Consumed by ambition

Despite his supreme talent, those around him always feared the young Ricardo Rodríguez might fall foul of a ferocious drive to win - and not just his own
By Nigel Roebuck

'For sure he would have been World Champion…’

Down the years column inches without number have been given over to young racing drivers who appeared to have it all, yet perished before their potential could be realised, leaving behind only thoughts of what might have been. One thinks of such as Chris Bristow, killed at Spa in 1960, or Stefan Bellof, who died at the same circuit a quarter of a century later, or Tony Brise, whose life was lost in the light ’plane crash that also claimed Graham Hill and other team members in 1975.

There is every reason to believe each of these three would have reached the heights, and another of their number – some would say to a greater degree – was Ricardo Valentin Rodríguez de la Vega, who died 50 years ago, on November 1 1962. The younger brother of Pedro (himself killed in a racing car, in 1971), Ricardo was routinely described as ‘a prodigy’, and for once the word appears not to have been overblown.

Perhaps a single sentence tells it: on his Formula 1 debut in 1961 – in a Ferrari, at Monza, so no pressure – Rodríguez, still five months shy of his 20th birthday, qualified second.

As a kid I remember reading about Ricardo, about this Mexican only a few years older than myself, and he became a sort of mythological figure to me. I read that he and Pedro were the sons of a very rich man, who spent freely on their careers, buying them Corvettes and Ferraris – but could it possibly be the case that, at 15, Ricardo, in a Porsche RS, was competitive with the likes of Ken Miles? Or, come to that, that already he had dispensed with motorcycle racing, having become Mexican Champion?

Well, it was all true. In 1958, now 16, he planned to partner Pedro at Le Mans, but the Automobile Club de l’Ouest turned down his entry on grounds of age. In ’59, though, the Rodríguez brothers indeed shared an OSCA in the 24 Hours, and the year after that, sharing a North American Racing Team Ferrari 250 TR with André Pilette, Ricardo finished second to the factory car of Gendebien/Frère.

Luigi Chinetti, the NART founder and longtime friend of Enzo Ferrari, was a firm believer in the Rodríguez brothers, and not only because of their father’s largesse. Ricardo was rightly regarded as the more naturally talented of the two, and Chinetti persuaded Ferrari that here was a World Champion in the making. At Le Mans in 1961, the brothers raced their NART Testa Rossa hard against the works car of Hill and Gendebien, and were leading when they retired after 15 hours.

If there were anything to make the Old Man rub his hands, it was a youthful charger threatening the established stars, and at the Italian Grand Prix – where Enzo traditionally entered a platoon of cars – the younger Rodríguez was nominated to drive alongside Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips, Richie Ginther and Giancarlo Baghetti. No matter that Ricardo’s car had the less powerful 60-degree V6 engine (compared with the newer 120-degree version): in qualifying he was beaten only by von Trips.

Come race day, Rodríguez retired with engine failure only 13 laps in, and indeed Hill’s was the only Ferrari to finish, Phil winning the race and also clinching the World Championship, for von Trips – his only rival – was killed in an accident on the second lap.

“It was a tough start to Ricardo’s F1 career,” said Jo Ramirez, who had become a close friend. “He got on very well with von Trips, who was always kind to him, and gave him bits of advice – which surprised him, because senior drivers aren’t always like that! He was terribly upset when Wolfgang died…”

Ramirez, at 20 a few months older than Rodríguez, was still in Mexico at that time. The two had met at kart meetings, but while one had plenty of money the other had none; by the end of 1961 Jo had vowed to go to Europe, somehow to find work in motor racing, and through the following year he worked as a gofer for Ferrari – unpaid, save in accommodation and food – and was thus at all the races in 1962 with Ricardo and his wife Sarita. The first such was the Targa Florio, which Rodríguez won, sharing with Gendebien and Mairesse.

Through the ’61 season – the first of the 1.5-litre F1 – Ferrari had been dominant with the V6 ‘sharknose’ cars, but the following year was rather different. In sports car racing Ferrari remained the class of the field, but the Grand Prix cars – still essentially unchanged from the year before – were overwhelmed by superior British chassis, and by new V8 engines from BRM and Coventry-Climax. To make matters even worse, through the summer of ’62 Ferrari was beset by occasional strikes, which meant that some races were missed.

On top of all that, Enzo Ferrari still persisted in his practice of signing more drivers than he had cars, pitting them against each other, so that team leader Hill was the only one sure of having a drive at the next Grand Prix. Rodríguez got along well with all his team-mates, but still it didn’t make for a settled environment for a rookie.

As well as that, a shroud of sadness hung over the ’62 season, for Stirling Moss was gone from the sport after that accident at Goodwood on Easter Monday. “That same day,” said Ramirez, “Ricardo was racing at Pau and finished second to Maurice Trintignant, who was driving Rob Walker’s Lotus. He was happy about that – but then distraught to hear about Stirling, whom he worshipped. It made him very sad – apart from anything else, he so much loved the idea of racing against him.

“Ricardo, you know, was full of charm – one of those people who just gets on with everybody. He was always in a good humour, always laughing. OK, he’d get upset if he didn’t finish a race because his car broke, but later he’d be at the party. He absolutely lived life to the full – whereas Pedro was much more of an introvert, and didn’t really form friendships with other drivers, Ricardo was friends with all of them, not least Jim Clark, of whom he was very fond. He had good relationships with his team-mates, but he wasn’t frightened by them at all – he was quite sure he was quicker than they were.”

He had good reason to feel that way, too. Ferrari may have been off the pace in 1962, but at Spa – a circuit new to him – Rodríguez ran the whole race in company with Hill, who was renowned there, and had won the race the year before. They finished third and fourth, with Ricardo, according to his friend, observing an order to finish behind his team leader.

At the Nürburgring, too, he excelled: if his car allowed him to finish only sixth, he was comfortably the fastest Ferrari driver. The quality, indubitably, was there.

Rodríguez’s bravery – fearlessness, in fact – worried many of his fellow drivers, though, just as with Bristow a couple of years earlier. “I liked Ricardo a lot,” said Hill, “and thought he had tremendous talent – but I also thought, ‘If he lives, I’ll be surprised…’” Even Enzo Ferrari, for all his ruthless willingness to put pressure on his drivers, professed concern for the young man.

In his memoirs – not for nothing entitled My Terrible Joys – he wrote: “I think if he learns to control his enthusiasm, to refine his style, he could have tremendous success. I said to him, ‘Ricardo, I’ll be frank with you. You’ll only be the great racer you want to be if you learn control. If not, I’m not sure how much longer your talent for improvisation will save you’.

“Ricardo flashed that smile of a kid who has grown up too fast, and said yes, he had got the message. But I was worried. I knew he was being eaten alive by blind ambition, that he was dangerously eager. And I also knew his family was kindling his ambition, rather than trying to cool it – in fact, I wrote to his father about it.”

Probably that had rather little effect. Hill once told me how astonished he had been by the behaviour of both Rodríguez’s parents: in their blind ambition for their son, he said, it seemed never to cross their minds that he might hurt himself.

“No,” agrees Ramirez, “it’s true – it never did. Don Pedro was a very dominating character, and completely fearless when it came to his sons, but in that respect Ricardo’s mother was probably even worse than his father. She would wave a handkerchief at him every time he went by – and it was always, ‘Faster, faster, faster!’”

From contemporary reports Don Pedro comes across as a shadowy figure, and Ramirez admits that he never knew exactly where all the money came from. “He had a lot of businesses and a lot of land in Acapulco… people said he also had a chain of brothels in Mexico City… certainly he had very good ‘connections’, let’s put it that way! There was no doubting, though, that he was prepared to spend whatever it took to help his sons in their racing careers.”

Rodríguez’s last race for Ferrari was the Italian Grand Prix, one year after his F1 debut, but this time the sharknose beauties were nowhere. That weekend at Monza Ricardo learned that the team would not be entering any more races in 1962, including not only Watkins Glen and East London, the last two rounds of the World Championship, but also the inaugural non-championship event in Mexico City. Distraught at the thought of not racing in his own country, Rodríguez approached Rob Walker, who readily agreed to let him drive his Lotus 24.

“Ricardo was so full of enthusiasm,” said Ramirez, “to race at his home track, in front of his own people. I remember taking him to the airport in Milan – I was so sorry I couldn’t go back with him, but at the time I just couldn’t afford the fare.

“We were talking about the future, and he said how much he was looking forward to driving Rob’s car. Like everyone, he really liked Rob because he was such a gentleman, and he was unsure about what was going to happen with Ferrari – he really wasn’t very enchanted with his first year there, because there had been so many political problems. I felt sure Ricardo was going to leave Ferrari and drive for Rob in 1963, but I remember he said, ‘Whatever I do, don’t worry, you will come and work with the team…’”

Race day in Mexico was Sunday, November 4, with two days of practice beforehand, but because the circuit was new to all save Rodríguez, a further ‘test day’ was organised for the Thursday.

