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F1 History 22

Reutemann’s title challenge

Dear Nigel,

I would be interested in your opinion on Carlos Reutemann’s ’81 title challenge. For most of the year he seemed to have the title won until the final round at Las Vegas. One of Lole’s off days or the Williams team not behind their man on race day? His defying of team orders and relationship with his team-mate probably didn’t help his cause. Your thoughts please Nigel.

Kind regards,

Pete Martin

Dear Pete,

Carlos Reutemann was without doubt the most enigmatic Grand Prix driver I have ever come across. When all was right with his mood, he was as good in an F1 car as anyone I have ever seen, with literally boundless flair and speed. Yet this same man could on other days be an also-ran. It remains a mystery, not only to me, but also to the many teams for which he drove.

On his day, Reutemann was quite literally unbeatable. But that was always the problem with Carlos; every good thing you said about his driving had to be prefaced by ‘on his day’. There were days when his rivals looked clumsy by comparison, but there were others – too many for one of his gift – when his presence in a race went unnoticed.

“You know,” he once told me, “I can honestly say that I’ve never been in a team which I felt was supporting me a hundred per cent.” And Frank Williams, for whom Reutemann drove his last couple of seasons, acknowledges that, with hindsight, the team might have treated him with more sensitivity.

“In terms of equipment,” Williams says, “we gave Carlos exactly the same as Alan Jones, but there was more to it than that. Carlos needed more psychological support than most drivers, and we probably didn’t appreciate that sufficiently at the time – which is why we didn’t achieve as much together as we should have done.”

True enough. And it didn’t help, either, that Reutemann and Jones were diametrically opposed in so many ways, sharing nothing beyond the ability to drive a racing car very fast. Carlos was all moody introspection, where Alan, at times, could make Boris Johnson seem shy and retiring. Through their second season together, 1981, they were not team-mates in any accepted sense, but rather two individuals who happened to operate out of the same pit.

It was an awkward time, I remember, for folk visiting the Williams motorhome – and particularly so for those, like myself, who liked both these men. This was a far-off time when racing drivers were well paid, but not obscenely so, when they didn’t have PRs fluttering around them, and could speak for themselves.

Invariably, I found myself feeling sympathy for Reutemann through that summer of 1981, for in the psychological game he was utterly at the mercy of Jones, who could be intimidated by no one, on the track or off. In Alan’s mind, though, he had cause enough to ostracise Carlos.

Their problems truly began early in the season, at the Brazilian Grand Prix. When Reutemann had joined Williams the year before, it was as Jones’s number two, for the team’s priority had been for the long-serving Alan to win the World Championship. This was duly accomplished, and Williams should then have thrown the whole thing open for 1981, instead of which he kept the ‘Jones priority’ clause in Reutemann’s contract.

At Rio it rained, and Carlos, despite his distaste for the conditions, led throughout, with Alan sitting a few seconds behind, awaiting an invitation to pass which never came. Despite JONES-REUT signals from the pits, instructing Carlos to give way, REUT-JONES was how they finished, and afterwards Alan was fit to be tied.

Inescapably, under the terms of his contract. Reutemann had done wrong, but there was a curious innocence in the way he sought to justify his actions. “Jones had reason to be upset,” he said. “I can’t disagree with that. I saw the pit signal three laps from the end, and I knew the terms of the contract. But still I was in a dilemma.

“From the beginning of my career, I always started every race with the intention of winning it – but now I was being asked to give it away, just like that. ‘If I give way,’ I thought to myself, ‘I stop the car here and now, in the middle of the track, and leave immediately for my farm in Argentina. Finish. Not a racing driver any more.’”

At the time, Williams was as incensed as Jones, and fined Reutemann for disobeying team orders, but later, perhaps jaundiced by Jones’s late-in-the-day decision to retire from racing, he thawed. “All I care about the team, and the points we earn – why the hell should I care about who scores them? Drivers are only employees, after all…”

For most of that 1981 season, despite the off-track turbulence, Reutemann drove sublimely, apparently shedding his reputation for inconsistency. In Belgium, where he won, he finished in the points for the 15th straight time.

In race after race, Carlos continued to drive wonderfully, and by the time of the British Grand Prix led the World Championship by 17 points. At Silverstone, though, I began to detect the return of the flawed confidence. “Six races left,” he scowled. “A long way to go. At the moment everything is going well for me.” Pause. “Too well, in fact, and that worries me. To be honest, I feel a little bit alone…” That was Reutemann pure.

