The kid and the Porsche hero
- Mattijs Diepraam, Felix Muelas
- 8W November 2000 issue
- 1962 Mexican GP - Mexico's fatal arrival on the world scene, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
- Phil Hill - America's first World Drivers Champion, by Felix Muelas/Mattijs Diepraam
1962 German GP (5 August 1962)
There are many things that can be said about Ricardo Rodriguez - and most of them have been said already.
Essentially a sixties Stefan Bellof, Ricardo Rodríguez de la Vega will always be remembered as the wild and fearless Mexican who entered Grand Prix racing with a bang to die just over a year later in his inaugural home GP. As with Bellof, and for that matter Tony Brise and Chris Bristow as well, their statistics are hardly a reflection of the thought common at the time that a potential future World Champion had been prematurely taken away from us.
Ricardo, known in his native country as El Chamaco, is also the younger brother of Pedro and widely regarded as the most gifted of the two - although some people beg to differ with that opinion, claiming that Ricardo was daring and foolhardy to an extent that would never have allowed him to mature into a solid championship contender. And the sad facts seem to bear out that Ricardo, though probably having been inherently quicker than Pedro, was also much more ragged and loose in his driving style as well as his paddock behaviour and had less mechanical sympathy for his cars. Some contemporaries even claim there was a fearlessness "of disturbing proportions" in Ricardo. It cost him his life at the tender age of 21, trying to snatch pole in the dying minutes of qualifying for the inaugural Mexican GP at Magdalena-Mixhuca. Doing a one-off in Rob Walker's Lotus he ran wide on the daunting 180-degree Peraltada corning and clipped the banking. There is still argument over whether the fragile Lotus suspension had once again collapsed or that Ricardo simply overdid it. With the knowledge that Ricardo was hard on his material and that he had the habit of crashing quite a lot, a combination of both seems to be the most probable answer. The car and the road just couldn't handle what Ricardo had in mind.
Maybe the fact that because of his youth Ricardo was rejected a Le Mans entry in 1958 contributed to his desperation to show up the Europeans.
After that false start in 1958, the two brothers came to Europe in 1960, through their connection with the US Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti, whose North American Racing Team was probably Ferrari's best privateer sportscar outfit. And it was through sportscars that Ricardo was invited to join the Prancing Horse's attack of the tragic 1961 Italian GP. Ricardo had his best day at the Sarthe in 1960, sharing one of NART's Testa Rossa cars with André Pilette. Following home the lead car of Gendebien/Frère, Ricardo and André finished an excellent second. Then going with NART to the Sebring 12 Hours, the Rodriguez brothers took a marvellous third.
Then came the invitation by Enzo Ferrari to join the Scuderia at the Italian GP. Immediately, he set the world on fire by claiming a front-row position, just one tenth shy of the pole time set by title favourite Wolfgang von Trips and outpacing Ferrari regulars Ginther and Hill. Ricardo did not get involved in Taffy's tragic Parabolica accident but had to retire on lap 13 due to a broken fuel pump. His performance had been duly noted, though. So for 1962, Rodriguez was enrolled as a full-time member to the Ferrari squad but struggled as much as his team mates, although he took a fourth at Spa, his best career result, narrowly trailing Phil Hill (see our picture) but two full minutes off run-away victor Jim Clark. In spite of this encouraging result Ferrari decided to temporarily pull out of Grand Prix racing, skipping Rouen altogether and running a single car for Hill at Silverstone. In the meantime Ricardo raced Ferrari's sportscars, sharing with Pedro in the Nürburgring 1000kms, and winning the Targa Florio (with Mairesse and Gendebien) and the Paris 1000km at Montlhéry.
Also at the 'Ring, Ferrari was back with a full four-car operation for the German GP, entering sharknoses for Hill, Rodriguez, Baghetti and Bandini, with Mairesse in a fifth car for Monza. All they managed was a 6th for Ricardo at the 'Ring (with Baghetti an even more distant 10th, almost a whole 'Ring lap down), while their Monza attack was preluding BRM's disastrous multi-car entries of the early seventies. Unbelievably, their 'guest' driver Mairesse was fastest in 10th, with Ricardo following closely in 11th, while Ferrari's primary hopes Hill, Baghetti and Bandini were all languishing down the back. It was all very and totally embarrassing, so Ferrari quite understandably wanted to spare himself the disgrace of beating thoroughly beaten in the overseas events in the USA and South Africa.