Even though the Walker Lotus was a 24, rather than the monocoque 25 which almost instantly usurped it, Ricardo was absolutely enraptured with it, finding it superior in every way to the Ferrari he had raced all season.

For most of that day – November 1 – he was quickest, and according to a watching Frank Faulkner, was the only driver taking the banked Peraltada turn flat. Jack Brabham, said Faulkner, was one of many who couldn’t get over how rough was the surface there: “You think, ‘This is ridiculous, going round here so slowly – next time I’ll speed up’. But next time – and every time – you don’t, because you steer and nothing happens, at least until the wheels come down for an occasional pitter-pat on the surface…”

In late afternoon, when Rodríguez, thinking his day’s testing done, had changed into civvies, John Surtees, also at the wheel of a Lotus 24 (entered by Reg Parnell), set a time slightly quicker than Ricardo’s.

“It really shouldn’t have mattered,” said Ramirez. “It was only a test day. Apparently, though, Ricardo’s father said, ‘No, no, you have to be quickest – get back in the car…’ Knowing his father, I could believe that.”

So it was that Rodríguez, after crossing himself and kissing his father’s hand one last time, went out again, and on his first flying lap crashed at Peraltada.

“A friend of mine – Roberto Ayala – was there that day,” said Ramirez, “and he telephoned me almost immediately, very upset because he had seen the whole thing.

“It seems that Ricardo just touched the guardrail on the outside of the corner, bounced down the track into the inside barrier, and then back up to the outside again – where the car went under the guardrail, and he was thrown out, and almost cut in half between the dashboard and the guardrail. My friend was there, trying to help, and he told me that Ricardo was pleading, ‘Please don’t let me die’, but there was nothing anyone could do, and in fact he died in the ambulance almost immediately. Awful.

“Some people said that the suspension had broken, but we’ll never know. Certainly the track was very bumpy, and just before where he went off there was a little undulation, and they said that when Ricardo went through there something failed on the car. Who knows? It didn’t really matter, did it? The fact was, he was gone.”

Mexico was thrown into mourning, for Rodríguez had been regarded as a national hero, and only shortly before his death had been declared the country’s Athlete of the Year. The president attended his funeral.

In the aftermath of the tragedy there was some unpleasantness, spawned by Don Pedro Rodríguez, who was quoted in Paris Match as saying that Walker’s Lotus had been responsible for his son’s death. Rob, having been assured by his legendary mechanic Alf Francis that nothing had broken on the car, was extremely angry, and revealed as much in his memoirs.

“Ricardo was the first driver ever to be killed in one of my cars, and it was pretty traumatic for me. Alf assured me that the accident had been caused by driver error, and this was confirmed by the scrutineers, who examined the wreckage very carefully and could find no evidence of mechanical failure. I think Ricardo was simply overcome by the intense emotion of the situation, and he was trying too hard in a car that was notoriously difficult to drive near the limit.

“At that time I had substantial life insurance cover for all my drivers, and for tax reasons the policies were set up to compensate me for the loss of the driver’s services. I could then pass on the money to his next of kin, tax free, at my discretion. I told Don Pedro that unless he retracted this accusation I would keep the insurance money. Of course he retracted it at once.

“Don Pedro had many friends in high places in Mexico, and although he had become very rich he behaved in the most ungenerous way towards Ricardo’s widow, Sarita, ostracising her completely after Ricardo’s death, and leaving her absolutely penniless. It must have made Papa Rodríguez very angry when I paid the insurance money to Sarita, rather than to him. She was a great friend of ours, a spectacularly beautiful girl who adorned our pit whenever we raced in Mexico in later years…”

“It’s true,” said Ramirez, “that the family behaved dreadfully towards Sarita afterwards. Horrible. I liked Sarita – she was a nice girl, full of fun, totally besotted with Ricardo. It’s hard to understand: this girl loved their son, so how could they treat her so badly? Sarita died a few years ago. It was a very sad story. I’d see her at the Mexican Grand Prix each year… in the end she was completely destitute.”

On Thursday, November 1, 2012, Jo was among those present at a simple ceremony to remember the life of Ricardo Rodríguez. “We all congregated at Peraltada, the corner where he lost his life, and at eight minutes past five – exactly the time of the accident – we had a minute’s silence, and then we walked the last 200 metres, to complete symbolically his final lap.

“Even now, fifty years on, it still seems so sad. Ricardo didn’t even live to see his 21st birthday, but he did more in his life than people three or four times his age. Those of us who knew him, who were close to him, believed he would be one of the greatest – he was so gifted – but we all wondered if he would live long enough…”