Thereafter, his season went to pieces. He drove as well as ever, but his car repeatedly let him down. At Monza, and out-and-out power track, he qualified the normally-aspirated Williams-Cosworth second, splitting the turbocharged Renaults, his time well over a second faster than Jones’s best. In the race, though, it rained, and he trailed in half a minute adrift of his team-mate.

Still he went to the final race, in Las Vegas, with a one point lead over Nelson Piquet, and in practice was simply fantastic, setting a time in the opening session which remained unbeaten.

Through the days before the race Carlos was relaxed, but on the Sunday, when it mattered, he faded to nothing. As I watched that afternoon, I was embarrassed for him. Afterwards he mumbled about understeer on right-handers, and gearchange problems, but in all truth he drove like a man who had suddenly decided he did not want the World Championship.

Whatever may have been awry with the Williams – real or imagined – how could a man on pole position, touching the hem of the title, have been down to fifth by the end of the first lap, to seventh by the end of the third? To become World Champion, Reutemann, whose stamina was exceptional, had only to stay ahead of a perilously unfit Piquet on a tiring circuit in torpid conditions, yet he allowed Nelson by like a man being lapped.

Why, one of the younger drivers asked, hadn’t Reutemann simply put Piquet in the wall? “I mean, that was all he had to do – and he’d won the World Championship…” It was futile, but I tried to explain that Carlos would never contemplate anything of that kind.

By all that was just, he should have been World Champion in 1981, when his artistry was never more clearly on view, but only he truly knows what went wrong that day in Vegas. Somehow, it was no real surprise when, a couple of weeks later, he announced his retirement.

Carlos – publicly, anyway – did not dwell on his World Championship lost. “That part of my life is finished,” he said. “As far as the championship is concerned, I always said that if it happened, fine, it happened. But if not, well, the sun would still rise in the east, and set in the west…”

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22 comments on Reutemann’s title challenge

  1. Lee Towers, 13 August 2012 10:37

    Wasnt Mansell following Reutumann aroud for a time that afternoon and remarked how undrivable the Williams looked?

    There was a story about wrong size tyres being fitted to Reutemann’s Williams in Las Vegas wasn’t there? Something along those lines anyway

  2. Michael Spitale, 13 August 2012 13:22

    Great story… I knew nothing of Carlos before this

  3. dave cubbedge, 13 August 2012 13:45

    I thought Carlos has choked at that Vegas GP, but I recently read (was it in a ‘Lunch With..either Patrick head or maybe Lole himself) where he was relegated to the spare for race day and that car was a mule comapred to his regular race car. It still doesn’t change my attitude towards that season – I still don’t know how he managed to lose the title no mattter what car he was driving. Piquet had to be helped out of his car he was in such sorry state at the end.

  4. hamfan, 13 August 2012 15:41

    “Williams should then have thrown the whole thing open for 1981, instead of which he kept the ‘Jones priority’ clause in Reutemann’s contract”

    Definitely an idiotic decision by Williams. I thought AJ always played the hard man part – so why’d he need/want the ‘protection’ clause? Has anyone ever actually asked him straight? Surely Nigel could dare? Certainly after winning the WDC a real hard man, not to mention a fair one, would have been happy to rip up that bit of the contract, or at least make it clear that it should be ignored. Seems, judging by his OTT reaction to CR’s ignoring of the pit signal, that Jones really ‘needed’ that clause. And they wonder why we call ‘em whinging Aussies (yes, there are echoes of it in Webber’s moaning too)…

  5. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 13 August 2012 17:23

    Nigel forgot to tell Carlos’ car wasn’t the same he used at the qualifying session. After getting the best time on Thursday (the race was scheduled on Saturday), he and Piquet collided on Friday’s session and the Williams’ superb performance was lost forever, even although it was repaired by the team crew. Nobody could best that lap time, however. That was a proven chassis Reutemann used for most of the season and the engine had different camshafts that provided better acceleration. He turned to the spare car, which showed gear change problems on testing that Friday, as Carlos told Williams and Head. It was seldom used during the year and was not set up for Las Vegas, this being a new and unknown circuit, which every driver wanted to learn by lapping. So the traffic was dense on the track on the Saturday morning session when Reutemann had to choose the best tyres, set up the suspension (choosing coils and dampers by testing) and even break-in new brake pads! There was no time left to do all that fine work, the suspension being too hard and the gearbox still failing, all of this generating that awful car Mansell told about. After the race Reutemann told 2nd, 3rd and 4th gears didn’t engage well, the gearbox being inspected at Didcot next week with Head saying it was OK at first, but later recognizing 2nd and 3rd as faulty. Etc, etc, etc.
    All of these details are narrated by a humble little book titled “Los Dias de Reutemann” (Reutemann’s Days), published in Spanish and unknown in Europe, unfortunately.

