Ask Nigel: June 27
Our Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck answers your motorsport questions every Wednesday. So if you want his opinion on any motorsport matter drop us an e-mail here at Autosport.com and we'll forward on a selection to him. Nigel won't be able to answer all your questions, but we'll publish his answers here every week. Send your questions to AskNigel@haynet.com
Carlos Reutemann was without doubt the most enigmatic Grand Prix driver I have come across in 30 years. When all was right with his mood, he was as good in an F1 car as anyone I have ever seen, with literally boundless flair and speed. Yet this same man, with all his enormous talent, could on other days be an also-ran. It remains a mystery, not only to me, but also to the many teams for which he drove.
On his day, Reutemann was quite literally unbeatable. But that was always the problem with Carlos; every good thing you said about his driving had to be prefaced by 'on his day.' There were days when the angels touched him, when his rivals looked clumsy by comparison. But there were others - too many for one of his gift - when his presence in a race went unnoticed. In his work he wavered between sublime self-confidence and dithering uncertainty.
"You know," he once told me, "I can honestly say that I've never been in a team which I felt was supporting me 100 percent." And Frank Williams, for whom Reutemann drove his last couple of seasons, acknowledges that, with hindsight, the team might have treated him with more sensitivity.
"In terms of equipment," Williams says, "we gave Carlos exactly the same as Alan Jones, but there was more to it than that. Carlos needed more psychological support than most drivers. He needed to be aware that everyone in the team was wearing a Reutemann lapel badge and an Argentine scarf. We probably didn't appreciate that sufficiently at the time - which is why we didn't achieve as much together as we should have done."
True enough. And it didn't help, either, that Reutemann and Jones were diametrically opposed in so many ways, sharing nothing beyond the ability to drive a racing car very, very, fast. Carlos was all moody introspection, where Alan, at times, could make John Prescott seem shy and retiring. Through their second season together, 1981, they were not team mates in any accepted sense, but rather two individuals who happened to operate out of the same pit. Towards the end of the year, Reutemann suggested they bury the hatchet. "Yeah, mate!" roared Jones, doing his Les Patterson act. "Right in your bloody back!"
It was an awkward time, I remember, for folk visiting the Williams motorhome - and particularly so for those, like myself, who liked both these men. This was a far-off time when racing drivers were well paid, but not obscenely so, when they didn't have tacky little agents fluttering around them, and could speak for themselves.
Invariably, I found myself feeling sympathy for Reutemann through that summer of 1981, for in the psychological game he was utterly at the mercy of Jones, who could be intimidated by no one, on the track or off. In Alan's mind, though, he had cause enough to ostracise Carlos.
Their problems truly began early in the season, at the Brazilian Grand Prix. When Reutemann had joined Williams the year before, it was as Jones's number two, for the team's priority had been for the long-serving Alan to win the World Championship. This was duly accomplished, and Williams should then have thrown the whole thing open for 1981, instead of which he kept the 'Jones priority' clause in Reutemann's contract.
At Rio it rained, and Carlos, despite his distaste for the conditions, led throughout, with Alan sitting a few seconds behind, awaiting an invitation to pass which never came. Despite JONES-REUT signals from the pits, instructing Carlos to give way, REUT-JONES was how they finished, and afterwards Alan was fit to be tied.
Inescapably, under the terms of his contract. Reutemann had done wrong, but I always thought him an honourable man, and there was a curious innocence in the way he sought to justify his actions. "Jones had reason to be upset," he said. "I can't disagree with that. I saw the pit signal three laps from the end, and I knew the terms of the contract. But still I was in a dilemma.
"From the beginning of my career, I always started every race with the intention of winning it - but now I was being asked to give it away, just like that. 'If I give way,' I thought to myself, 'I stop the car here and now, in the middle of the track, and leave immediately for my farm in Argentina. Finish. Not a racing driver any more.'"
At the time, Williams was as incensed as Jones, and fined Reutemann for disobeying team orders, but later, perhaps jaundiced by Jones's late-in-the-day decision to retire from racing, he thawed. "All I care about is the team, and the points we earn - why the hell should I care about who scores them? Drivers are only employees, after all."
