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The One That Really Did Get Away (Tribute to Carlos Reutemann).

The One That Really Did Get Away (Tribute to Carlos Reutemann).


 

Formula One like any sport has its ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and because each Grand Prix can only have one winner and each season can only have one World Champion, there will always be plenty of hard luck stories.

In recent seasons circumstances contrived to deny both Felipe Massa and Mark Webber their seemingly one title opportunity at the final round (the final bend in the case of Massa) while history provides a list of names where fate has intervened more tragically.

The most famous driver never to win the World Championship is Stirling Moss (he even got knighted for not doing so). Sir Stirling’s failure can partially be attributed to his patriotism resulting in him not always having the best car, but for me the one driver who was always in the right place at the right time (with possibly one exception), was a consistent Championship contender and yet never managed to clinch the title, was Argentina’s Carlos Reutemann.

In 1974, my first year of actively attending races, Carlos was already a top driver and in his third season with Brabham. He won 3 races in the elegant looking Gordon Murray designed BT44 with 6th place in the Championship. He bettered that the following year with 3rd place despite only one win (albeit at the mighty Nordschleife) driving the updated BT44B looking superb in its white livery with blue and red Martini pin-striping.
The driver merry-go-round between the 1975 and 1976 seasons all seemed to play into Carlos’s hands. Emerson Fittipaldi, Ronnie Peterson and Jacky Ickx defected to lesser teams. Tyrrell entered the experimental 6-wheeler for Jody Scheckter and McLaren gambolled on the fast, but untamed, James Hunt. The Championship looked to be a straight fight between Ferrari and Brabham. Lauda versus Reutemann. But then Brabham switched to Alfa-Romeo engines which turned out to be a disaster in terms of both overall speed and reliability.

By the Italian Grand Prix that September Carlos had mustered only 3 points and transferred to Ferrari to replace Niki Lauda. At the time it was not known whether Niki would recover from his Nurburgring accident let alone be fit to race again so when he made his unexpected return at Monza Ferrari were forced to enter three cars and then made Carlos sit out the remainder of the season. His year had been wasted.

In 1977, as partner to Lauda, he was early championship leader after victory in Brazil. But thereafter, Niki stamped his authority as Ferrari Number One and took his second title. There were to be no further victories for Carlos and only a 4th place championship finish.
For 1978 with Lauda now at Brabham, Carlos would be undisputed team leader at Ferrari with a rookie team-mate in Gilles Villeneuve. Surely this would be his year. But Colin Chapman came up with the all-conquering ground-effects Lotus 79 which saw Mario Andretti, supported by Ronnie Peterson, walk the Championship. Carlos, with 4 victories, was the best of the rest.

So for the following season Carlos made what was seemingly a smart move and signed for Lotus, except that the move turned out to be not so smart. The successor to the dominant 79 was a dud. A couple of 2nd place finishes earned 6th place in the Championship which was won, almost predictably, by Jody Scheckter driving the Ferrari that Carlos had vacated.

For the second half of 1979 the best car had been the Williams scoring 5 victories in the last 7 races. They were on the up and Carlos was signed to partner Alan Jones for 1980. Jones duly won the Championship as expected with Carlos in 3rd place chipping in with a single victory. But in 1981 Carlos took the initiative and led the World Championship from the second race onward. Going into the finale held in the car park of Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas he held a 1 point advantage over Nelson Piquet and 6 points over Jacques Laffite. He took pole position with his rivals back in 4th and 12th respectively. Carlos only needed to finish in front of both drivers no matter what position. Surely, this was his moment – his time had come. What could go wrong?

The championship showdown, however, turned out to be an anti-climax. None of the contenders featured. Carlos’s Williams suffered from understeer and also the loss of 4th gear, whilst Piquet was suffering from physical exhaustion. At the end Piquet finished 5th and claimed the 2 points that won him the title by a single point. Carlos finished in 8th place with Laffite 6th and the winner was the Williams of Alan Jones. But there is another irony. The opening race of the season at South Africa was designated as ‘non-championship’ due to the dispute between FOCA and the Governing Body so no points were awarded. Carlos Reutemann won the race so the extra 9 points would have confirmed him as World Champion prior to Caesar’s Palace.

For 1982 with Alan Jones having retired, Carlos stayed as team leader at Williams. But after the 2nd race of the season suddenly and without warning he walked away. Had he simply had enough or was he conscious of his nationality in driving for a British team (with his future career in politics in mind) on the build-up to the Falklands war? And was it through temperament, sheer bad luck or just one of those things that the title he had seemed destined to win at least once over the best part of a decade ultimately eluded him? There was certainly no love lost between him and some of his team-mates and purely by personal observation he appeared to be a bit of a ‘loner’ at the circuits seemingly more comfortable in his own company.

And of course it was almost inevitable that the 1982 World Championship would be won by his Williams rookie team-mate Keke Rosberg, with a solitary victory for the season.