  6. dave cubbedge, 13 August 2012 17:32

    thank you Ivan, that is what I remember about Carlos’ Vegas debacle…. It was messy to say the least.

  7. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 13 August 2012 19:01

    All that season went messy for Carlos, because Williams was not dominant as the previous year and the relationship with the team (especially with Head and the mechanics) went sour as Jones dropped points. The first race at Kyalami was won by Carlos but gave no points because of the FISA/FOCA conflict. At Long Beach Carlos let Jones pass per the contract and got very criticized.
    After Brazil came Argentina when Brabham won hands down due to the hydropneumatic suspension of the cars, so Williams had to struggle to develop a similar system, which showed progress several races later. The cars were not so fast, but their reliability paid off. Next Frank choose to shift from Michelin to Goodyear and the cars got two seconds slower than the Brabham, as evidenced by tests at Paul Ricard, that dissadvantage lasting until Hockenheim, when new aero package really helped.
    In Belgium Carlos just won because Jones and Piquet eliminated themselves, but he ran on a mechanic, killing him.
    Gearbox troubles went the same as the previous year, and annoying fuel feed problems appeared at Monaco for Jones and at Hockenheim for Carlos, when he had to resort to the spare car fitted with a real old and many times rebuilt engine not supposed to last the race: it didn’t. Even so he qualified in front of Jones (which had a new and very strong engine) after a hair-rising lap, but nobody congratulated him at the box…
    The lack of performance of the car make him lost his patience (which was big) dueling with Laffite at Zandvoort, and he DNF….

  8. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 13 August 2012 19:18

    …Rain at Monza turned useless the setup which allowed him that flying lap, but Piquet DNF. Then at Canada poor tyres let him down, Frank having not brought the good wet tyres Carlos asked him several months earlier foreseeing rain at that race….which Piquet had. At Las Vegas all the team just wanted Jones to change his decision of leaving and staying fo 1982, the constructor’s championship already won, with no thinking about a most probable driver title at hand ….
    It would have been a miracle if Reutemann won the title, with so many problems and struggles. It is CAR racing at last, and a team effort above all.

  9. chris b, 13 August 2012 21:13

    i have always felt that a great champion was denied that day and a driver whom i have never rated nor particularly respected, and this from his F3 days against Derek Warwick ends up a triple WDC- and that, to me echoes what Nigel repeatedly says the WDC is a load of xxxx -

  10. Rich Ambroson, 13 August 2012 22:37

    Two things really stand out about Lole from this for me (and from previous readings of similar material):

    “From the beginning of my career, I always started every race with the intention of winning it – but now I was being asked to give it away, just like that. ‘If I give way,’ I thought to myself, ‘I stop the car here and now, in the middle of the track, and leave immediately for my farm in Argentina. Finish. Not a racing driver any more.’”

    Excellent. Can’t argue with that one bit.

    ‘Why, one of the younger drivers asked, hadn’t Reutemann simply put Piquet in the wall? “I mean, that was all he had to do – and he’d won the World Championship…” It was futile, but I tried to explain that Carlos would never contemplate anything of that kind.’

    Again, excellent. Too bad we don’t have more of that mentality (or any of it?) in current F1.

  11. Owen, 14 August 2012 00:53


    Whinging Aussies? I’ve never heard the phrase. Whinging bloody Poms more like! ;-)

  12. Frank Butcher, 14 August 2012 01:38

    On the other hand, way to go Nelson for keeping your head up and winning the title! Not a writer or an insider, I’m just a fan; Nelson was a lot of fun to follow in those days and I rooted for him.

