Diffident strokes

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Carlos Reutemann 1981

From the moment he had set pole position for his first grand prix, he was touted as a future champion. But on the very day it came down to it, he let it slip past

We saw the best of Carlos Reutemann in 1981 — and the worst. As ever. But this time all the elements were in place for a serious championship challenge: the formidable Williams and its hugely capable FW07C, a superb finishing record and flashes of utter brilliance from the man in the cockpit.

That last quality had been absent in the previous season, Reutemann’s first with the Didcot team. He had been swamped by the hyper-aggression and race speed of Alan Jones, and choked by the knowledge that should the Williams drivers find themselves running 1-2, Carlos was to cede to Alan. So a driver who needed to feel loved was left feeling less important than the cocksure sonofabitch who could have stood on his own two feet if you’d driven a tank over him.

Nonetheless, Reutemann won the South African GP in February 1981 — only for it to be declared a non-championship event. The Long Beach race thus became round one, and there Carlos cracked under intense pressure from Jones, who went on to victory. That’s perhaps what drove the Argentinian to ignore ever more agitated pit signals at a wet Rio to win just ahead of his team-mate.

“With hindsight, we should have lifted the team orders in 1981,” admits Patrick Head today. “If I had been in Carlos’s position, I’d probably have done the same thing! But those were the conditions he had agreed to. And so, from that race on, Alan declared war.”

Reutemann drove beautifully at Buenos Aires, though he was blown away by the Brabhams that bypassed the new-for-’81 rule regarding the 6cm gap between car underside and track. At Imola, Carlos again trailed in Piquet’s wake, but by the fifth round, at Zolder, Williams had felt compelled to go down a similar route to Brabham. And there Reutemann took pole — by almost a second — and inherited the lead when Jones’ car jumped out of gear and crashed out. And this just two days after a fatal pitlane accident in which Carlos ran over a mechanic who fell into the path of his Williams.

In Monaco, he broke his front wing on a rival’s car. At Jarama, he missed another big opportunity, allowing Villeneuve past on lap two, and then losing two places in the closing stages. On both occasions he should have been exploiting the fact that Piquet’s Brabham was in the barriers.

In France, Reutemann was running fifth when struck by another car.

Silverstone, the scene of round nine, is hugely significant in this tale of what might have been. Head explains: “When Goodyear came back after six months away, Brabham dealt with the switch back from Michelin radials better than us to begin with. So at Silverstone, our car was not good, but Carlos stayed out of trouble and finished second. He was then 17 points in the lead of the championship, and yet he walked into the motorhome, sat down and said, ‘That’s it, I won’t score any more points this year.’ And though we made a big aerodynamic change, which included a new underside, for Hockenheim and became competitive again, he remained gloomy and negative to the end of the season.”

The Williams pair could have scored a 1-2 in Germany, but in both cases their engines let them down and gifted Piquet the victory. Osterreichring barely raised a ripple on the Reutemann enthusi-ometer. At Zandvoort, two points were tossed away by a daft move on Laffite. And at Monza, utterly sensational qualifying lap apart, Carlos was lukewarm, lucking into third at Piquet’s expense on the last lap. The penultimate round at Montreal brought no points either after an incorrect tyre choice for the monsoon conditions. All of which left him just a point ahead of Piquet as they headed to the finale at Las Vegas.

So what went wrong in the Caesar’s Palace car park?

“Carlos said he had gearbox problems,” says Head. “But our mechanics couldn’t find anything wrong. There may have been air in the clutch-line, or something like that. But there was definitely no dog damage and no damage inside the ‘box.

“Carlos had an adviser who every minute throughout practice had kept giving him a rundown of Piquet’s position. He kept saying things like, ‘Nelson’s in a bad position, he’s strained his back; I’ve talked to his trainer and he won’t be able to drive more than three laps in the race,’ etc. So when Piquet came up behind him [on lap 17], it blew Carlos’s mind, because he had been convinced that Nelson wasn’t going to be a contender.”

That doesn’t explain why the pole-sitter had looked so feeble in the opening laps. Nor why, as Piquet wilted in the closing stages, Carlos was too far away to take advantage.

So did Reutemann deserve the title?

No, not if he didn’t go for it when he had the opportunity. But his talent was almost magical, and the speculation that he might have shunned this chance of world glory makes an already fascinating character even more compelling.