Paradise lost

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More than 15 years after his death, Uruguayan racer Gonzalo Rodriguez is about to be commemorated in a documentary. We look back at an engaging character with greater potential than the wider world perhaps appreciated
Writer Simon Arron

May 15, 1999. Monaco. Circuit activities are complete for the day and a Renault Espace is trying to pick its way through dense humanity now mobbing the pit straight. Fans peer in through slightly fogged windows and contemplate two figures in racing overalls, but turn away when they realise that neither is familiar.

My fellow passengers are amused and contemplate how different the reaction might be if ever they should become Formula 1 stars.

Fate, sadly, would deny them such privilege.

The Espace was carrying us from post-race FIA Formula 3000 Championship press conference to the paddock, which in those days was located in France rather than the principality. Within four months race winner Gonzalo Rodriguez would be dead, killed while practising for a Champ Car race as he prepared for the next phase of his career; within five, runner-up Jason Watt had suffered paralysing injuries in a motorcycling accident, although he subsequently raced again in sports and saloon cars and went on to win the Danish Touring Car Championship in 2002.

I retain clear memories of that journey, partly because of its subsequent poignancy but mostly because of the riotous conversation between two men with their feet on the ground and a firm grasp of the world beyond racing. Thoroughly good blokes, both.

Gonzalo ‘Gonchi’ Rodriguez Bognoli was born on January 22 1971 in Montevideo, Uruguay. His father Ruben-Jorge had been a successful saloon car racer and rally driver, so it was no surprise that Rodriguez junior should be drawn to matters mechanical. He began karting at 13, amassing multiple domestic and regional title successes before switching to cars and becoming the dominant force in the national Formula Renault series.

He had also picked up a touring car title, and dabbled with SudAm F3, by the time he launched his international career by moving to Europe to contest the 1992 Spanish Formula Ford series.

He was second in that and third overall when racing in Formula Renault for the following two seasons, in Spain and Britain respectively. He then graduated to British F3 with Alan Docking Racing, where Warren Hughes was one of his team-mates. “I knew very little about him when first we met,” Hughes says, “but got to like him very quickly. You couldn’t not like him – he was a lovely character with an infectious personality. What we had didn’t really feel like rivalry. He was one of the drivers with whom you’d choose to spend time away from the track.

“I’d done F3 for a couple of seasons and he was in his first, so I was usually a bit quicker and I don’t think the category particularly suited him. He liked to hustle a car and F3 was all about precision and momentum. He was generally at his best in the wet, where he was able to demonstrate his car control.”

Rodriguez scored his only ‘victory’ that year in the British GP support race at Silverstone, although it didn’t last long. “Somebody’s visor tear-off had been sucked in to his airbox, causing the whole thing to implode,” Hughes says. “That destroyed the mandatory restrictor and gave him much more power. I saw the data afterwards and the numbers looked more like F3000 than F3! I think he was well aware of what had happened and knew he’d be excluded, but he still relished the moment. Then again, I always thought he would be better suited to an F3000 car because they ran massive amounts of castor and had very heavy steering, which suited his great upper body strength. F3 might not have been his thing, but he was clearly talented and given his personality seemed destined to succeed.”

In 1996 Rodriguez combined F3 with a limited programme in what was then known as British F2, for slightly older F3000 cars, before committing to what should have been a new-look British F3000 series (running to contemporary FIA specification) in 1997. He signed a deal with a team set up by former racers Brian Redman and John Bright.

“He was an absolutely lovely bloke,” Bright says. “The first time he came to see us, our workshop was pretty much empty and I was in there building our transporter. He seemed quite surprised that this should be the team manager’s job. We’d ordered a car, but it had still to arrive from Lola. I remember very clearly that he had sponsorship to the tune of £240,000, although payments usually turned up quite late. Our first scheduled race was at Brands Hatch, but a few days beforehand we still hadn’t leased an engine because his money hadn’t come through. When it finally arrived, I transferred a lump sum to Zytek and they delivered and fitted the engine that same afternoon. The following morning we went to do a straight-line shakedown at Bruntingthorpe, then we were off to Brands. That’s just the way things were – all very last minute.”

Unfortunately, the Redman Bright car was one of only three to turn up at Brands and the series was canned after a single race, in which Rodriguez finished second to Dino Morelli. (It’s unlikely ever to feature as a pub quiz question, but Tommy Field completed the entry.) Thereafter the team committed to contest as much of the FIA series as it could afford, with Rodriguez scoring half a point for sixth place in a rain-curtailed race at the Nürburgring.

“I think he was perhaps trying a bit too hard from time to time,” Bright says, “because there were a few offs that cost him better results, but he was a terrific driver and totally suited to powerful single-seaters.

“If I’m honest, I wasn’t always sure he was F1 material because he’d come out with the team in the evening and drink a beer, or a glass of red wine. He never seemed very worried about his diet. He’d have been a perfect fit in the United States, though, where things were a little more relaxed.”

Rodriguez subsequently transferred to Belgium-based Astromega, for whom he scored three wins (Spa and the Nürburgring in 1998, Monaco in 1999) and four other podium finishes.

“Gonzalo always tried to put across a nonchalant approach,” says former Astromega team manager Sam Boyle, “but behind the scenes he worked really hard at being as good as he was. I remember at the start of the ’99 season, when we were testing with Gonzalo and Justin Wilson, who had just joined us. Justin had stepped up from Palmer Audi and, like most young drivers, was very keen on doing things properly. When we got to the lunch break, Gonzalo flopped in a deckchair and sat there eating a burger and fries. He liked to make it look as though it was all so easy, but really he was just trying to play with Justin’s mind. I remember Justin wondering how Gonchi could possibly be so quick on that kind of diet!

“He was incredibly open, though, and offered useful advice to Justin, who couldn’t believe a team-mate would be so generous. But Gonchi thought helping his team-mate would serve them both well: if Justin went faster than him, he knew he’d just have to go out and try even harder.

“It was easy to work with him, a great pleasure. When he first came to see us, it was just him. There were no managers, no hangers-on, no people wanting their 50 per cent. He sat down, said, ‘Right, I think I can find this much sponsorship. What can we do?’ It was very straightforward. We never saw a single tantrum, either. If there was a problem he’d sit down and work at it. And if the car was doing something because of the wind, or particular track conditions, he’d just get his head down and deal with it. The whole paddock held him in huge affection – even the other drivers. I never heard anybody utter a bad word about him. After running him in F3, Alan Docking felt Gonchi definitely had a certain something – and the more powerful the car, the more he seemed to have it.”

Wilson remembers Rodriguez’s openness very fondly. “He was the best team-mate anybody could have wanted,” he says, “and given the customary selfishness of European single-seater racing he was probably one of a kind. He was always smiling, had a great personality and just loved being in the paddock. It could take him about 45 minutes to walk from the car park to the truck, because he’d stop and talk to pretty much everybody.

“And he was incredibly quick, too. There would be times when I’d think, ‘Right, I can’t believe it’s possible to take Turn X any faster than that’. Then I’d check the data and bang, he had. Gonzalo was – and remains – one of the fastest drivers I’ve known.”

Boyle cites the Monaco victory as a particular highlight. After qualifying second to eventual champion Nick Heidfeld, Rodriguez took the lead when the German was penalised for a yellow-flag infringement. “Once he was in front, he was gone,” he says. “He skimmed the swimming pool barriers for lap after lap, right on the limit but never beyond. It was awesome to watch and his lap times were incredibly consistent. I felt that was his best season with us.

“His focus wasn’t perhaps quite as great as 1999 went on, because by then his mind was already in America – but that was partly our fault because [team owner] Mikke van Hool had strong business links with Roger Penske and took Gonzalo to see him. Gonchi didn’t have the money or connections for F1, but Penske had future plans for him.”

That led to a debut Champ Car appearance at Detroit in August 1999 – and it was while practising for his second such event, at Laguna Seca on September 11, that he perished. His car went straight on at the top of The Corkscrew, took off, hit the retaining wall with huge force and then flipped over the debris fence to land upside down on a grass bank beyond. The initial impact had been instantaneously fatal.

A fortnight earlier, I’d watched him finish second to Watt in the penultimate F3000 race of the year at Spa, looking down from the press room terrace as he hurled his car through Eau Rouge, taunting the laws of physics for lap after lap. It wasn’t apparent, but his engine was cooking merrily after a stone pierced the radiator. “We could see the problem on the telemetry,” Boyle says, “and the Zytek guys were begging us to bring him in, but it was the team’s home race! To this day I don’t know how it held out.”

I was hosting the post-race conference and Gonzalo grabbed me shortly beforehand. “Listen,” he said, habitual smile much in evidence. “Things are starting to happen in America but I can’t talk about them, so would you mind not asking me about future plans?”

I promised I wouldn’t – and didn’t – then caught up with him in the paddock later. “Thanks for being discreet,” he said. “Next year, you must come to the States to watch me.” To an ambitious driver from a small country with precious little racing heritage, this was the cusp of paradise. He bounded up the steps of the Astromega truck, gave a final friendly wave and disappeared inside.

It would be the last time I saw him and the image remains vivid.

The legacy
A foundation that has brought many a benefit to Latin America

In the wake of Gonzalo Rodriguez’s passing, his sister Nani established the Fundacion Gonzalo Rodriguez to perpetuate her brother’s memory. Her initial objective was to help underprivileged children in her homeland, by creating sports facilities that could be used as a social tool to keep youngsters off the streets and teach them the importance of respect.

“After Gonzalo’s death,” Nani says, “the motor sport community embraced me and it was the best environment in which to cope with my sense of loss. Everybody was keen to help and within a few years the Fundacion had become one of the most important non-governmental organisations in Uruguay. We pushed to make sport a part of the curriculum at every primary school in the country and by 2007 that had become mandatory.”

In time the FGR’s influence extended to other areas, including road safety. During her early research, Nani discovered that 73 per cent of children in Uruguay were travelling unrestrained in cars, only 10 per cent were using seats that complied with international safety standards… and only one per cent of those had been correctly installed. Her work led to drastic improvements in this domain – and also to the compulsory adoption of seat belts in Uruguayan school buses. She was also invited to become one of the founders of a new Latin NCAP initiative that sought to bring locally sold cars closer to safety standards common in Europe and North America.

“Manufacturers responded well,” she says, “and worked hard to improve the situation. It is not so many years since very few people in the region knew what an airbag was, or what it did. In my opinion safety standards had been about 20 years behind the times in Latin America, maybe more. I miss Gonzalo terribly, but many things are now improving as a result of the programmes with which I’m involved. Life has given me an opportunity to believe that things always happen for a good reason and from every tragedy there is a chance to create positives.”

The GONCHI documentary is due for release in March 2015, initially in Latin America and Mexico.