Carlos Reutemann, who has died at the age of 79, showed tremendous promise from the beginning of his Formula 1 career. It came as a great surprise to many when he retired at the peak of his powers without a world championship to his name.Juan Manuel Fangio. But Reutemann was a mercurial talent, prone to baffling swings in form.
Reutemann started racing at home in saloon cars before moving into the regional Formula 2 championship. With the backing of Argentina’s Motor Club he raced in European Formula 2 over the following years, and impressed with third place in a non-championship grand prix in Buenos Aires in an elderly McLaren.
Bernie Ecclestone took over the Brabham team in 1972 and appointed Reutemann. He began the season in a modified BT34 which team mate Graham Hill had done little with the year before, and stunned the paddock by putting the car on pole position for his debut at home. He faded in the race, Brabham having chosen too soft a tyre compound.
His season was disrupted by a nasty ankle break in a Formula 2 crash. But further top-six qualifying performances, fourth in the Canadian Grand Prix and victory in a non-championship race at Interlagos demonstrated clear potential.
Ecclestone knew a good thing when he saw one and kept Reutemann on for 1973. After the team introduced its new BT42 Reutemann delivered podium finishes at Paul Ricard and the season finale at Watkins Glen, securing seventh in the championship.
The 1974 championship was a wide open affair which one of several drivers could have won. Reutemann took three grand prix wins, but just one other points-scoring finish, and ended the year sixth. Although he added only a single further win to his tally in 1975 his consistency was much improved, and he ended the season third behind Niki Lauda and Emerson Fittipaldi.
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Ecclestone was eager to secure the backing of an engine manufacturer, and brought Alfa Romeo on board for the 1976 season. However their first engines were woefully unreliable, Reutemann only registered a single points finish, and began to covet opportunities elsewhere.
When Lauda was seriously injured in a crash at the Nurburgring, Reutemann grabbed the chance to join the team at the Italian Grand Prix. To his surprise, Lauda returned in time for the race, so Ferrari fielded a three-car entry. Lauda took great satisfaction in finishing fourth, five places ahead of the driver he obviously regarded as an interloper.
Reutemann returned full-time as Lauda’s team mate in 1977 and initially justified Ferrari’s faith him him with third place and a win from the opening two rounds, which put him ahead in the points. But Lauda ground him down with a succession of top two finishes, clinched a tough title fight with two rounds to spare, and walked out of Ferrari, leaving Reutemann to his former team.
Four wins made 1978 his most successful campaign in terms of victories, but it wasn’t enough to keep Mario Andretti and his ground-effect Lotus 79 – the new standard-setter in Formula 1 – from winning the championship. Reutemann therefore opportunistically joined Lotus for the following season, but it proved a woefully ill-timed move. The Lotus 80 proved too extreme a development of the concept, and Reutemann never raced it, and though he scored a few early-season podiums with the 79 he slumped to a win-less sixth in the championship.
He didn’t hesitate to look elsewhere, and in 1980 Williams became his third different team in as many seasons. This was a far more productive move, Williams having dominated the latter stages of the previous season, and Reutemann took his first win for them at Monaco. This proved was his second points score in a run of 15 in a row which was remarkable given the fragility of cars of this era, and include 11 podiums in 12 races.
That run straddled two championship years: the 1980 campaign won by his team mate Alan Jones, and the following season where Reutemann held the upper hand at Williams. This came with not a little controversy: In Brazil Reutemann disobeyed an instruction from the pit wall to let the team leader pass him, and won the race, sowing a bitter enmity between the pair.
With six races to go Reutemann’s lead stood at 17 points over young Brabham rival Nelson Piquet. The title seemed to beckon at last, but Reutemann’s form crumbled over the final races. Whether it was down to the team’s mid-season switch from Michelin to Goodyear rubber, the pressures of the title fight, or something else, wasn’t clear.
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In a rain-lashed race at Montreal he opted for a mixture of Goodyear wet tyres front and rear; he trudged home 10th, three laps down. Fifth for Piquet meant Reutemann could still secure the title if he led his rival home in the Las Vegas finale, which looked on the cards when he planted his Williams on pole position, three places ahead of his rival. But Jones surged into the lead at the start and Reutemann mystifyingly faded to a point-less eighth. An unwell Piquet came fifth again, enough to deny Reutemann the title by a point.
Despite having declared his intention to retire during the off-season, Reutemann was on the grid for the 1982 season-opener at Kyalami and took second. But after tangling with Rene Arnoux at the Brazilian Grand Prix he decided he’d had enough. His new team mate Keke Rosberg went on to take the title in a turbulent year.
Having made a one-off appearance in the World Rally Championship round in Argentina in 1980, finishing third, Reutemann repeated the feat in a Peugeot 205 five years later. But his racing days were behind him, at least on the competition side. When Argentina returned to the world championship calendar in 1995 he delighted the crowd by taking to the track in a modern Ferrari F1 car for a handful of demonstration laps. His former team gave him another chance to sample the latest grand prix machinery in 2005 – the 63-year-old getting behind the wheel of an F2004.
After retiring from Formula 1 he found his calling in politics. Reutemann was elected governor of Santa Fe and later joined the country’s senate, where he continued to serve until 2021. After suffering an intestinal haemorrhage in May, Reutemann began to recover and left hospital. But following a further deterioration in his condition, Reutemann passed away in July at the age of 79.
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