cosworth-powered teams from Britain plus ATS from Germany attended. Sliding skirts were banned for ’81 but being a Libre race, all bought them anyway. Reutemann won over Piquet’s Brabham, but for no points.

The season proper began at Long Beach with Carlos second to team-mate Jones. The following round at Brazil, Reutemann had the lead over Jones and was given team-orders for all the World to see (long before pit-to-car radio) repeatedly shown a pit-board with Jones’s name above his. Carlos ignored it to win the race. Alan was incandescent – the team seemed not so concerned. The decision to favour Alonso over Massa in Germany this season caused huge controversy, even more so the 2002 Austria decision to have Barrichello let Schumacher win in only the fifth of sixteen races, but Williams were asking Reutemann to move over in only the second of fifteen races. It was very interesting to read in a recent edition of Motor Sport what Frank Williams said not that long after to Nigel Roebuck. “Well, it stirred up a lot of controversy at the time, but, quite honestly, I just found the whole thing very boring. As long as the team gets the points, I don’t care who scores them. Why should I care which bloody driver wins? They’re only employees after all.” My interpretation is Jones had a clause in his contract giving him number-one status, so they had to put the team-order out, but if Carlos ignored it, so be it. Never the less, what psychological effect did this have on the sensitive Reutemann to find out the team were prepared to dump on him like that, bearing in mind it was probably the first he knew of any such agenda, as it probably had not been mentioned when he had joined the team?

As the season progressed, Alan Jones did not seem to be quite the force he had been before, whilst Lole was racking up the points, albeit with only one more win, Piquet for Brabham getting stronger results but less often. With two rounds to go (9-6-4-3-2-1 with dropped scores not an issue), Reutemann had 49, Piquet 46, Jones 38 (having picked up after a barren spell mid-season), Alain Prost (Renault) 37, Jaques Laffite (Ligier-Matra) 34. A win in Canada would seal the deal for Lole, but a couple of podiums would probably have sufficed.

For the race at Montreal, the skies opened. Reutemann, on the front row alongside pole-man Piquet, jumped the start, being given a one-minute penalty. In those days, that meant he continued where he was on the track with the commentators having to repeatedly remind viewers that that was not the penalised driver’s actual position, trying to calculate what was. Jones had shot into the lead followed by Piquet, but the Goodyear wets seemed to give in after a few laps. It became a Michelin benefit with Prost taking the lead by lap seven, Laffite, from tenth on the grid, passed the Renault for the lead six laps later, which he kept until the chequered-flag. Prost lost positions and his engine eventually went bang. Piquet scrabbled home in fifth, a lap down behind four Michelin cars, but with two valuable points courtesy of very high attrition. Carlos finished tenth of eleven finishers three laps down, describing the car as, “undrivable”. It might have been easy to have blamed title-pressure but for the fact team-mate Jones tumbled to eighteenth, stopped to change tyres, shortly after that retiring before half-distance complaining about the handling. It can not be avoided that Reutemann botched the start, but in the end that made no difference.

For the season finalé, that put Reutemann on 49, Piquet on 48, and Laffite on 43. Piquet claimed Laffite was the man to beat, which was clearly a case of mind-games in Carlos’s direction. Laffite needed to win with the other two doing badly, so was the outsider. Jones ostentatiously announced he would give his team-mate absolutely no help, but since it came down to a straight head-to-head between the two South Americans, in that if Piquet could finish ahead of Reutemann and in the points Nelson would win the title (just one extra point would give him the win on countback), it was very unlikely indeed Jones could have helped, but the Aussie was still sore about Brazil and needed to say it.

The Las Vegas track, laid out between concrete blocks in the Caesars Palace car-park, in desert temperatures that had people scurrying between air-conditioned building, was a twisty physically demanding track. The cars of the era had fixed skirts, so the only way to keep the ground-effects optimal was to run the cars with virtually no suspension, which made them horrific to drive, and with downforce levels that put the drivers through g-forces not dissimilar to modern cars, with drivers of the period not having the same levels of fitness that they have today. In this period, Nelson Piquet made somewhat of a party trick of passing out dramatically after the more strenuous races. Both the main title protagonists were under scrutiny for signs of succumbing to the pressure, especially Reutemann with his reputation for being moody, apt to fluctuate between brilliance and inferior performance in the past.

In the first qualification session, Reutemann set the pole-time, with Jones joining him on the front row and Piquet third after the second session. Laffite was 12th. It was believed that Carlos’s relationship with the team had been strained since Brazil. This is how his arrival on race-morning is described thus in Grand Prix International¹. “Slowly but purposely he trudged into the paddock under the weight of his famous travelling bag and went towards the motorhome. There in the sunshine, Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Charlie Crighton-Stewart were enjoying the sunshine at a table. From a distance, the Argentine saluted them like a Roman emperor and surveyed the scene. What would he say? And to whom? ‘Hey Charlie, what time is this bloody warm-up?’ Frank and Patrick carried on in deep conversation barely noticing.” (¹Wondrous magazine that came out an agonising ten days after races, but frequently showed the absence of any concept of proof-reading.)

Something seen many times is drivers that seem to lose the plot when it is the last round and there is to be a title to be won or lost, especially if it is a first title, as it would have been for all the contenders. At the start, Alan Jones, supposedly in his last race, shot into the lead where he stayed until the end of the race. Lole made a poor start falling back to seventh, the consolation being Piquet had dropped to eighth. Laffite was up to fifth. The two South Americans had been up for points all season unless they had car-issues, but both that day looked lack-lustre. Piquet overtook Reutemann for seventh on lap 17, with Carlos losing another place the lap after to Andretti’s Alfa Romeo, which had been more than a second slower in qualification. Attrition saw them both make up places, Piquet recovering to third, Reutemann to fifth (Laffite up to second and hunting down Jones but the Frenchman’s tyres were too soft and forced a race-spoiling pit-stop), but both the main contenders started to slide back again, for three laps running fifth and sixth. Piquet hung onto the former whilst by the end Carlos was a lap down in eighth (lapping his team-mate being the icing on the cake for AJ). Nelson Piquet won his first World Championship by a single point. His mechanics lifted him from his car, as he was crowded by journalists and photographers, he duly passed out.

Lole sat in his car in the pitlane disappointment etched into his face. When he did get up in the cockpit, obviously physically shattered, Frank Williams waited to talk to him but Carlos got out the other side, went over to grab his travelling bag, struggled an unconvincing smile for the surrounding photographers and sloped away leaving the team to celebrate Alan Jones’s win.

Reutemann later complained the car was mishandling and of gearbox trouble. Alan also complained of gearbox trouble on the way to his win. Reutemann was in his spare car after coming together with Piquet on Friday morning practice (second day as it was a Saturday race). The spare cars were lighter, including not having adjustable rear anti-roll bars. In the spare, he was half-a-second slower in second qualification when almost everyone else improved their times. Carlos’s car was given springs 400lbs stiffer than those on Jones’s car, which would have made the ride even more excruciatingly painful on a less than smooth circuit, with (all this comes from GPI) an extra-stiff right-rear tyre. Ever since I saw the race on telly to researching this piece, I essentially believed the Argentine bottled it, but now I do not think he did to the same extent. He did botch the starts in Canada and LV, but his spare was obviously slower in the car-park. What puzzles me with the warm-up to check out the car why he ended up using such unhelpful settings. Piquet described passing him as easy, and I would not trust him to be necessarily truthful, but it did look as routine as you like on the TV. I still think Carlos Reutemann let the pressure get to him to some degree but circumstances also conspired against him, and most drivers struggle with their nerves in such circumstances.

In a recent edition of Motor Sport magazine, Nigel Roebuck reported that Reutemann’s performance in that race had come up in conversation earlier this year with Mario Andretti, the following included in what he said.

“The night before the race I remember getting a bit of a work-out with a physio, and the guy had just done Carlos – but he didn’t know who he was. He said to me, ‘Jesus, that guy was so uptight – his back muscles were solid!’ And the next day, he just didn’t drive. Handed the championship over.

“You know, Enzo Ferrari once made a comment to me about Reutemann. He said, ‘He’s a tormented individual’, and he was right actually – Carlos was tormented.”

