F1's mercurial Rodriguez brothers: what could have been?

Ricardo Rodriguez could have been another Senna, but it was only after his tragic death that his older brother, Pedro, started to shine. Mark Hughes remembers them.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JANUARY 25, 1960: Brothers Pedro (L) and Ricardo Rodriguez (R) with the Volvo of Mexico entry for the twin Compact Car races that were held at Daytona International Speedway on January 31, 1960. Pedro actually drove the Volvo in the races, while Ricardo was behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Corvair. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

The Rodriguez brothers might have dominated motor sport – it was not to be

ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

The inaugural Mexican Grand Prix of 1962 should have been a celebration. The country’s racing prodigy, Ricardo Rodriguez, was to perform in front of his adoring countrymen. These people, who’d watched spellbound a few years earlier as the 14 year-old kid entered local races and proceeded to clean up, would now be seeing him perform at the highest level, just 12 months after making one of the most sensational grand prix debuts of all time.

And as if that were not enough, set to make his F1 debut here at the Autodrome was Ricardo’s brother Pedro, two years older. He was thought to be not quite as outstanding as Ricardo, but clearly possessed of significant talent. But the event was far from a celebration. It was to become a wake.

Ricardo’s contracted team, Ferrari, had elected to give the non-championship Mexican race a miss, so instead he had organised a deal to drive Rob Walker’s Lotus 24:”I barely knew him,” recalls Walker today, “I’d spoken with him maybe 10 times. We were just walking about at Monza and Ricardo came up to me and told me Enzo wasn’t sending cars to Mexico. He wondered if he could drive my car there. I spoke to Alf (Francis Walker’s mechanic) who said we had nothing on, there’s no reason why not, and that was it. The Rodriguez family took care of the arrangements.”

Renta-drive Lotus notwithstanding, Ricardo was consistently the fastest in unofficial practice until, near the end of the day, John Surtees went out in his Lola and shaved a marginally quicker time. Clearly there was pride at stake here, and not because of the expectant home crowd. His Ferrari team-mate Phil Hill recalls:

“Well, there was always quite an entourage around him, spurring him to go still faster. His father was always there and the feeling we got was that he was always pushing both his boys.”

Twenty-year-old Ricardo climbed back aboard and went out to retrieve his honour. And if that it sounds like a lethal cocktail, it should be remembered he was no kid in over his head. He’d already proved in five years of international competition in sports cars and then in his first season of F1 to be fast, clean and not at all accident-prone. He bore the hallmarks of a future great.

Ferrari driver Ricardo Rodriguez in the pits at Monza before the 1962 Italian Grand Prix. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

At 19 years and 208 days, Ricardo Rodriguez became the youngest person ever to drive for Ferrari – a title he still holds

Grand Prix Photo

So after the Lotus veered out of control at the entry to the formidable, banked Parabolica before attempting only partially successfully to throw the unbelted Rodriguez out there were two prevailing explanations. One was simply that pride caused him to overreach himself. The other is summed up by Ricardo’s friend Jo Ramirez: “At the entry to that corner there was an undulation which made the car react very badly if you went over it. So everyone was using another part of the track. It was at this point that some people said something broke on the car.”

Ricardo was conscious when the ambulance was called but succumbed to his injuries before it reached the hospital. Pedro withdrew from the race and thought long and hard about which path, if any, he should now follow. He’d been first to start racing, first cycles, then motorcycles, winning Mexican championships in both before taking to cars aged 15. But when Ricardo joined him a year later, and proved quicker, Pedro felt overshadowed, particularly within the family, as father Don Pedro clearly became very excited about the potential of his younger offspring. The fact that Pedro had always been the introverted one, Ricardo the open, talkative one just made things even more difficult. “They weren’t all that close as brothers,” remembers Ramirez. “They got on well but not like the Unsers or the Fittipaldis.

“Pedro and Ricardo did do a lot of sports car races together,” remembers Ramirez, “and Ricardo was always quicker one, two seconds, sometimes even more. Pedro would really try very hard to go as fast but he would often go off the road while trying. Pedro had a whole load of heart and fight in him, but it was Ricardo who was much more the natural driver of the two.

“I may be biased, but I think Ricardo would have become another Prost or Senna. He was very, very special. To get a guy who comes to F1 and makes the sort of impression he did at Monza in ’61 that only happens maybe once every 10 years.”

