Feature: Carlos Reutemann and F1’s most mysterious championship showdown

This year’s world championship may well be decided this weekend in America. Yet whatever goes on it will struggle to match one particular showdown, if not necessarily for drama then certainly for oddity. The 1981 title also was decided in America, 37 years ago this week. Still today what went on is wrapped in a riddle.

In debates about the best ever F1 season fabled 1982 tends to rise above all others. Eleven different winners, no one winning more than two rounds, all amid multiple acts of drama and acrimony.

Perhaps though this leads to the season before being too easily forgotten. That also has strong claim in the drama stakes. Its championship battle was tighter. The on-track entertainment was at least as good, perhaps better. It matches ‘82 for acidity.

It wasn’t far off in variation of results either. In ’81 no driver won more than three races; the world champion totalled but 50 points which was only six more than in ‘82, and this was without the peculiarities of neither starting driver for the constructors’ champion, Ferrari, completing the year and more than half the grid boycotting a race (though on the other hand ‘81 had one round fewer). In the final table five drivers were within seven points of the top.

If nothing else ‘81 has convincing claim to being F1’s strangest campaign. It looked for much of the preceding off-season that there wouldn’t be a world championship at all, or at least one as we knew it, as the FISA-FOCA stand-off appeared unresolvable. The season then started, sort of, with a race that wasn’t in South Africa held under Formula Libre regulations. Not long after the season proper got going almost all cars were in wilful and unconcealed breach of the governing body’s flagship regulation on 6cm ground clearance – aimed at minimising the de rigueur ground effect. Moreover it created dangerous and unsatisfying machines, bouncing around on the rock hard suspension now required.

If we’re looking for intrigue, and of the light and shade sort, no driver is as appropriate for the central role as Carlos Reutemann

The season’s title finale was appropriately odd. Held in the car park of the Caesars Palace hotel in Las Vegas, the three contenders stumbled over the line. Nelson Piquet claimed his first world championship of three, by being least worst.

And if we’re looking for intrigue, and of the light and shade sort, no driver is as appropriate for the central role as Carlos Reutemann. In an F1 career that had stretched back to 1972, when all was well he would be devastating. But on the days that not all of his ducks were in a row his driving would tail off notoriously.

“He saw driving a Formula 1 car as a sort of art form,” his technical boss at Williams Patrick Head reflected, “and it only gave him pleasure if it was perfect, and if it wasn’t perfect he didn't want to play. And the problem is he couldn’t get it perfect enough times.”

Chief mechanic Alan Challis added that Reutemann was prone to psyching himself out. “I think Carlos was one the most underrated drivers that ever drove a grand prix car,” he said, “but he sometimes got a blockage in his head. Carlos had foibles about the chassis and the engine. When he arrived at the track the first thing he would want to know was which engines he would have. If it wasn’t a certain engine you could see that he would worry about that.”

A fly-on-the-wall TV documentary from that year demonstrates the point (it’s on YouTube and the whole thing’s a fascinating watch). On the grid before the British Grand Prix Reutemann’s team-mate Alan Jones sits relaxed in his cockpit and cracks jokes with Patrick Head. Reutemann by contrast paces worriedly around, complains of understeer on his reconnaissance lap, holds frantic discussions and prods at tyres.

He [Reutemann] saw driving a Formula 1 car as a sort of art form, and it only gave him pleasure if it was perfect, and if it wasn’t perfect he didn't want to play. And the problem is he couldn’t get it perfect enough times - Patrick Head

Yet early in ‘81 it appeared Reutemann at last found a way to string together the peaks. He was quick everywhere and when he won the Belgian round at Zolder to take a decisive lead in the championship it was his 15th consecutive finish in the points, at the time a record. After the Silverstone round where he finished second it appeared he couldn’t lose. His lead was 17 points – with nine for a win – with just six rounds remaining.

But things perhaps had already gone wrong. A round earlier Williams had switched tyre supplier from Michelin to the returning Goodyear.

“He was an emotional driver,” noted Reutemann’s engineer Neil Oatley. “He was pretty upset when we switched from Michelin to Goodyear tyres in mid-season. He was convinced it was the wrong thing to do, and if you compare the points he won before and after that, the two halves of the season bear no resemblance to each other.” Indeed after Silverstone Reutemann scored only six more.

