• Rewind to ... 1974

Don't cry for me Argentina

Alan Henry February 23, 2010
The drooping airbox on the Brabham BT44 seemed set to spell disaster for Carlos Reutemann at his home race © Sutton Images

Possibly the most significant aspect of the 1974 Argentine Grand Prix at Buenos Aires was that it was attended by President Juan Peron who the previous year had returned to his native country after being in exile for 18 years. Motor racing had been a key element in Argentina's sporting psyche ever since the great days of Juan Manuel Fangio back in the 1950s, but now it fell to their latest hero, Carlos Reutemann, to rise to the occasion, driving the striking Gordon Murray-designed Brabham BT44 owned and fielded by Bernie Ecclestone.

The race took place on January 13 over 53 laps of the 3.709-mile Circuito No.15 in the Parc Almirante Brown in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, a total race distance of 196.55 miles. The track basked in the customary searing heat throughout the race weekend, but Reutemann hardly proved to be the threat in qualifying he would be in the race. Niggling little problems kept him off the front-running pace, including a spell when his BT44 was stranded out on the circuit when a fuel line came apart.

Ronnie Peterson's near-vintage Lotus 72 slammed round to take pole position with a best lap of 1:50.78, so Reutemann's 1:51.55, sixth fastest, was not much to get excited about.

Pre-race testing in Buenos Aires had seen Gordon Murray's innovative mind produce his first lightweight 'qualifying car', the significance of which - theoretically capable of running beneath the legal weight limit - would only explode some years later. "It had no alternator and we took off the crankshaft damper from the engine to reduce inertia for better acceleration, and several other weight saving changes," explained Murray. "Subsequently (Cosworth) DFVs often raced without their crankshaft dampers, although Cosworth said 'no way' at the time."

At the start Peterson bounded into the lead, but Reutemann took advantage of a first-corner tangle which eliminated the Shadows of Peter Revson and Jean-Pierre Jarier, slamming through into second place on the opening lap. Third time round and the crystal clear message was relayed to those in the Brabham pit by a thunderous roar from the huge crowd. Reutemann had nipped through into the lead and from then on the opposition seemed to be history.

Despite not winning Carlos Reutemann still received a hero's welcome from the crowd and President Juan Peron © Sutton Images
The compact white Brabham simply motored away into the distance, pulling away at around a second a lap. The race seemed over, the attention switching to the tussle for second place. But sadly, things were about to go badly wrong for Reutemann.

At around two-thirds distance the BT44's airbox began to come apart and Murray, watching from the infield, realised that this would cost him about 200rpm on the straight. Worse was to follow.

During the race-morning warm-up there had been a major panic to change a seized wheel bearing, with the result that the Brabham team's fuelling-up routine had not been followed as scrupulously as usual. In the normal course of events the tank would be pumped out after the warm-up, then refilled with the precise number of five-gallon churns to make up the correct total. In the rush to change the wheel bearing the BT44 had simply been topped up by guesswork and, in the subsequent cold light of day, it seemed as though the contents of one of those churns had not been returned to the tank of Reutemann's car.

Stuttering badly, Reutemann's slowing Brabham was overtaken by Denny Hulme's McLaren and Niki Lauda's Ferrari on the penultimate lap and then, within a mile-and-a-half of the chequered flag, finally stopped on the circuit, out of fuel completely. He finished third.

"I worked out the consumption afterwards," said Murray, "and even taking into account of the consumption if the engine's mixture control had slipped onto full-rich, the only realistic mathematical assumption pointed to that one churn of fuel being left out."

By any standards, it was a bitter end to a superb drive by a brilliant racing driver. Reutemann would never again come so close to a home victory in the nine seasons of his F1 career which followed.