'Carlos Reutemann was one of the greats but never found his perfect fit within F1'

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Carlos Reutemann – quick, moody, handsome. He was one of the greats of the ’70s and ’80s but somehow never quite found his perfect fit within F1, other than for the occasional weekend when the planets aligned and all was right with his world. On those days he was untouchable. But it was as if the sport itself was sometimes just a little too crassly aggressive and hustling for someone of his sensitive nature.

He had the persona of an artist, not a sportsman. Deeply introspective, thoughtful but often conflicted, he believed he wanted to be world champion. With talent enough to put a mediocre lobster-claw Brabham on pole position on his debut, it seemed well within his grasp. But there was always something in the way, not always definable, but something.

Given Ferrari’s reputation for internal politics, it’s ironic that he had what was probably his happiest season there, in 1978. It was as if he’d finally found home. But the outside world had other ideas and he was cast adrift to wander as an F1 nomad once more. His talent meant he was in demand, but never as The Man. He didn’t carry that energy. But in ’78 he found himself in that role by default.

The circumstances of his recruitment by Enzo Ferrari in the wake of the injuries of Niki Lauda at the Nürburgring in ’76 give some idea of the brutality of the F1 environment and of Ferrari in particular. ‘Old Man’ Ferrari would rather Lauda had not made his comeback that year, but just recuperated as the ‘moral’ champion rather than risk actual defeat. Ferrari levered Reutemann out of Brabham – where he was disillusioned with the Alfa-engined programme – by way of some dollars to Bernie Ecclestone. It was with the intention of replacing Lauda, whom Enzo did not expect to be anything like the force he’d been. But then Lauda had the gall to inconvenience Ferrari by insisting on coming back – and staying on into ’77 to complete his contract.

Hence the circumstances were never there for Lauda to treat Reutemann with anything other than coldness. There could hardly have been a bigger contrast between two drivers than the direct Teuton and a moody Latin enigma.

Part of the problem for Lauda was that Reutemann was too good to assume the Clay Regazzoni role of happy support. He was a more ambitious driver than Regazzoni and still dreamed of winning the world title himself.

But he was not wired up to fight on Lauda’s terms. I once asked Lauda to recount in detail how he wrested leadership of the team back, after Ferrari had tried to put him in a subservient role, initially offering him a job as team manager (!) and subsequently the number two position. Enzo could be brutal and maybe this was just his way of testing Lauda’s resolve after the horrific experience of his Nürburgring crash.

“After reluctantly agreeing that I could continue to drive in ’77, the Old Man told me that Reutemann would be leading the test programme. A couple of hours later I went back and demanded to see him again. He kept me waiting, all the usual bullshit.

“He was in demand, but never as didn’t carry The Man. He that energy”

Then calls me to come in. I tell him, ‘I have a contract which says I am the number one and I do the test programme. If you don’t want to fulfil that contract, fine. I have an offer to join McLaren’ – which I did not. ‘Just release me and I will drive for McLaren.’ He agreed I could take part in the test programme.

So he had me bedding in brakes at Fiorano…

“I then turn up at the test at Paul Ricard and they look at me and ask what am I doing here, the three day test is for Reutemann. I say, ‘No, I have a contract. I am part of the test programme. I want a day in the car.’ Finally they agree. I can have the third day. So I sit and watch Mr Reutemann go round for two days. Finally I get in it, try the car. It understeers, I make some adjustments. Then I have them take the fuel out and give me a new set of tyres. I drive a lap on the limit – and it’s much faster than anything Reutemann has done. I get out and say to the team, ‘Okay, I’m done’ and they are saying no, we have the full day and I say, ‘No, I don’t need the full day. I’m going back to the hotel.’ I then call the Old Man and I don’t tell him about the low fuel and empty tanks, I just say I’ve just watched your Mr Reutemann go around for two days, I climb into the car and go almost a second quicker. If you rely on him for the test programme you will lose. You need to put me in charge. Which he did.”

But once Lauda had won that second title, he was off. With Lauda gone it was like a fresh start. Gilles Villeneuve was recruited to join Carlos; keen, open, relaxed, he was a breath of fresh air and they hit it off. Better still, Ferrari was switching to Michelin tyres and Reutemann would be leading that programme. He gave Michelin its first win, two races into the season and won four times that year despite the general dominance of the Lotus 79. He was in form and seemed genuinely happy.

But Jody Scheckter had been signed for ’79. Reutemann had failed to convince the Old Man that the team could be built around him. Scheckter took matters into his own hands. “I arranged a meeting with Reutemann. It was in a car park somewhere. He got into the car and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know what they’ve told you but I’ve signed as number one. I think you should know.’ He went very quiet and left. He must’ve got onto the phone to Lotus that afternoon.”
So the nomad packed up his belongings into his duffel bag once more.

Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation

Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark