Memories are made of this

During a long and rewarding career in Formula 1, Jo Ramirez amassed an incredible collection of personal mementoes – something he wants his family to preserve for the benefit of future generations. Here are a few edited highlights
Writer Rob Widdows

The 2013 Motor Sport Hall of Fame night at the Royal Opera House in London will be remembered by a great many of us for the auction in aid of the Grand Prix Mechanics Trust. And most notably for the sale of a pair of gloves.

These fetched £22,000, raising more money than Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull steering wheel. Why? Because they once belonged to Ayrton Senna, who wore them during his third world championship season in 1991. The red and white OMP gloves were donated by GPMT trustee and former McLaren F1 team co-ordinator Jo Ramirez, a close friend of the great Brazilian.

During an extraordinary career spanning five decades, Jo has been collecting memorabilia from the Grand Prix teams for whom he worked, first as a mechanic and latterly in team management. He retired in 2001, since when he has never revealed the sensational contents of his collection, now catalogued and preserved for future generations to relish.

“I will never sell anything, not even one piece,” he tells me, surrounded by helmets from Senna and Prost, a stunning array of steering wheels, Senna’s competition licence, driving boots and overalls, and – his most prized possession – a model of a McLaren-Honda MP4/6 made entirely from silver. “I did not collect these things to make money, I wanted them as memories of my career, and they give me great pleasure whenever I look at them. I gave the gloves to the auction because I have been a trustee of the GPMT for 10 years and during that time I haven’t made a big contribution. So when Jackie [Stewart] approached me I said yes, because it was a good cause. Mechanics are well paid now, many with good benefits and pensions, but that certainly was not the case in the old days when I started out.”

Now he is retired, Jo misses the cut and thrust of F1. He goes to the odd race and keeps in touch with old friends at Woking, but now he has a chance to reflect on a long and hugely successful career.

“Yes, I have nothing to look forward to,” he says, rather ruefully, “but I am writing about each Grand Prix for a serious Mexican newspaper called The Reforma. Obviously they have a huge interest in Sergio Pérez at McLaren and Esteban Gutiérrez at Sauber, after all those years without a Mexican in F1. I was involved in Carlos Slim’s ‘Scuderia Telmex’ academy for young drivers and seeing Sergio in the McLaren is just so exciting for us, a dream come true. I’ve also done some ‘punditry’ for TV and this year I have podcasts to do as well. I would watch the races anyway, so writing about them is a real pleasure.”

Jo is the keeper of a truly sensational collection of motor racing memories. In the future, however, he hopes that his family will preserve them for generations to come. Last year he came close to winning the retro revival Carrera Panamericana road race in Mexico, but thwarted by mechanical trouble right at the end took the second step on the podium. Perhaps his speed was down to the red driving boots he used. They once belonged to some very famous Brazilian feet.

Ricardo Rodriguez helmet

In the beginning Jo was a childhood friend of fellow Mexicans Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, following them to Europe and helping them in their early careers. “Yes, we grew up together in Mexico and shared a passion for speed and fast cars. I have one of Ricardo’s famous yellow helmets, complete with his goggles and driving gloves. When you look at modern helmets you are reminded of how little protection the drivers had in the 1950s and ’60s. And the gloves are string-backed, like you might have had for driving a road car. I also have a poster, using an image of me as the only Mexican in F1 at that time, of a film that was going to be made about Pedro. Maybe it will be made now that we have two Mexicans in Formula 1 and the possibility of a Grand Prix there again.”

Ayrton Senna’s gloves

“It was weird, but when the GPMT auction bidding was going up and up, I was thinking about how finickety Ayrton was about his gloves. He was very particular about everything he wore, his overalls, his shoes, his helmet and his gloves. He always insisted that the stitching was on the outside of the gloves – most are done on the inside – because he didn’t want any unnecessary friction on his hands. The padding had to be thicker in the right hand for changing gears and he didn’t want any padding on the back of the gloves to give his hands more room in the cockpit.

“He didn’t like long gloves up his arms, unlike Prost who preferred them to cover his forearms. With helmets, Ayrton hated anyone touching them or moving them around, so we had a ‘show’ helmet in the truck if anyone wanted photographs. Nowadays the drivers change their helmets all the time and use four or five different ones in a season.”

McLaren 1/12th scale model

On Sunday September 30, 2001, after Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard took first and third in the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis, McLaren threw a spectacular party for the retirement of their team co-ordinator after 18 years. All the big names were there to say farewell to a very popular man and, as the party drew to a close, Ron Dennis stepped forward to present Jo with what is now his proudest possession.

“You know, I couldn’t believe what they gave me,” he says, smiling at the memory. “It was a 1/12th scale model of an MP4/6 made entirely from silver with removable body panels and a staggering amount of detail. It was made by silver specialist Richard Fox. It took him more than 3000 hours and every time I look at it I am amazed. This was the car that won both 1991 World Championships with five wins for Ayrton Senna and one for Gerhard Berger. The silver model has won many awards and been shown at exhibitions round the world, an absolutely fantastic present. That car means so much to me, it was one of our best years, and to be given it by the team was very special.”

Steering wheel collection

Perhaps the most evocative pieces in Jo’s collection are steering wheels, from Jim Clark’s Lotus to Alain Prost’s McLaren. To touch them and remember the men who raced with them is a little bit special. “I started by collecting steering wheels,” he says. “They are something tangible, like a fantastic instrument the driver has to play. Nowadays, of course, the steering wheels are totally different, like something from an aeroplane, so many buttons, and the drivers have so little lock to play with, not even having to cross their arms.

“I wish now that I had put more things away. When I worked for John Wyer on the Ford GT40 we used to throw so much stuff away, big things like gearboxes. It makes me cry to think about all the things that were just discarded. The value never entered my head, even when I got steering wheels from people like Jack Brabham, Lorenzo Bandini, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, François Cevert, Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney and then later on Prost and Senna.

Senna's medical certificate & competition licence

“I always looked after this kind of paperwork for Ayrton, and in the early days there was no such thing as a superlicence, so he had to have one from the ruling club in Brazil, plus a medical certificate and an authorisation that confirms you haven’t done anything silly, or been a naughty boy on the track. Then we had to present all three things at each Grand Prix. The ones I have are from the 1988 season, which of course was when Ayrton and Alain totally dominated with the McLaren-Honda MP4/4. We were the ‘untouchables’ that season so the licences are a special part of my collection.”