Ferrari's withdrawal inadvertently caused Ricardo's premature death, as it meant that the Scuderia would also not be sending any cars to the first Mexican GP, a non-title event on the new Magdalena-Mixhuca track. It forced Rodriguez to team up with Rob Walker to race Rob's Lotus at the event. Some say the real cause of the accident lay in Ricardo's unfamiliarity with the oversteering Lotus while the Ferrari suffered from perennial understeer. Others say it was the bumpy Peraltada surface that served as a launching platform for the car. In all accounts there is no denying that Rodriguez was engaged in an overly ambitious entry speed. Both the car's qualities and the track's properties merely turned the problem into an acute danger which Rodriguez wasn't able to alleviate in time. As a result, his brother Pedro retired from racing for a while.
Although Ricardo seemed the better short-term prospect then Pedro, the older Rodriguez came into his stride in the late sixties to become a great sportscar racer and excellent F1 driver. At the time Ricardo was religiously fanatic in trying to beat the Europeans, Pedro treated his racing like a hobby. Having left university he initially set up a car importing business and was nowhere near as focused on racing as Ricardo was.
At the end of 1963, almost a year after his brother's death, Pedro made his own F1 debut, guesting for Lotus in the North American races. A year later, he was back for his home GP, this time taking up the offer from Ferrari he had refused back in 1961. But it took him another two years before he developed into a regular F1 driver. However, he won his very first race as a Grand Prix regular, aboard the cumbersome Cooper-Maserati no less, immediately singling himself out as a future prospect. Pedro won two more F1 events, the 1970 Belgian GP and the 1971 Spring Trophy, both for BRM, but it's his sportscar career that is still capturing the imagination.
Pedro taking time to develop himself was totally opposite of the approach chosen by his younger brother, as was his delicate touch. His car-handling abilities were mesmeric, as his amazing wet-weather performances came to show. More than anyone else he knew how to explore his car's limits and invariably was untouchable when it rained. The people that were there watching Pedro's progress during the rain-soaked 1970 Spa 1000kms, all say the Mexican taming the 917's brutal power with unrivalled finesse was the best racing they ever saw. However, Pedro could also do the stuff his brother was made of, overtaking Chris Amon's 512P on the outside at Paddock during the BOAC 1000 at Brands Hatch, storming through the field. He won.
One of the best Pedro stories is the BRM driver lining up for the start of the 1971 Monaco GP - the 40th anniversary edition. Here is honorary starter Louis Chiron, showing the 30-second sign when, with his usual luck, Chris Amon started waving his arms. Unseen by the 72-year-old the Chris' mechanics jumped on the track to roll away the Matra between the front-row cars of Stewart and Ickx. Immediately Pedro sneaked into Amon's empty spot on the second row, sending the Old Fox into a frenzy. For several seconds, during which the entire field was starting to increase their revs, Chiron tried all kinds of hand gestures in order to have Pedro return to his rightful grid position but Pedro pretended not to understand any of the waving. And so a disconsolate Chiron was obliged to flag away the confused drivers…
Los Hermanos Rodríguez easily remain Mexico's best racing drivers ever. The fact is epitomized in the renaming of Mexico City's Magdalena-Mixhuca track, which today is known as the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Before Pedro died, running wide on the Peraltada banking, the track bore Ricardo's name alone, since immediately after his fatal accident the Autodromo was named in his honour. Incidentally, in its second life on the Grand Prix calendar, during the turbo era, the Peraltada continued to be a challenge, even to the very greatest. In practice for the 1991 Mexican GP, Ayrton Senna suffered one of the most spectacular crashes of the nineties.
Magdalena-Mixhuca is the "highest" race track on earth, situated about 2200m above sea level. The track, which closely followed Monza lines, was opened on 20 December 1959 (here is a view of the track on its opening day) and saw its very first event, the Mexico City 500 miles, won by Pedro Rodriguez in a Volvo, who beat Moises Solana and Ricardo Rodriguez, both on Alfa Romeos. So the claim that a lack of track knowledge by Ricardo on a virtually new track caused his accident doesn't seem to be valid, as Ricardo raced there almost three years before. Furthermore, just five weeks before that fatal qualifying smash, Ricardo had raced a F Junior Cooper in the Premio Independencia on September 23, a race Moises Solana won ahead of Ricardo and Solana's brother José Antonio, one of the many drivers to come from the Solana dynasty that is still very much active on the Mexican scene today.
