Carlos had been electrifying in practice, giving free range to that flair and deftness always apparent when the right mood was on him, and setting a time in the opening session which no one was to equal. He exuded confidence and good humour, and evident, too, was that exaggerated languor indicative of Reutemann at his most dangerous.
He had a one-point lead over Piquet, and thus, to take the title, needed only to finish ahead of him. The exhausting nature of the circuit and the torpid conditions, too, should have worked to his advantage, for his stamina was exceptional, and Nelson, if truth be told, was perilously unfit. “I think Carlos is going to be World Champion,” Gilles Villeneuve commented, “because he’s so much stronger than Piquet.”
On lap 17, though, the Brabham got ahead of the Williams, and there it stayed. “He made it easy for me,” a bemused Piquet said afterwards. “Braked early, left the door open…”
Later Reutemann mumbled about understeer and gearchange problems, but in truth he drove as if in a trance. Whatever may have been awry with the Williams, how could a man on pole position, touching the hem of the title, have been down to fifth after the first lap, to seventh by the third? It was as close to Greek tragedy as I have seen in motor racing.
Ultimately Piquet finished fifth, scoring the two points he needed, and Reutemann eighth, but even in the last couple of minutes the championship could have gone Carlos’s way, for Nelson was so exhausted he could not have completed another lap.
If Reutemann had no one but himself to blame, still I felt sympathy for a driver I had always admired, a man I had always liked. But that evening I encountered for the first time the brutal mentality we now take almost for granted. Why, one of the younger drivers asked, hadn’t Reutemann simply put Piquet in the wall?
I argued that Carlos would never contemplate anything of the kind, that this was someone who had integrity. “Who’ll remember that?” the brat scoffed. “Piquet had to get past him — all he had to do was put him off; and he was World Champion! No one could have proved anything.”