Pedro's Twin Peaks

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The Mexican’s too-brief career reached a high at Spa and Brands in 1970

I met Pedro Rodriguez de la Vega just once, although I watched him with huge enthusiasm from the spectator areas for the last couple of years of a career that ended, abruptly and tragically, when he crashed Swiss entrant Herbert Muller’s Ferrari 512M in a minor-league Interserie sports car race at the Norisring on July 11, 1971 just a week before the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

The fact that Pedro, by then one of the world’s most versatile racing drivers, should have wanted to ‘fill in’ a spare weekend on the calendar by driving this rather careworn private Ferrari in such an inconsequential event said everything about the man. There’s no cliche about it. He just lived to race.

It was on another such weekend I got to speak to him, away from the bright lights of Formula 1 or the JW Gulf Porsche 917 which he drove so brilliantly in endurance events. It was a month or so before he died and he was driving the BRM P154 Can-Am car in another Interserie race at Zolder on June 6. I was there reporting for Motoring News and remember that Pedro was cordial, slightly formal, but also rather quiet and introspective.

He radiated his own charisma but at the same time seemed to be a person who did not want to make a fuss. He just seemed to me like a regular guy, unfazed by the fact that, after qualifying the BRM seventh, he had to withdraw from the race due to a problem with one of the Chevy V8’s cylinder liners. As I recall, he was sitting at the back of the pits reading a book while the mechanics toiled away on the recalcitrant machine. By then he had had good times and bad with the struggling Bourne marque, but he showed no annoyance that the Can-Am car had let him down. After all, it was BRM which had given him the tools for his greatest year — 1970.

His rise had been dramatic rather than consistent. A wealthy father indulged both Pedro and brother Ricardo, two years younger, with first ‘bikes and then cars to race, and they were only 20 and 18 when Luigi Chinetti paired them for Le Mans in 1960 in a NART Ferrari 250TR. Their impressive drive took Ricardo to Ferrari, only to be killed in Rob Walker’s Lotus 24 practising for the ’62 Mexican GP.

After one-off drives for Lotus and Ferrari Pedro finally got a seat with the Cooper-Maserati squad, winning on his debut in the 1967 South African GP. That brought him a place in ’68 with BRM, though two seconds were not enough for the team and for ’69 he had to make do with one-off outings for Parnell-BRM and Ferrari.

Then in 1970 BRM pulled itself together and the superb P153 gave Rodriguez a crack at some serious results.

The P153 was genuinely quick from the outset, but painfully unreliable. At Kyalami he was delayed by a misfire and finished ninth. At Jarama his car was withdrawn after team-mate Jackie Oliver’s sister machine broke a suspension upright and T-boned Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari into a flaming wreck midway round the opening lap.

“Jackie came back to the pits and begged me to call Pedro in to save his life,” recalled Tim Parnell, who’d moved to BRM as team manager with the Mexican. “So I did, and Pedro went bloody ballistic. He just went completely mad, telling me that he’d driven enough sports cars with bits falling off at 200mph at Le Mans to know what risks were involved. It was one of the few occasions when I saw him really unhappy.”

He was sixth at Monaco, after which came his day of days with the now Yardley-liveried BRM at the most challenging track on the calendar.

Jackie Stewart had talked it over with Ken Tyrrell and they agreed that if it rained at Spa, scene of the Scot’s frightening accident in the 1966 Belgian GP, then he would not take the start in the Tyrrell March 701. But the Ardennes weather stayed fine and he qualified his 701 on pole with a lap in 3min 28sec. Alongside him on the front row were Jochen Rindt’s Lotus 49C (3min 30.1sec) and Chris Amon in the works STP March 701 (3min 30.3sec).

“Stewart went into the lead midway round the opening lap,” recalled Amon to me later, “while I fought my way past Jochen and went past Jackie midway round lap two. We were all strung out down towards Malmedy when I looked in my mirrors and saw a white car tucked in behind Rindt in fourth place.

“I remember thinking, ‘who the hell is that?’ Then the white car nipped past Stewart and, as we went down the Masta straight, it drew level and I saw it was Rodriguez in the BRM. He was running really quickly, driving extremely well.”

Amon admitted that he wasn’t too worried, reasoning that the BRM was unlikely to last. “But it soon became clear I had a big problem,” he said. “My March [with its Cosworth DFV engine] would pull 9800rpm down the Masta, but it was being towed up to 10,200rpm behind that BRM. I did get past him just once, slipping through on the inside of La Source, but the damned thing was back past me by the time we got to the bridge at Eau Rouge.