Ramirez is referring to qualifying for the 1961 Italian Grand Prix when 19-year-old Ricardo made his F1 debut. He set second fastest time, quicker in an identical car than the man who would the next day be crowned world champion, Phil Hill. But he could just as easily have mentioned the time at Riverside in ’57 when the likes of Richie Ginther, John Neumann and Ken Miles laughed as the 15 year-old Mexican, who looked even younger, turned up in an RSK Porsche. And they continued to laugh right until the moment when he won the race with ease.

From the archive

Surely such success so young made him cocky? “Well, yes,” agrees Jo. “He was never so with me but when you get this overwhelming attention all over the world, I don’t care who you are, it will have an effect. Just like Schumacher four or five years ago, you become unbearable. But after a while you realise, ‘So what?’ and then, like Michael, you become a normal person again. As Ricardo got older he stopped being arrogant.” Hill concurs: “He came across as if he had been through some good social training. They both did. They were great kids.”

Social graces were part of the upbringing in the Rodriguez family. One of Don Pedro’s businesses manufactured containers for the country’s biggest petroleum company. There were plenty of others too and there was said to be a link to a certain Mexican president on account of the politician’s mistress being Don Pedro’s daughter. It was further whispered by some that this led to an arrangement whereby, for a cut, one of Don Pedro’s companies unofficially collected taxes from the country’s brothels.

In Ricardo, Ferrari engineer Mauro Forghieri recalls a young man of some sophistication: “Although he was young he was not immature from a human point of view. He was serious and very determined. He wasn’t as reflective as Pedro and the quality of his driving was still instinctive, but he had a good relationship with people in the team and worked hard.”

That he was not a typically hot-headed Latin was evidenced further when he married an older local girl, Sarah. “She wouldn’t let him out of her sight,” laughs Ramirez, “he couldn’t have played even if he’d wanted to…”

Pedro Rodriguez

Pedro driving for BRM at Clermont Ferrand in 1970

Grand Prix Photo

Pedro too, had married young to an older woman, Angelina. After Ricardo’s death the elder brother returned to Mexico and opened a car import business. He would race occasionally for enjoyment, he decided. His brother’s death wasn’t going to stop him doing that. His introspections had brought a fatalistic philosophy. “God decides when your time is,” he would declare.

For the next four years he lived this part-time racing driver existence, doing occasional grands prix with Lotus and Ferrari, competently but without conspicuous success, taking occasional sports car wins and even having a crack at the Indianapolis 500. But, away from the pressures of being measured against Ricardo, something began to develop in Pedro. His driving became more assured, less ragged, and he began to fall in love with racing all over again. “There was definitely some strange effect on Pedro after his brother died,” affirms Hill. “He became quicker, no question.”

“Yes, he became better and better,” agrees Ramirez. “He was more relaxed.” It began to show in his form. Standing in for an injured Jim Clark at the 1966 French Grand Prix, he ran fourth before retirement and in his home Grand Prix he got up to third. It led to an offer from Cooper to fill the vacant second seat at the first race of the ’67 season, in South Africa. He won what was to prove Cooper’s last grand prix victory. It was a lucky win, but it earned him the drive for the rest of the year alongside Jochen Rindt.

From the archive

From this point on, Rodriguez was a full-time, professional racing driver and his star ascended appropriately. He moved to England and rarely a weekend went by when he wasn’t racing something. At Cooper, Rindt was already acknowledged as one of the quickest in the world and, as such, was a useful barometer of Pedro’s progress. There was not a lot between them, though off-track the two didn’t hit it off.

In fact, fellow drivers rarely got through to Pedro. In the Tasman series of early ’68 Rodriguez drove for BRM, managed by Tim Parnell, who remembers: “We all used to stay at the same hotel – Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, Chris Amon, Denny Hulme – and we’d all muck in together, lark about, play cricket. But Pedro always kept to himself. I used to ask him about it and he would say that he didn’t want them getting to know him too well. He was quite a serious driver on the track and reckoned that it was better for him if they didn’t know what to make of him in a dice.”

Indeed, he was as hard as nails in a race situation, to the point where he was criticised by other drivers. His fatalism also meant that he held Stewart’s gathering safety movement in disdain which again did little to endear him to his peers. But those with whom he worked saw an entirely different side to him.