For most of that 1981 season, despite the off-track turbulence, Reutemann drove sublimely, apparently shedding his reputation for inconsistency. In Belgium, where he won, he finished in the points for the 15th straight time, a record which stands to this day, as far as I know.
If Zolder showed the qualities of Reutemann the driver, an incident in qualifying revealed those of the man. As Carlos drove down the pit lane, and young Osella mechanic slipped from the wall into the path of the Williams. There was nothing to be done, and the boy later died.
Reutemann, for all his natural hauteur, was always a compassionate man. I happened to be right there when the tragedy occurred, and can still see Carlos's expression as he ripped off his helmet, and ran back to where the mechanic lay. For the rest of the weekend, he uttered barely a word, but on race day he was at his very best. Then, on the Monday, he flew to Italy to see the boy's parents.
In race after race, he continued to drive wonderfully, and by the time of the British Grand Prix led the World Championship by 17 points. At Silverstone, though, I began to detect the return of the flawed confidence. "Six races left," he scowled. "A long way to go. At the moment everything is going well for me." A pause. "Too well, in fact, and that worries me. To be honest, I feel a little bit alone..." That was Reutemann pure.
Thereafter, his season went to pieces. He drove as well as ever, but his car repeatedly let him down. At Monza, an out-and-out power track, he qualified the normally-aspirated Williams-Cosworth second, splitting the turbocharged Renaults, his time well over a second faster than Jones's best. In the race, though, it rained, and he trailed in half a minute adrift of his team mate.
Still he went to the final race, in Las Vegas, with a one point lead over Nelson Piquet, and in practice was simply fantastic, setting a time in the opening session which remained unbeaten. You awaited a Reutemann qualifying lap as later you did with Senna.
Through the days before the race Carlos was relaxed, full of good humour. On the Sunday, when it mattered, he faded to nothing. As I watched that afternoon, I was embarrassed for him. Afterwards he mumbled about understeer on right-handers, and gearchange problems, but in all truth he drove like a man who had suddenly decided he did not want the World Championship.
Whatever may have been awry with the Williams - real or imagined - how could a man on pole position, touching the hem of the title, have been down to fifth by the end of the first lap, to seventh by the end of the third? To become World Champion, Reutemann, whose stamina was exceptional, had only to stay ahead of a perilously unfit Piquet on a tiring circuit in torpid conditions, yet he allowed Nelson by like a man being lapped.
Las Vegas, an appropriately pitiless place, was the scene of high tragedy in the life a great racing driver. As Jones - ironically the winner of this race so crucial to Reutemann - put on the garland, Carlos slipped quietly away to his nearby room at Caesars Palace, lost in his own private sorrow.
That evening, for the first time, I came face to face with the sort of brutal mentality we now take almost for granted in Formula 1, and it shocked me. Why, one the younger drivers asked, hadn't Reutemann simply put Piquet in the wall? "I mean, that was all he had to do - and he'd won the World Championship..." It was futile, but I tried to explain that Carlos, with all his integrity, would never contemplate anything of that kind. This was a man who took pride in his profession, after all, who put his crash helmet on the window-sill in his bedroom, so that he would see it as soon as he awoke in the morning.
A man of complexities, too. He came into Formula 1 with Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham team at the beginning of 1972, appropriately in Buenos Aires, and he took pole position in his first Grand Prix, a feat duplicated only by Mario Andretti and Jacques Villeneuve, but it was not until 1974 that he began winning, with dominant displays at Kyalami, the Osterreichring and Watkins Glen. All three were Reutemann displays in extremis, when he simply checked out, leaving everyone else behind.
Towards the end of 1976, however, Carlos had tired of Brabhams now made uncompetitive by heavy and unreliable Alfa Romeo engines, and handed over a cheque to Ecclestone so as to buy himself out of his contract, and move to Ferrari - where his reception from Niki Lauda was less than welcoming. Before the season, I asked Lauda if he regarded Reutemann as a team mate or a rival. "Neither!" came the withering response.
It was only in his second season with Ferrari, 1978, that Carlos found himself teamed with a man with whom he could truly get along. Gilles Villeneuve, for all his ferocity in a race car, was a gentle and humorous fellow in private, and also one of unquestioned principle. Unlike Reutemann, he was an accessible man, who invited friendship, and Carlos would never have a word said against him. "I envy Gilles so much," he once said to me, "because he so much belongs here, in a Formula 1 paddock."