But what else is less commonly known about the boy racer?
Well, what about Ricardo and Pedro's dad being part of a group of motorcycling acrobats! If there's anything that caused the two youngsters to develop their need for speed, it's probably this high-voltage background. And so, yes, at the age of 10, Ricardo won Mexico's third Elementary School Cycling Championship, putting him on course for a sporting life that started on the two wheels he had become so familiar with at home. At 14 years of age Ricardo already was a Mexican bike champion before he went off on his education in Illinois, returning to Mexico in 1957 to start his racing career. From there, we all know what happened.
Reader's Why by Josh Lintz
To most critics, twenty-year-old Jenson Button was the revelation of the 2000 Grand Prix season. That young kid was lapping like a pro on most occasions, but he wasn't the first F1 driver deemed to be "underage". Rubens Barrichello was only 20 when he started the South African GP in 1993. Mike Thackwell was 19 when he attempted a start in the 1980 Canadian GP. Bruce McLaren was quite young (20) when he started his career (in the 1958 German GP or the 1959 Monaco GP, depending on which source you consult), as well as a few others. Ricardo Rodriguez was perhaps the most impressive supernova to burst onto the Grand Prix scene, and maybe his debut race was to tell the tale of his short and tragic GP career.
The Rodriguez brothers came from a wealthy family, so Ricardo and Pedro were able to show their talent to the world at a young age. They were racing motorcycles by age 11, into racing cars by age 14. In 1958, Ricardo had his own Porsche RS, and they tried to enter it at Le Mans, but were rejected. The Automobile Club de l'Ouest claimed that 16-year-olds were too young for the 24-hour event. When he made his F1 start at Monza for the 1961 Italian Grand Prix, he had stunned the Ferrari fans by qualifying his Ferrari 156 second on the grid. Ricardo was a mere 0.1 seconds away from von Trips' pole-winning sister car. He was nineteen years old, absolutely fearless and confident in his belief that nothing could touch him. In the race, he retired, but he had certainly left an impression on Enzo Ferrari. That was the race in which von Trips had crashed fatally.
In 1962 he was a full-time member of the Maranello F1 squad, but the team was now entering an uncompetitive time and the best he could manage was a 4th at Spa (after a great tussle with Phil Hill's 3rd placed car), and 6th at the Nürburgring. However, he drove a Dino 246SP to victory in the Targa Florio, sharing with future F1 Ferrari driver Willy Mairesse and Olivier Gendebien. Ricardo clearly had a glittering career mapped out ahead of him, although many people felt that he was in the wrong environment. Young and inexperienced drivers so frequently found themselves under intense pressure too early in their careers at Ferrari. He was slightly irked when Ferrari declined to send a car to contest the first non-title Mexican Grand Prix at the end of the season, but fixed up a run in Rob Walker's Lotus 24 instead.
Annoyed that John Surtees had posted a quicker time in the similar Lotus he had borrowed from Jack Brabham, Ricardo overdid things as he tried to redress the situation, slamming over the outer lip of the banked Peraltada right-hander just before the start/finish line. He suffered multiple injuries and died shortly afterwards. His brother Pedro had witnessed the accident and stayed away from racing for a while.
Despite this, Pedro turned up at the 1963 Daytona 1000kms event, and won it with Phil Hill in a Ferrari 250GTO, but still raced "part-time", accepting drives as they came to him. In 1967, he was offered a one-off drive in John Cooper's aging Maserati-powered T81, he graciously took up the offer to drive in the South African GP. The Mexican recorded one of the most famous of Grand Prix victories. From then on, he was a full-time racing driver. His obsession every race offer got the better of Pedro, too. BRM could have prevented him from driving an Interserie race at the Norisring, but it was normal for drivers to race elsewhere on off-weekends from Grand Prix. When Pedro's Ferrari swerved a little too much to overtake a backmarker, it crashed in to a wall and burned. Pedro died later that day. As a tribute to the Rodriguez brothers' effort to motorsports, Daytona International Speedway named an infield turn after them.