Alan Jones’s very late retirement announcement left Williams in the lurch as all the top drivers were already placed, so they signed the promising but unproven Keke Rosberg to partner Carlos in 1982. In the first race at the high altitude South African Kylami circuit with its massive straight, the track tailor-made for the turbo-cars, Lole finished an excellent second, there being some suggestion he split the Renaults only because the yellow team thought he was a lap down. In Brazil he was out-qualified by his team-mate, he bumped into a couple of other cars, the second incident ending his race, and retired explaining his heart was not in it. It is rumoured that he fell out with Frank Williams over politics causing the departure, but that was an inevitable piece of speculation that only emerged after Argentina had occupied the Falkland Islands just before the following round at Long Beach; had Reutemann not quit it would surely have been untenable with the resultant military conflict for an Argentine driver to remain with a very British team (but had he hung on for a fortnight he could have left on a point of principle). I do think the events of Las Vegas broke Lole’s heart, and he was not happy at Williams, nor had reason to believe he would be happy with another team. By then, Carlos was nigh on his fortieth birthday. Although as it turned out, Rosberg went on to sneak that year’s title, that early in the season it looked inevitable that a turbo-engine was needed to win the ‘Championship, and quite possibly any of the races. Williams were due to get a blown engine the following season at the earliest, and then probably one that needed developing before later success (maybe), by which time the team would have almost certainly replaced him, with no prospect of his joining another team with title potential. Also, F1 was still in the habit of killing or very badly injuring the occasional driver on which front he had always been lucky. I imagine it hurt to quit having to accept the failure in the title-quest, but Carlos Reutemann left with twelve wins, six poles, 45 podiums, six fastest laps, having driven for Ferrari, Lotus, and Williams, and come within a point of the World Championship.

Reutemann also entered the Rally Argentina in both 1980 and 1985, both rounds of the World Rally Championship, and finished third in both! Even Sébastien Loeb can not say he never finished lower than third. Did Lole chose the wrong discipline? He was the first driver to score points in F1 and WRC, remaining the only driver to have podiums in both.

Bearing in mind that Reutemann never seemed to have the people skills to gather a team around his cause, and came across as a morose character,
it is amazing to learn of his political success in Argentina, with ongoing rumours that he will run for President. If he ever smiled in the years I watched F1, I do not recall it, and although showing teeth in the picture on his Wikipedia page, it looks a very forced smile.

To again quote Frank Williams from Motor Sport, which this time he said some years later, “Carlos needed more psychological support than most drivers. He needed to feel everyone in the team was wearing a Reutemann lapel badge and an Argentine scarf, sort of thing, and we probably didn’t pay enough attention to that at the time.” Maybe that explains why Lole has taken to politics.

(*Obviously, the pole-position by Giuseppe Farina at the first ever round of the F1 World Championship at Silverstone in 1950 was the first on debut. The second driver was Mario Andretti at the 1968 US Grand Prix for Team Lotus. However, he did practise for the 1968 Italian GP before that, unable to race because he had raced elsewhere within twenty-four hours, which was not allowed. He set a qualification time, I am reasonably sure it was when all practice sessions counted towards qualification, which was not good enough for pole, thus he did not qualify for pole at his first attempt, but did start his first race from pole. In 1996, Jacques Villeneuve put his Williams-Renault on pole for his first race in Melbourne, Australia.)

8 Responses to “Reutemann – Mean or Magnificent”

  1. Leigh O'Gorman Says:

    Excellent post. A very nice piece on a driver that is often forgotten when considering late 70′s/early 80′s F1

  2. Sebastian X Says:

    Cheers. I remember watching that LV race on the TV cheering (or hoping to) for Carlos Reutemann. My tendency to support the underdog has not been fruitful over the years. 1981 was the first year I watched most/all of the races.

  3. Ernesto Ruiz Says:

    Reutemann will remain one of the great drivers of the late 70′s and early 80′s ; despite not being a World Champion, he delivered great F1 races such as his win in Brands Hatch 1978 , defeating Niki Lauda or the old Nürburgring in 1975 to name a couple of them .
    Unfortunately, he didn’t have the mental and psychological strenght to cope with the pressure, notwithstanding, he’s still one of the best of that generation.
    As Peter Windsor described his as “Mean or Magnificent” he had the two sides of a coin, and you didn’t know which side will come out any given sunday.
    Thanks for this excellent piece on Reutemann

    • Sebastian X Says:

      Thank you for the extra insight on the subject. When considering the title, I had no inspiration beyond just, “Reutemann”, so I have decided to change it, adding the Windsor quote you provided. Cheers.

  4. AGabaldoni Says:

    Thanks a lot for refreshing our minds to one of the great F1 drivers of that era. Great insight, adds much information to what I already knew about Lole. And Mr. Ruiz’s comment was the icing on the cake.

  5. The Speedgeek Says:

    Behind and catchign up again today. Great, great post, Sebastian. I’ve got the Autocourse from the 1981 season, and it’s fascinating reading, what with all of the goings on between Jones, Reutemann and Piquet.

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