  13. Ricardo Molina, 14 August 2012 03:45

    OK for all the comments. However, let’s not forget that on the other side of all these sad stories about a team built around the wrong driver, or “the driver who they thought shoudn’t have abandoned them at the end of season, …, bla, bla, bla, there was one of the best combination of driver/engineer of all times: Mr. Piquet and Dr. Murray. Both at the same frequency (gigahertz, yeah, for they worked a huge lot!), with their sights at the same objective, not worried about anything but the Title. Not as fit as he should be? Maybe, but as Mr. Al Unser Jr. once said: “Once you learn this craft, it’s about 95% a mental job”. And Nelson was always one of the biggest hard-headed, single-minded of his generation.
    And, yes, I’m from BraSil.

  14. Tony Geran, 14 August 2012 04:06

    Ok, I’ll declare my prejudice first as an Australian but where was Reutemann during 1980? He certainly didn’t take many points away from Piquet who ran Jonesy more closely for the title than he should have done. Reutemann appeared to be a driver who thrived with a perfect car but whose shoulders dropped if it wasn’t on song. I saw him become virtually anonymous in76 with that horrendous Brabham Alfa and he was blown off by Pace. I saw him in 2 races in 81 and he was beaten fair and square by Jonesy who lost 2 races that year to unreliability and 2 more due to driver error. If things had gone his way he could have been champ 3 years straight and would have been thought of as one of the Gods of F1.

  15. Andrew Scoley, 14 August 2012 06:18

    Utterly brilliant practice laps at for instance Imola 1980, Monza 81 and Las Vegas 81 suggest that Carlos ought to have had the measure of Alan Jones. Clutch problems at the start of the Imola race, the set up which proved to be completely wrong on race day at Monza and I suspect chassis/ gearbox problems at Las Vegas account for some of the disappointment in race conditions.
    Reutemann also had gearbox problems when chasing the Villeneuve Ferrari at Jarama in 81 and ultimately led to him being unable to defend second place, but don’t forget that Gilles had had the presence of mind to nail Carlos at the end of the first lap before he had really settled down. Had Reutemann gone with Jones from the start it is unlikely the Ferrari would have won that day. Luckily for us Gilles had it right!
    I think also that as far as the Brazilian race is concerned, the last four races read: Jones-Reut, Jones-Reut, Reut (South African GP subsequently declared null and void) Jones-Reut and I can see that perhaps Carlos was getting a little fed up with having to play second fiddle all the time. And especially now that Jones was world champion. It was in his contract however to let Jones through and I guess this was signed at a time when cars weren’y so reliable as now, so how many times was this situation likely to arise? I have often thought of Alan’s reaction to the result when considering Imola in 82.

  16. Andrew Scoley, 14 August 2012 06:32

    Following on, sometimes drivers have a great run but over a period covering two championships. What I mean is that up to and including his win in Belgium, Carlos had finshed in the points fifteen times amassing 81 points. In the same period, Alan had 76, Piquet 58. It depends on how and when you put a run together.
    As an aside, from Brands Hatch in 1982 to Canada in 83, Patrick Tambay gathered up 53 points, Arnoux 41, Prost 46, and Rosberg 48. So whilst history doesn’t always record drivers having won a championship there is no doubt that they were capable of doing so.

  17. Pete Robertson, 14 August 2012 11:06

    I seem to remember Nigel writing a lengthy and very interesting piece on Carlos & Jones’s ’81 season at the end of that year in a season review book. I can’t remember what the book was called, but it was a very short-lived rival to Autocourse. It came out at the end of 1981 & 1982 if my somewhat dodgy memory serves me right….

    Anyway, I was gutted that Saturday night when Carlos missed out on the Championship. I was a big fan of his, both as a driver (with a very distinctive driving style and unbelievable speed) and as a man who was both sporting and honourable. His talent really deserved to be recognised more widely with a world title.