Ricardo Rodriguez Ferrari

Ricardo racing for the Scuderia at Spa

Grand Prix Photo

“Everyone at BRM thought the world of him,” recalls Parnell, “especially the mechanics. Because there were no airs or graces about him, he never complained, just got on with the job. He was a funny little chap, a bit of a mysterious character, but he commanded a lot of respect.”

There was, though, some Latin fire. “He would sometimes get a bit shirty with the other drivers but the only time I saw him really angry was at some reception in Mexico,” says Parnell. “He had a helluva to-do with some chap in the Mexican government. They were almost having a fight at one point. It was about how his father had been treated and how the family had fallen from grace.” There had been a change in presidency…

In the ’68 BRM, his reputation began to gain momentum — he frequently led in the semi-competitive BRM P126 and P133. It was during this time that his wet weather virtuosity became apparent and his victory, with Lucien Bianchi, at Le Mans in the JW Automotive Ford GT40 owed much to his spooky ability in the heavy rain of the night.

From the archive

In fact, he became one of the best wet weather drivers the world has ever seen, as good in the rain as a Caracciola, Ickx or Stuck. Never was this more apparent than during his time in the awesome Porsche 917s in 1970 and ’71. In the wet Brands Hatch 1000km race of 1970 his performance was staggering. A stop-go penalty had left him in 12th place. With rain falling and red mist rising he overtook every car in front of him until the lead was his. He then proceeded to rub it in, crossing the line for the last time five laps clear of the entire field. The late John Wyer who ran the 917s for Porsche said at the end of the season: “I think on that day, in those conditions, he was literally unbeatable.” He went on: “He is a calculating driver. He likes to sit back in the early stages and watch the race develop before he stages his attack, which he does with an exquisite sense of timing.” Wyer came to believe, in fact, that Pedro had developed into the best driver in the business, not merely in sports cars.

He produced similarly astonishing drives in the JW 917 in 1971 at Daytona and the Österreichring and such form showed through in F1 too, now that BRM had a competitive car in the P153. He used this to win the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix at the old Spa, soaking up race-long pressure from Chris Amon. “To see him four-wheel drifting around there was a real sight to behold,” remembers Parnell.

He should have won that year’s American Grand Prix too, but ran out of fuel with a lap to go. “He was speechless after that,” says Parnell. “There was a $50,000 prize kind for that race. You have to remember that this was a time when his retainer from BRM was for $10,000, but he got half of any prize money. Money was important to him.”

Pedro Rodriguez BRM 1970 Belgium Grand Prix Spa-Francorchamps

Rodriguez takes the plaudits for after winning his second GP at Spa

Grand Prix Photo

He might well also have won the wet ’71 Dutch Grand Prix had his fuel pump not played up. As it was, he and fellow wet weather ace Jacky Ickx lapped the entire field. By this time his marriage had petered out. “I don’t know if they ever officially separated,” says Ramirez, “but in his later years he didn’t have much contact with Angelina; she always stayed in Mexico.” Pedro, meanwhile, settled in Bray with his English girlfriend Glenda Foreman and became distinctly Anglicised. He drove around in a Bentley Continental and invariably wore a deerstalker hat.

British racegoers in turn made him a hero, perhaps as a result of that wondrous race at Brands. “We used to get sackfuls of fan mail for him at BRM,” says Parnell, “far more than any other driver we ever had there, even Graham Hill or Jackie Stewart.”

After setting fastest time in testing for the ’71 British Grand Prix, Rodriguez headed for the Norisring in Germany, to drive Herbie Muller’s Ferrari 512M in a minor sports car race. “Oh, I think about that to this day,” says Parnell. “These people kept ringing him from Germany. He was a big name there and they wanted him to drive to bring the crowds in and were offering him more and more money. I said, “For God’s sake Pedro, don’t go.” It was some clapped-out bloody car that had been used by a film company or something. But in the end he couldn’t turn the money down.”

Clapped out car or not, Rodriguez got it into the lead. But on the 12th lap the Ferrari veered sharp left into the barriers and rebounded with huge force into a bridge support. It burst into flames. By the time help arrived, Pedro was beyond hope. Like Ricardo’s accident nine years earlier, there was uncertainty as to just what had happened. Some say he was forced off line by a slow backmarker, others that a tyre burst. Pedro, however, would probably have said it was irrelevant – that it was just God’s will.