"And you, Carlos? Don't you feel you belong here, too?" The familiar facial contortions. "Mmmmm... sometimes yes, sometimes no." He was not in a chatty mood that day, which was frequently the case. At other times, though, he very clearly wanted to talk, and that was always a little unsettling because it was so unexpected.
In 1978, the Lotus 79s, pioneers of the 'ground effect' era, largely dominated, but Reutemann was superb most of the time, and won four Grands Prix for Ferrari, including the British, which he stole from Lauda in a split-second of breathtaking commitment as the Austrian hesitated behind a backmarker.
After a disastrous move to Lotus in 1979 - "I just couldn't deal with Colin Chapman" - Carlos transferred to Williams, which is where we came in. By all that was just, he should have been World Champion in 1981, when his artistry was never more clearly on view, but only he truly knows what went wrong that day in Vegas. Somehow, it was no real surprise when, a couple of weeks later, he announced his retirement.
It was much more of one when he changed his mind, under pressure from Frank Williams, who had already lost Jones, and had under contract only some semi-unknown named Keke Rosberg. In South Africa, the opening Grand Prix of 1982, Carlos seemed to have shaken off the blues, and took brilliant second place, beaten only by Alain Prost's Renault turbo.
In Brazil, though, Rosberg was the Williams front man, and Reutemann looked ordinary. A couple of days later, he told Williams that his first instinct had been right: he was stopping, and this time his jaw was set.
A year or so later I asked him why. At the time of his decision, the dispute in the Falklands was blowing up, and some had extravagantly suggested that the well-connected Reutemann had known the likely outcome of events, and had considered his position - an Argentine in an obsessively British team - untenable, a potential embarrassment both to Williams and himself.
It had been nothing to do with that, Carlos insisted at once, although he allowed that it would have made for a very difficult situation. "If you want to know," he said, "I was suddenly very tired. The atmosphere had changed so much in racing. It wasn't fun any more, like once it had been.
"The other thing was, I hated the ground effect cars, which were like go-karts to drive. Always I raced because I liked to drive quickly, and to be very precise with the car, which you couldn't do with those things. I had a competitive car, yes, so there was still pleasure in a good result, but none at all in the actual driving."
Reutemann, though, did not dwell on his World Championship lost. "That part of my life is finished," he said. "As far as the championship is concerned, I always said that if it happened, fine, it happened. But if not, well, the sun would still rise in the east, and set in the west. Now there are other things to think about. Business. Politics, maybe."
Politics, certainly. Compared with most racing drivers, Carlos was always an unusually sophisticated man, in that he had a strong awareness of a world beyond motor racing, beyond himself. When based in Europe, during his Formula 1 days, he was invariably well abreast of political happenings, not least in Britain. His heart was firmly in his homeland, and when he retired there was never a doubt that he would return for good to Argentina. There he soon immersed himself in the politics of his province, Santa Fe. As a national hero, the governorship was his for the taking.
In 1995, when F1 returned briefly to Argentina, he took a ride in a Ferrari on the opening day of practice, and a lot of fingers were crossed. It was pouring down, and everyone knew he had never liked the rain. More to the point, he hadn't been near a Formula 1 car for 13 years, let alone one with a semi-automatic gearbox, and he didn't know this new Buenos Aires circuit.
After three or four laps, they waved him in, figuring that was probably enough, but Reutemann was always good at looking the other way. Finally, after 11 laps, he stopped, took off his helmet, and sat there in the cockpit a minute or so, savouring re-acquaintance with a loved one. When he stepped out, he was smiling, and he smiled a long time. His 53rd birthday beckoned, and still he looked like the racing driver from central casting.
He had taken to the track after the end of the first practice session, and those watching might have believed it was Gerhard Berger or Jean Alesi out there. Despite the glassy surface, he didn't spin the car once, and his best lap was actually the 11th fastest of the day. "Amazing," mused John Watson. "The same style, same timing, same flair...it's all there still."
"Give him a bit of time to get acclimatised," reckoned Bernie Ecclestone, Carlos's one-time employer, "and he'd qualify in the top 10, no problem. It's the old thing: if you can do it, you never lose it - and he really could do it."