“From then on I managed to get my front wheels level with his rears a couple of times on the Masta, but he beat me in the end by a couple of seconds. My only consolation is that he’d had to battle his way past Rindt and Stewart before he could have a crack at me.”

Rodriguez developed into something of an Anglophile. He lived in semi-rural contentment at Bray-on-Thames, drove an elderly Bentley 51 and frequently wore a deerstalker.

Jackie Oliver was Pedro’s team-mate at BRM in 1970. Some years later, long after Pedro’s death, Oliver learned that it was Rodriguez who supported Jackie’s recruitment to the JW Gulf Porsche team as successor to the underperforming Leo Kinnunen for 1971.

“I got to know a huge number of drivers during my own racing career, and even more when I ran my own team,” says Oliver. “But I can honestly say that Pedro was probably the nicest I encountered. He was one hell of a driver, brilliant in the wet and at Spa in particular.”

The 1970 season was his best, of course, although ’71 promised to be even better with the BRM P160 which he would drive alongside new team-mate Jo Siffert. They were also paired in the JW Gulf Porsche team handling the fearsome 917s in the major endurance races. And although he may have fallen short in some respects as an all-round great, Pedro certainly came close.

Like so many other drivers in history, it was a question of being in the right place at the right time. Yet post-Spa, BRM reverted to type with a run of simply painful unreliability. At Zandvoort Rodriguez had to make two stops to deal with a loose nose cone, finishing 10th, followed by retirements in the French, British and German races. He managed fourth in the Austrian race at the Osterreichring, one of his favourite circuits, then the engine blew in the Italian GP and he was fourth in Canada.

Pedro came close to winning the US GP at Watkins Glen, leading in the closing stages when he made a late stop to top-up with fuel, dropping to second between the Lotus 72s of first-time winner Emerson Fittipaldi and Reine Wisell. Finally, he finished sixth in front of his home crowd at Mexico City.

Yet his exploits with the squat, functionally good-looking BRM were only part of the competitive racing tapestry woven so brilliantly throughout 1970. Ever since sharing the winning JW Gulf Ford GT40 with Lucien Bianchi at Le Mans in 1968, Pedro had been in demand as an endurance racing exponent. And in 1970 he would be invited back to John Wyer’s team, this time to handle the fearsome 5-litre Porsche 917 with which he’d deliver some truly remarkable performances in the brief 18 months he had left.

It was at Brands Hatch, in the pouring rain, that Rodriguez drove what many people believe to this day was his greatest race. At the end of the opening lap of the 1000km endurance event, Barrie Smith’s Lola T70 coupe spun and crashed on the start/finish straight and suddenly yellow flags were waving frantically in all directions.

Yet Rodriguez hardly eased his foot from the throttle, much to the annoyance of Nick Syrett, the respected Clerk of the Course, a few inches from whose shins the pumped-up Mexican came repeatedly as he shaved the Brands pitwall, refusing to heed signals for him to slow down.

Syrett, understandably furious, went to the JW Porsche team manager David Yorke and advised him that he would be black-flagging Pedro immediately, news which was hardly well received by Yorke or his boss John Wyer. But Rodriguez, realising he was well on the wrong side of officialdom, reluctantly brought his light blue Gulf-liveried Porsche into the pitlane where Syrett flipped open its door and delivered a lengthy rebuke to the chastened — but furious — Mexican. He then went out and made up a remarkable five-lap deficit to win.

Two performances in 1970 — that day at Brands and the Belgian GP a couple of months later — are the standout moments of a colourful career. His popularity, even to this day, cannot be questioned. But ultimately how good was he? Last word goes to Stewart, offering the perspective of a man who was the benchmark of his era.

“Pedro was very talented, no question about it,” he says. “Not in the Jimmy Clark, John Surtees or Jack Brabham mould, but very determined and committed. Obviously he was hugely gifted and determined in sports cars, but I don’t think he was world champion material, to be quite honest.

“But he was a very nice man who always attended meetings of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, although sometimes I wondered whether Pedro really felt they concerned him, because he could be a little unpredictable in close traffic and you needed to keep an eye out for him. But he was a good all-rounder who did not often have the luck going his way.”