In terms of World Championship races, the 1962 F1 season concluded with a ‘New Year’ fixture at South Africa’s East London. But in those days there were also numerous non-title races and most of the teams were in Mexico City in early November for the inaugural Mexican Grand Prix.
About the only team not there was Ferrari, and this was a source of consternation to the organisers. For one thing, even though the red cars had been off the pace that year, their absence detracted from the prestige of the event; for another, Ricardo Rodriguez DeLaVega, a national hero at 20, was a Ferrari driver.
Contracts were rather less hidebound back then and Rodriguez, desperate to race an Fl car before his own public, approached Rob Walker at Monza to ask if he could drive his Lotus 24 in Mexico. Walker agreed, but did not make the trip himself, leaving the running of the team to Alf Francis. “One had heard such frightful stories about Mexico City…”
Ricardo immediately fell in love with the 24, finding it infinitely more nimble than the Sharknose’ Ferrari he had been driving. For much of the first practice session he was fastest, but his time was then beaten by the similar Lotus of John Surtees, and in the closing minutes he went out again.
In its original guise, the final corner — Peraltada — was a banked and very bumpy right-hander. On the first quick lap of his last run Rodriguez lost control there and hit the guard rail. Thrown out, he suffered injuries from which he died almost immediately.
Throughout Mexico, and within the racing community too, there was an outpouring of anguish, for Ricardo, a quiet and polite young man, had been well liked and highly regarded. For his family, of course, it was a very traumatic time. The father, Don Pedro, had become very wealthy, through this means and that, and spent freely on his sons, wanting nothing more than to see them high in the racing firmament. Of the two, Ricardo was regarded as the more natural driver, the future world champion; for Pedro, it seemed initially more like a hobby than anything else.
Pedro was there the day his younger brother died and the effect on him was profound. For a time he renounced racing altogether, apparently even spoke of retreating to a monastery, but in February 1963 he shared a Ferrari GTO with Phil Hill in the Daytona 1000Km — and won. Several years would pass before he committed to full-time racing, but Pedro would become one of the world’s greatest drivers. Ultimately, in 1971, there was further sorrow for the family when he was killed in a Ferrari at the Norisring.
We remember Pedro now as a cool driver, the epitome of smoothness, but in his early days he was regarded as a wild man. Ricardo, by contrast, was silky with a car, apparently touched by the angels. At 15, he was racing a Porsche RS — and winning with it. The following year he was bitterly disappointed to have his Le Mans entry rejected. Sixteen, said the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, was too young.
Pedro, all of 18, did go to the Sarthe in 1958, however, sharing a Ferrari with Jose Behra, brother ofJean, and in ’59 Ricardo got to partner him in an OSCA. Thereafter, they frequently drove together, usually in Ferraris for Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team.
If Ricardo was usually a bit faster, his style had by now begun to change. Decidedly more wild and unrestrained than before, he worked his cars very hard and had a lot of accidents. He was, murmured some contemporaries, rather too brave for his own good.
Chinetti, though, was a fundamental believer and reckoned that in time this side of Ricardo’s racing personality would be calmed. Always a man with the car of Enzo Ferrari, he missed no opportunity to sing the praises of both Rodriguez brothers, and the wily Commendatore offered Don Pedro the opportunity to buy them into the factory team. Ricardo jumped at the opportunity, but Pedro decided against it, still not certain he wanted to be a pro.
In the 1950s and ’60s, it was Ferrari’s custom to enter extra cars for the Italian Grand Prix, and in ’61 no fewer than five were on hand: for world championship protagonists Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips, for Richie Ginther, for Giancarlo Baghetti — and for Ricardo Rodriguez.
To make your GP debut at Monza in a Ferrari — at 19— is to face as much pressure as racing can exert, and the consequences, given Ricardo’s outlook, could have been disastrous.
Driving an older car than his teammates, he qualified second, just a tenth slower than von Trips.
As it was, he retired early from a tragic race: von Trips and several spectators were killed in an accident on the second lap. Enzo, as ever in these circumstances, was branded by the Vatican and the earnest Catholic press as a killer of young men; as usual he rode out the storm, announcing a full racing programme for 1962, with Rodriguez as one of his drivers.
Ricardo went to Ferrari at a bad time. Dominant the previous year, the team was overwhelmed in 1962 by superior British chassis and new V8 engines from Coventry-Climax BRM. Only world champion Phil Hill could count on a regular drive, as the Old Man constantly shuffled his pack.
On occasion Rodriguez was able to give vent to his talent, hassling Hill all the way at Spa in a battle for third which, said Phil, aged him by five seasons! And at the ‘Ring, although he finished only sixth, Ricardo outshone his colleagues. But his bravery, his willingness to take risks, worried many fellow drivers, just as with Chris Bristow, killed at Spa in 1960.
Even Enzo professed concern: “Ricardo Rodriguez,” he said, “is a fierce young man who drives with a terrifying carelessness. I think that if he learns to control his enthusiasm, and 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 that his family was kindling his ambition, rather than trying to cool it — I wrote to his father about it”
So to season’s end, to Mexico, and the accident which ended Rodriguez life. “I wasn’t there that day,” says former McLaren team co-ordinator Jo Ramirez, one of his closest friends, “but I spoke to people who were, and they said it was terrible, just horrible. They were trying to help him, but there was nothing anyone could do. ‘Don’t let me die, please don’t let me die,’ he kept saying.”
It was as a result of meeting Ricardo that Ramirez came to spend his life in motor racing: “I was a kid in Mexico City, mad keen on karting, when I got to know Ricardo. We came from very different social backgrounds — he had lots of money — but we became great friends and I asked him to help me get into racing. I said to him, ‘I’m going to get to Italy somehow, so please help me, because I’m going to need a job.’
“When he had his first F1 drive, at Monza in 1961, I was still in Mexico, but he telephoned me after qualifying on the front row. He said, ‘They ask me which gear I’m using in this corner and when I start braking for that one. My God, I don’t know what to tell them!’ He was just a boy. I was just a boy too, but I said, ‘Don’t tell them too much!”
Early in 1962, Ramirez flew to New York, then crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth: “It sounds crazy, but back then it was only $200, much cheaper than flying. Ricardo didn’t believe I was going to make it, but I did, and with help from him I got started, as a gofer with Ferrari. I worked with them all that year, but didn’t have the money to go home at the end of it, which is why I wasn’t there when Ricardo died.
“Ricardo, for sure, was going to be one of the greatest. I’ve no doubt of that at all: fantastic natural ability and huge determination.
“Being in F1 over the years, I also got to know Pedro very well. He was much more of an introvert than his brother, but after Ricardo’s death he sort of came out of his shadow. Although he did not have Ricardo’s natural ability, he just got better and better. One Saturday in July 1971, he and his girlfriend were coming to us for dinner, but then he called to say he wouldn’t be able to make it. He’d been asked to drive a Ferrari at the Norisring. He could never turn down a race…”