Carlos Reutemann – a bright star of F1 but never its champion

Carlos Reutemann starred in Formula 1 for a decade, driving for Brabham, Ferrari, Lotus and Williams. He won 12 grands prix in almost 150 starts, but although he got within touching distance of the title in 1981, he was never crowned world champion.

Carlos Reutemann – a bright star of F1 but never its champion
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In 1974, Argentina's Reutemann scored his first Grand Prix win, at Kyalami in South Africa. It was significant not only as the first Formula 1 World Championship triumph for a Brabham since 1970, but also the first victory for a Gordon Murray-designed F1 car – by happy coincidence, in Murray's original home country.

The fact that Reutemann should find success early in his third season at this level was hardly a shock to the Formula 1 establishment. Most of his rivals had been expecting it earlier – ever since Carlos was signed by Brabham’s new owner Bernie Ecclestone in 1972, and landed pole position on his Grand Prix debut!

Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT34
Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT34
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Photo by: Sutton Images

Carlos Reutemann, Brabham
Carlos Reutemann, Brabham
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT34 Ford leads Chris Amon, Matra MS120C
Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT34 Ford leads Chris Amon, Matra MS120C
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Carlos Reutemann
Carlos Reutemann
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Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Although the remainder of his rookie season was squandered by the mediocre Brabham BT37, 1973 started showing promise once Murray’s BT42 hit the tracks. In an era where only the top six finishers scored points, Reutemann was rewarded six times in the last nine races of the season, including two podium finishes. Then when Murray penned the striking BT44 for 1974, Brabham started looking once more like a team worthy of its founder, Sir Jack Brabham, and Reutemann would score three wins that year.

Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44 Ford
Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44 Ford
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44 Ford leads Niki Lauda, Ferrari 312B3
Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44 Ford leads Niki Lauda, Ferrari 312B3
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Carlos Reutemann, Brabham celebrates
Carlos Reutemann, Brabham celebrates
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Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

The handsome BT44B update for 1975 faced Lauda’s fast and reliable Ferrari 312T, and now Reutemann had the opposite problem to the year before. Murray had ironed out the bugs of the original so that the car was now near-bullet proof but it was now missing a vital edge in speed, so that Reutemann burned through his Goodyears trying to keep up with the red cars on race day. He would finish third in the championship with one win – a lucky triumph at the Nurburgring – and five other podiums. But for arguably the first time in his career, he’d come up against a tough teammate, Carlos Pace, and been found wanting in terms of qualifying speed, a trend that continued into ’76.

Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44
Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44
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Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44B
Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44B
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44B Ford
Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44B Ford
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Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Gordon Murray and Bernie Ecclestone with Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44B-Ford
Gordon Murray and Bernie Ecclestone with Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44B-Ford
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44B-Ford, Bernie Ecclestone, Gordon Murray and Herbie Blash
Carlos Reutemann, Brabham BT44B-Ford, Bernie Ecclestone, Gordon Murray and Herbie Blash
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

It remains perplexing. Given how sensational Reutemann would prove he could be, maybe Pace – who would die in a plane crash in 1977 – is right there with Guy Moll, Ricardo Rodriguez, Johnny Servoz-Gavin and Stefan Bellof as one of GP racing’s greatest unfulfilled talents. Or, as some have speculated, Reutemann let his head drop having detected a closer bond between Brabham team management and Pace. Reutemann’s career, much like Rene Arnoux’s, was hampered by apparent mood swings that could last half a race weekend or half a season.

Not that there were any winners at Brabham in ’76, since Ecclestone had replaced Cosworths with Alfa Romeo flat-12s. The gorgeous Martini-liveried machines were neither swift nor reliable, and Reutemann definitely got the short end of the (drive)shaft, failing to finish nine of the 12 races he started for the team that year. Thus Enzo Ferrari was pushing at an open door when he approached the Argentinian about replacing Regazzoni for ’77. The move occurred early when Lauda suffered life-threatening injuries at the Nurburgring but just as Ferrari confirmed Reutemann for the Italian GP at Monza, the scorched defending champion returned – and outpaced his soon-to-be-full-time teammate in both qualifying and race.

Carlos Reutemann, Ferrari 312T2
Carlos Reutemann, Ferrari 312T2
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Carlos Reutemann leads Niki Lauda
Carlos Reutemann leads Niki Lauda
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Photo by: LAT Photographic

Race winner Carlos Reutemann, Ferrari
Race winner Carlos Reutemann, Ferrari
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Into the ’77 season, Lauda and Reutemann were roughly even in terms of qualifying, but the stone cold Lauda who had little time for his teammate would take three wins and the World Championship, while Reutemann took a solitary victory and fourth in the points race after a season of looking brilliant at times, mediocre at others.

