In the years when Carlos Reutemann competed in Formula One, between 1972 and 1982, the pencil portrait of the Argentine driver printed in the Monaco Grand Prix program memorably described him as possessing le physique d’un seducteur du cinema. Reutemann, who died at age 79, did resemble the popular idea of a South American racing driver: tall, dark-haired, with a strikingly Saturnian face that could turn into a charming smile.
But he had an enigmatic side, a bad mood that could slow down his performances.
Never was this more apparent than the day in Las Vegas when the competitive fire that had brought him to the brink of winning the 1981 world championship seemed disconcertingly extinguished. On a tour of the Caesars Palace hotel’s spacious parking lot, the title was taken from him by Nelson Piquet.
It was his last chance to become the second Argentine to capture the title, after Juan Manuel Fangio, whose five championships in the 1950s had made him a national hero. A few months later, two races into the 1982 season, Reutemann walked away from the sport, offering no explanation for his abrupt decision to end a race that had brought 12 wins in 146 races for Brabham, Ferrari, Lotus and Williams.
No one suspected that in a few years he would embark on the second and equally remarkable chapter of his life. In 1991 he was elected governor of Santa Fe, his native province, followed by the membership of the national senate. At times, especially before the 2011 general election, there was talk that he was preparing to campaign for the presidency, but the hopes of his supporters were not fulfilled after his retirement. “I saw something that I didn’t like,” he said, offering no further explanation.
Born in Santa Fe de Flora Molina, of Italian descent, and her husband, Enrique Reutemann, a rancher of mixed Spanish and German blood, began their competitive career in saloon cars. After showing promise, in 1970 he followed in Fangio’s footsteps when the Automóvil Club Argentina sent him to Europe, sponsoring a season behind the wheel of a Formula Two Brabham. A second season showed better results, taking him to second place in the final championship standings behind Ronnie peterson from Sweden, already a star in F1.
Reutemann graduated from the upper level in 1972 when he was hired by Bernie Ecclestone, the new owner of the Brabham team. The partnership got off to a promising start when Reutemann started the first race of the season, his home grand prix in Buenos Aires, from pole position. Seventh place in the race itself was a more accurate indication of results to come, with fourth place in Canada as his best result. There was little improvement the following season until the final round at Watkins Glen, New York, gave him his first podium, in third place.
In 1974, following Ecclestone’s hiring of the brilliant young South African designer Gordon Murray, the new Brabham BT44 led Reutemann to his first grand prix victory in Kyalami, South Africa. Further victories followed at Österreichring and Watkins Glen, where he dominated the race from pole position. There would only be one victory, at the Nürburgring in Germany, in 1975, but a series of top three results allowed him to finish third in the championship.
The team’s switch from the dependable Cosworth V8 engine to the temperamental Alfa Romeo flat-12 turned 1976 into a disaster. When Niki Lauda nearly died in a severe accident at the Nürburgring, Reutemann accepted Enzo Ferrari’s invitation to leave Brabham and replace the Austrian for the final races of the season.
A furious Lauda, hurt by the team’s lack of faith in his ability to recover from his injuries, returned in time for the Italian Grand Prix, forcing Ferrari to submit three cars instead of two. Lauda qualified fifth, two spots ahead of Reutemann, and finished in a heroic fourth place, five spots ahead of his new teammate.
The two made an uneasy pairing on the Italian national team for the 1977 season. An early victory in Brazil for Reutemann’s Ferrari 312T2 proved to be a false dawn, as three victories in a similar car helped lead Lauda to his second title. before, still bitter about his deal, the Austrian left to join Brabham with two runs to play.
That left Reutemann as the team’s number one in 1978. The victories in Rio de Janeiro, Long Beach in California, Brands Hatch and Watkins Glen brought him back to third place in the final championship standings, but at the end of the season. it was announced. which would be replaced by Jody scheckter.
A switch to Lotus for 1979 went awry when the last version of the previous year’s title-winning car dropped a couple of second places but didn’t win. A disappointed Reutemann accepted an offer for 1980 from Frank Williams, whose nimble FW07, designed by Patrick Head, led him to victory in Monaco and another third place in the championship. After victories in Brazil and Belgium, the 1981 title seemed to be his as he started the final round from pole position in Las Vegas, only for his hopes to be withered in the desert heat. He finished eighth, blaming handling problems and missing a fourth gear.
After returning to run the family ranch, he turned to politics.
Representing the Justicialista Party, founded by Juan and Evita Perón, he served as governor of the state (1991-95 and 1999-2003), after which he was elected to the National Senate, winning new terms in 2009 and 2015.
Known throughout Argentina by his childhood nickname of “Lole,” he was still a senator, now representing the center-right coalition known as Cambiemos, when he was admitted to a New York hospital for liver cancer surgery in 2017.
His first marriage, to María “Mimicha” Bobbio, a regular presence on the pit wall during his years in Europe, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Verónica Ghio, whom he married in 2006, the two daughters from his first marriage, Cora and Mariana, and a grandson.