  18. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 14 August 2012 12:14

    Maybe Carlos had a late sixties-early seventies car racing culture firmly etched in his mind, remember he got to F1 in 1972, already mature at thirty, when drivers were relatively free to do their races and team orders and hierarchies were not so strict. Good performances were enough to get full team support. Not more of that in the full of contractual clauses early eighties, though.
    Denny Hulme’s ’67 title comes to my mind, because he defied Jack Brabham’s first driver (and team owner!) status, with no negative consequences. Later in 1974 Lauda demolished Regazzoni’s status at Ferrari and got full support from the old man…
    On the other hand, Carlos’ drive was so smooth as to hide car problems, without voicing them as other drivers used to, which brought him that “lacking fight spirit” rotule when his performance was dull. That was not the case, as his many troubled races showed, but it can’t be denied that Reutemann was dominant mostly when his car was perfect. Even his great victories like Brands Hatch ’78 and Monaco ’80 weren’t so valued by him, I think because as a perfectionist, he considered not setting the pace or driving a less than perfect set up car, of little value. Pure performance of the car-driver combination as displayed at his Brazilian victories being the measuring standard for him. That would explain his lack of commitment with the Brabham-Alfa, as he (rightly) didn’t see a future winner in it.
    What Nigel see as pesimism and lack of confidence (..I feel a little bit alone..) I think it was utterly realism instead: he knew what was coming…

  19. Pete Robertson, 14 August 2012 12:42

    I think it might have been “Automobile Sport” or something.

    Anyway, using a musical analogy, I reckon Jonesy’s & Carlos’s performances can be compared to those of Bruce Springsteen & Bob Dylan respectively. On the one hand a solid, dependable, ballsy, hard-working (albeit exciting and talented) tryer, who always delivers results and value for money. On the other, an inspired & bona-fide genius, blessed with an enormous and almost other-worldly talent, but whose ability to access their gift on a consistent basis (these days at least!) is questionable.

  20. A.S. Gilbert, 16 August 2012 14:34

    We discussed Reutemann a bit last year, albeit from a different angle.
    I really hoped for him in ’81, although the Brazil issue did not earn my favour. Quite liked Alan Jones, also. For the final race, my VCR was all set up as I had a social conflict. The local US affiliate supplied a re-run of “The $6,000,000 Man” after showing the grid !! Air was blue, indeed ! I never saw the race, some clips years after, only.
    Carlos was as great a talent as ever was one, but completely divined from inside. Pure naturals, are often beyond tutorage.
    One aspect never mentioned, simmers to me.
    Perhaps Sr. Ruchesi has a view.
    Reutemann had very earnest appreciation of global dynamics, politically and economically. He’s been a state governor since, after all.
    He was a national hero in Argentina, and connected to the power elite as such. His wife’s family were media moguls as well.
    Perhaps he caught a whiff of the upcoming move on the Malvina’s/Falklands, being installed in a British team, understood the ramifications.
    It would have been a completely difficult situation, and he retired in 1982 after Kyalami, not after Vegas in “81.
    Maybe he fell on his sword, I’ve always wondered.

  21. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 16 August 2012 17:14

    Nice comments, Mr. Gilbert.
    As a state governor Reutemann was connected with the national government elite only during the nineties, but lately and as a senator has mantained an independent position. Highly respected in that role, he’s not considered as a sport hero, surely by not having won the WDC nor the Argentine GP.
    He was educated at a strict catholic college (the same as F. Williams and A. Jones!), and got to F1 already mature at thirty, being perhaps too learned for a racing driver (I once visited the library of the Argentine Automobile Club looking for technical books on race car suspensions. I got an old one which had a dedicatory from Reutemann, the former owner, who donated it to the library).
    At the end of 1981 he decided to retire considering there wouldn’t be another good chance as the lost one, in a turbo-dominated 1982, those teams having already defined their drivers. His relationship within the team was very damaged (remember all the staff exageratedly celebrating the AJ victory at Las Vegas with no respect for the lost WDC). But Frank, having lost both drivers with nobody available at sight, considered Carlos to be the most reasonable of the two and decided to pull him in at all costs, which he did.
    Although the Falklands/Malvinas tension had to do with his decision of leaving after Brazil, it was also due he was forty, the FISA/FOCA conflict, the events at Zolder, that annoying drivers strike at Kyalami when they were kept confined at a hotel, and finally the trickery (underweight) Cosworth cars, which didn’t fit with his sense of sportsmanship.

  22. Ryan, 3 October 2012 12:48

    When thinking of Carlos I always remember the article on him in Motorsport Magazine from some years back. On a visit to England after he’d been retired from motorsport for a few years he took a TAXI from Heathrow to Paddington Station and then a TRAIN from there to Didcot, home of the Williams team. He then TELEPHONED the factory to ask if it would be okay for him to pay them a visit… . Humble doesn’t even begin to describe it !