For most of that time he underwhelmed; the old foibles resurfacing. Quintessentially, when the rain bucketed down just before the start of the penultimate round at Montreal Reutemann shook his head persistently in his cockpit, beaten already. He dropped quickly to nowhere while Piquet, crucially as it transpired, hauled his Brabham to fifth and two points.

It meant Reutemann entered the Las Vegas showdown just one point ahead of Piquet; Montreal victor Jacques Laffite also had a slim chance for Ligier. Yet it looked initially like Reutemann would prevail after all. The circuit plotted in the Vegas car park was a torturous anti-clockwise affair; the race would last an hour and three-quarters in intense heat. Manna for the bull-strong Reutemann; emphatically not for Piquet.

Reutemann took a comfortable pole on the first day of practice. Throughout he beamed. This, surely, would be one of his good weekends.

But it lasted, literally, until the race’s starting light. From there he sank. Fourth by the first turn, he lost another place on lap one; another on lap two; yet another on lap three. This put Piquet on his tail.

He was pretty upset when we switched from Michelin to Goodyear tyres in mid-season. He was convinced it was the wrong thing to do, and if you compare the points he won before and after that, the two halves of the season bear no resemblance to each other - Neil Oatley

The showdown’s pivot point was through-the-looking-glass absurd. After 16 laps Piquet nipped past facing what appeared no Reutemann resistance. Carlos then continued his trajectory, finishing a lapped eighth.

Laffite drove tenaciously to second, then his tyres went off and the resultant pitstop dropped him out of contention. This left Piquet running fifth, needing sixth place for the title. Yet he was, as Jeff Hutchinson explained, “on his last reserves of strength.”

Driving by instinct he got home with two seconds to spare over the recovering Laffite and John Watson. With another lap Piquet would have lost everything. Perhaps the title tilting back to Reutemann in spite of himself would have been a fitting coup de grace.

While all this was going on Jones disappeared into the distance to win, in what everyone thought was his last race before retirement. He’d driven well in his championship defence campaign but had been unlucky, particularly with two sure wins lost due to a strange mid-year Williams late-race fuel pickup problem. Many thought the victorious send-off appropriate.

Mystery surrounds the Reutemann drive even yet. “He said that the gearbox had been baulky,” noted Head, “but when the mechanics took the gearbox apart, there was no damage at all – it was immaculate. We did have a clutch drag problem and I can imagine the gearbox was a bit gratey, but I think he just let it get to his head.

He said that the gearbox had been baulky, but when the mechanics took the gearbox apart, there was no damage at all – it was immaculate - Patrick Head

“Peter Windsor, who was very close to Carlos, kept saying that Nelson Piquet’s physio had told him that Nelson was absolutely rooted,” Head continued. “He told Carlos so many times that Piquet was finished that I think Carlos began to believe it. When Piquet was snapping at his heels in the race, Carlos just couldn’t believe it and gave way.”

Windsor takes a different view. “He had a horrendous tyre vibration throughout the race,” Windsor countered. “With the absolutely rigid suspension, if you did have a mismatched set of tyres it was like driving with square wheels.”

Windsor added that Williams at Vegas was running with four cars for the first time – as Jones insisted on having a spare car ready in addition to Reutemann’s – and this contributed to the error.

Yet neither Head nor Oatley recall anything about tyres being said at the time. In any case technical problems don’t explain Reutemann’s outward lack of fight.

“In Las Vegas I think you could say that Carlos had convinced himself that he wasn’t going to win,” reckons Oatley. “And, sure enough, it came true.

“He was a unique character. When it became obvious that Alan couldn’t really win the 1981 championship it didn’t really change the dynamic of how Patrick and Frank operated. As a result, Carlos didn’t feel they were on his side. He seemed to think, ‘They don’t really care if I win or not’.”

You could say that Carlos had convinced himself that he wasn’t going to win. And, sure enough, it came true - Neil Oatley

Frank Williams, years on, accepted this had some basis. “He needed psychological support more than most drivers,” he reflected of Reutemann. “He needed to be aware everyone in the team was wearing a Reutemann lapel badge and an Argentine scarf. Probably we didn’t appreciate that sufficiently at the time.”

Windsor has reported too that Head – who was thick as thieves with Jones – was usually able to overrule Williams on technical matters, including things that Reutemann had agreed with Frank. Jones more generally had his feet well under the Williams team’s table and this manifested itself in small ways and big. It all served further to undermine the more sensitive and distant Carlos.

The Vegas drive though remains a matter of mystery. One that likely never will be satisfactorily explained.