Carlos Reutemann was a racing driver from Central Casting: blue eyes, chiseled jaw, dimples, brooding Brando brows, luxuriant hair, tanned.
To think, he shared F1 grids with Peter Revson, François Cevert and Jacky Ickx. Now, there’s handsome for you.
Forty years ago this Elvis lookalike – I’m thinking Comeback Special, not Vegas catsuits – joined Mario Andretti in an elite club: pole position on world championship debut. Only Jacques Villeneuve has joined it since.
Unlike the others’ – a 1968 Lotus 49B and a 1996 Williams FW18 – Reutemann’s ‘Lobster Claw’ Brabham BT34 was not the fastest thing in the joint. In theory. Graham Hill had driven it throughout 1971 and hardly been enamoured.
The car was old hat but the team had a new cap: Bernie Ecclestone. Having recently bought it from Ron Tauranac, he arrived in Argentina accompanied by Ralph Bellamy and Keith Greene, his new, ahem, designer and team manager. Another recruit was New Zealand mechanic Kerry Adams.
“Herbie Blash, who I worked with for Frank Williams, persuaded me and Bob Dance to join – and then left on our first day!” says Adams, today a renowned restorer and preparer of historic racing cars.
“He couldn’t get on with Tauranac.
“It was a difficult situation for Ron, but he kept interfering as we tried to prepare the cars and there was a chance that we might not be ready. Eventually Bernie banned him from the F1 shop.” Strong-minded men both, their partnership would soon be dusted.
Adams: “Bernie was the most straightforward guy I worked for. If you needed something to do your job properly – bang! – he got it for you. That’s how he ended arguments, and because you had nothing to moan about you had to just get on with it.”
Adams joined Scotsman Derrick Walker of subsequent Indycar fame on Reutemann’s car: “Carlos had finished third in an old McLaren M7C in the non-championship race at Buenos Aires the year before, but I’d been too wrapped up with Henri Pescarolo’s Williams-run March, which finished second, to take much notice of him. I did now. Impressive. Very calm. Never complained. Showed no emotion. You just knew that he was going to be good. And then he put the damn thing on pole.”
Reutemann’s confidence was high. He had finished runner-up to March’s Ronnie Peterson in the 1971 F2 European Trophy and to Lotus’s Emerson Fittipaldi in the subsequent South American F2 Torneio. At almost 30, married with a daughter, this cattle rancher’s son knew that he was ready.
The pressure was intense, however. Not since 1960 had his country’s race counted towards the world championship. And not since Fangio’s retirement had racing’s most fervent fans had something to cheer about.
Reutemann was on the pace immediately: fourth, 10th and sixth in the first three two-hour practice sessions on the afternoons of Friday and Saturday. Then it happened – with 20 minutes of the final hour to go. Fitted with Goodyear’s super-softs, his fourth lap was a second faster than anything that had gone before. Double-takes and cross-checks rippled along the pit lane.
Motor Sport was impressed and called his unflurried performance “Clark-like”. The crowd went berserk, while its beloved ‘Lole’ sat at the pit counter and watched the established stars flounder in his wake. Stunning qualifying laps and that calm assurance that he – and often no one else – could go no faster were to become Reutemann motifs.
Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell 003 – the runaway combo of 1971 – got within 0.22sec.
Adams: “The atmosphere was electric as Derrick and I pushed the car onto the grid: 100,000 people went ballistic. It was a magical moment rather than intimidating. I’d never experienced anything like it. Carlos simply gave a calm little wave.” He wasn’t going to be distracted.
“It was very hot. They had these strange devices that looked like sprayers for weedkiller but which dispensed Coca-Cola. Derrick and I got through about 34 cans. I didn’t pee once.”
Stewart got the jump at the start but Reutemann wouldn’t let go – until his soft rear tyres began to go off within 10 laps.
“I thought that we had been given bad advice,” says Adams. “But I’ve since read that it might have been a team decision. Perhaps Carlos could have treated them a bit better early on.”
Still, he adapted brilliantly and was holding fourth when finally he pitted just before half-distance. This dropped him to 14th, but fresh rear rubber – and talent – saw him recover to an eventual seventh.
Two months later he won the non-championship Brazilian GP at Interlagos. Three days after that he crushed an ankle when his Rondel-run F2 BT38 sheared a rear hub at Thruxton.
This wouldn’t be the last time that motor racing suddenly became difficult for the enigmatic man who could make it look so easy.