But with Lauda quitting the squad before season’s end, Reutemann was thrust into the team leadership role, with rookie Gilles Villeneuve as teammate – and Carlos responded magnificently. While Lotus scored eight wins in 1978 and lead driver Mario Andretti earned the World Championship, the closest thing to a consistent threat to the gorgeous ground-effect Lotus 79s was the non-ground-effect but Michelin-shod Ferrari 312T3 of Reutemann which took four victories and third in the championship.

Carlos Reutemann, Lotus
Carlos Reutemann, Lotus
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Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Race winner Jacques Laffite, Ligier JS11 leads third place Carlos Reutemann, Lotus 79
Race winner Jacques Laffite, Ligier JS11 leads third place Carlos Reutemann, Lotus 79
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Mario Andretti, Lotus, Carlos Reutemann, Lotus
Mario Andretti, Lotus, Carlos Reutemann, Lotus
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Photo by: David Phipps

Podium: second place Carlos Reutemann, Lotus, Race winner Jacques Laffite, Ligier, third place John Watson, McLaren
Podium: second place Carlos Reutemann, Lotus, Race winner Jacques Laffite, Ligier, third place John Watson, McLaren
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Photo by: Sutton Images

So his stock was high when he switched to Lotus for 1979 but the move was ill-timed: the new Lotus 80 did not work well at most circuits. Andretti would land third place on the beautiful machine’s debut, but he would use it just twice more, while Reutemann refused to race it altogether. He instead elected to revert to the Lotus 79 which by now wasn’t quite fast enough to seriously threaten for victory.

The car that came on strong in the second half of that season had been the Williams FW07, and Reutemann jumped at the chance to switch over to Sir Frank Williams’ team for 1980 and race the new B model – even if it meant signing a contract to run as No. 2 to Williams incumbent Alan Jones. That deal would soon become immaterial as the Australian won five races and the World Championship to Reutemann’s single victory at Monaco and third in the points table, beaten also by Brabham’s Nelson Piquet.

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Carlos Reutemann, Williams FW07C
Carlos Reutemann, Williams FW07C
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Carlos Reutemann, Williams FW07C
Carlos Reutemann, Williams FW07C
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Photo by: Sutton Images

Carlos Reutemann, Williams FW07C
Carlos Reutemann, Williams FW07C
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Podium: Race winner Nelson Piquet, Brabham, second place Carlos Reutemann, Williams, third place Alain Prost, Renault
Podium: Race winner Nelson Piquet, Brabham, second place Carlos Reutemann, Williams, third place Alain Prost, Renault
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Photo by: Sutton Images

Juan Manuel Fangio shows the chequered flag to Carlos Reutemann, Williams FW07C-Ford Cosworth
Juan Manuel Fangio shows the chequered flag to Carlos Reutemann, Williams FW07C-Ford Cosworth
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann, Williams
Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann, Williams
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Photo by: Williams F1

Reutemann seemed set to turn the tables in ’81 with the FW07C, picking up his qualifying pace (10-5 versus Jones) but he would cause friction within the Williams team who, despite Jones’ title, still hadn’t lifted the restriction on Reutemann to serve as No. 2. The Argentine was pressured by Jones into a mistake while leading the season-opener at Long Beach, but in Brazil, Reutemann held onto his advantage in the rain, failing to move over for his teammate and going on to victory.

He won again in Zolder – an emotional triumph after running over an Osella mechanic in pitlane during practice, the young Italian dying from his injuries – and after Round 9 of 15, he had a 17-point lead in the championship. Yet only twice more in the remaining six rounds did he finish in the points, and in the final three races of the year drove as if he didn’t really want the championship, offering little resistance to his only real protagonists, Piquet (who took the crown) and Jones.

Reutemann decided a few days after the season finale to quit the sport yet later reversed the decision, racing in the first two GPs of 1982 for Williams and scoring a podium, before again quitting, this time permanently.

Carlos Reutemann, Williams FW07C
Carlos Reutemann, Williams FW07C
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Photo by: Sutton Images

Podium: race winner Alain Prost, Renault, second place Carlos Reutemann, Williams, third place René Arnoux, Renault
Podium: race winner Alain Prost, Renault, second place Carlos Reutemann, Williams, third place René Arnoux, Renault
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Photo by: Sutton Images

As he moved into political life as governor of Santa Fe, the motorsport world was left pondering the enigma of Reutemann. Was he too sensitive? Had he needed more cosseting to produce his best on a more consistent basis? Was he consciously or subconsciously averse to the attention that a championship would have brought? Did he simply overthink things? How could a man mentally strong enough to overcome the tragedy on pitlane at Zolder in ’81 in order to take pole and victory not show the same steeliness when dealing with teammates such as Lauda or Jones?

No one – perhaps not even the man himself – had all the answers. But most would agree without question that, at his best, Reutemann was near-untouchable.

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