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…”