So he could. The mystery was why he didn't do it all the time, and only he can answer that.
True enough, JV does have a terrible record in his home Grand Prix, but I don't think there's any great mystery about it. He finished second to Williams-Renault team mate Damon Hill in 1996, his first season, and that's been about the sum of it.
Why? The following year he qualified on the front row, alongside Michael Schumacher, but crashed at the notorious final ess-bend at the end of lap two, admitting he had been anxious that Michael had been getting away from him too fast. In '98 he spent five laps in the pits, having a new rear wing fitted (after the original had been knocked off by an errant backmarker), and finished 10th, and in '99 - now in a BAR - he once more hit the wall at the last turn, as also did Schumacher and Damon Hill. Three World Champions off at the same point...
Last year Jacques qualified his BAR a superb sixth at Montreal, but tangled with Ralf Schumacher in the race, and this time around he lost much of the first day after crashing on Friday morning, following a suspension failure. In the race, his launch control failed at the start, dropping way down the field, and ultimately he retired with a broken driveshaft.
These things happen. All drivers have their bogey tracks, and it just happens that perhaps Villeneuve's is in his own country. Remember that Graham Hill, for example, won the Monaco Grand Prix five times, yet never once won the British...
Thanks for your sympathy about my wallet - as a matter of fact, the same thing happened in Austria, so that's twice in three races! Also twice in 30 years, so maybe the world is indeed changing. Still...
It's a pretty good crop of rookies this year, I think, although I keep in mind the words of a retired World Champion: "It's not surprising they look so good - the bloody things are too easy to drive..."
At the moment, after Juan Montoya's two crashes in two races, it is fashionable to slag him off, to say he is overrated, and so on, but I remain convinced that here is a really great driver of the future, with talent to throw away. He has obviously far less experience - of the circuits, of grooved tyres, of the whole way F1 works - than his team mate, and at present he is trying to make up for that by over-driving. Hence the shunts. As Jackie Stewart said in Canada, "It's a clear example of the old dictum: you have to go slower to go faster..."
Kimi Raikkonen, too, looks quite exceptional: neat, very few mistakes, extremely quick. Doubtless a central figure in the seasons to come, and the most impressive raw rookie I have seen for a number of years.
Fernando Alonso, too, looks highly promising - I was particularly impressed with his flair and confidence through the streets of Monte Carlo, and Enrique Bernoldi, for all he was criticised for holding up David Coulthard for so long, did a very fine job in the same place, making no mistakes despite the pressure of a McLaren in his mirrors. Luciano Burti has had a messy time of it, starting the season with Jaguar, and then being transferred to Prost. Not by any means another Montoya or Raikkonen, I don't think, but there were times at Jaguar when he really wasn't too far from Eddie Irvine.
All in all, the 'Class of '01' looks pretty impressive, I'd say.
No, I don't think for a moment that Mika Hakkinen has 'lost it'. That said, I don't get the impression he's quite as pepped up as he was, but maybe that's inevitable, given that he's a twice World Champion, with nine points on the board after nine races!
Hakkinen's been in F1 a long time now, and it must be very difficult to motivate yourself through the long haul of the summer when you don't have the vaguest chance of winning the title again. I'm not making excuses for him, you understand, but it's a phenomenon I have seen before. Let's face it, Mika's luck has been truly atrocious this year - if his clutch had lasted another mile in Barcelona, he would have squarely beaten Schumacher, and that would have done wonders for his morale.
There have been occasions this year - notably Imola - where I thought he showed rather less fight than I would have expected, and I still don't know why he parked it at Monaco, having run second to Michael, and closed to within a second of him. He said the car's handling felt 'peculiar', but members of the McLaren team have told me they could find nothing whatever awry with it.
Will Hakkinen race next year? At the moment, that's what I'm expecting, not least because there's been no word of McLaren looking for a new driver, but it wouldn't altogether surprise me if he were to quit. Whatever, I don't see him continuing for very much longer.
Having said all that, neither would it surprise me at all to see him win several races before this season finishes. He remains a great racing driver.
If you have a question, send it to AskNigel@haynet.com.
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