The personable Mexican looks back over 40 years of Formula 1 glories and struggles, friendships and tragedies
By Simon Taylor
The problem is, lunch isn’t long enough. Over 40 seasons, this man has been friend and confidant to a succession of F1 heroes, helped them celebrate their victories and, too often, mourned their loss. He was inside Ferrari when it was Enzo’s fiefdom, with Tyrrell when Ken’s little team won drivers’ and constructors’ titles, with McLaren during the height of its championship glories. When Ford took on Ferrari at Le Mans, when Dan Gurney won at Spa with the Eagle, when Siffert and Rodriguez jousted in the mighty Porsche 917s, he was on the team. Down the long years this modest man has made more friends in motor racing than anyone and, it seems, fewer enemies.
Yet Jo Ramirez thinks of himself merely as a link in the chain, grateful for the good fortune that has allowed him to earn his living from the sport he loves. He has lived in Italy, the USA, Spain and England; but Jo is Mexican. That’s why we’re lunching off chimichanga in Covent Garden’s best Mexican restaurant, Café Pacifico.
He was born in the suburbs of Mexico City in 1941, one of 10 children. Around the local kart tracks he befriended a boy his age who, helped by a hugely wealthy father, had already made his name in karting and motorcycle racing. Still too young to drive on public roads, this lad Ricardo had a Porsche Spyder, and his elder brother Pedro had an XK120. Both the Rodriguez brothers were destined to burn bright, and die young.
“Ricardo raced the Porsche in the USA when he was only 16, and in 1960 he finished second at Le Mans, aged 18, in a NART Ferrari. In 1961 the Scuderia put him in an F1 car for the Italian GP. His first F1 drive, in a Ferrari, in front of the Monza crowd! He qualified second, a tenth off von Trips, ahead of Phil Hill and Richie Ginther in the other works cars. It was fantastic: he was still only 19. The Lewis Hamilton of his day…
“For 1962 Ricardo had a works Ferrari drive in F1 and sports cars. I told him: I see nothing in Mexico, I just want to pack my bags and go to Italy. He didn’t think I could do it. His first race that year was the Targa Florio. I was studying engineering at college, but I had a little night job, I’d saved $300. I gave up my studies – the hardest thing was to tell my father about that – and I got myself to New York and by boat to England. I hitch-hiked to Naples, and got the ferry to Sicily.
“Ricardo introduced me to everybody in the Ferrari team. Eugenio Dragoni was the team manager, very authoritarian: sometimes he grew too big for his shoes and got cut down by Il Commendatore. Mauro Forghieri was the technical director: he is still a good friend of mine. Ricardo was racing a rear-engine Ferrari 246 in the Targa with Willy Mairesse, but he had a GTO as a practice car and he took me round the circuit. I had never been on a race circuit before, and at first, as we say, I was wearing my balls as a bow tie. But his driving was so good I started to relax and enjoy it. He even let me drive for a lap, but we had to change over before the pits, so the Ferrari people did not find out.” Just a pair of Mexican lads, enjoying themselves…
“As kids back in Mexico City we used to go out late at night in Ricardo’s gold Oldsmobile down the Avenida Reforma, and he would teach me how to go round the roundabouts in the wet, faster and faster. He said he felt what the car was going to do, you know, through his arse and the tips of his fingers. As a racer he was just incredible in the rain, better I think even than his brother became later. They were very different. Ricardo was very extrovert. Pedro was two years older, quieter, he was the introvert. It all came naturally to Ricardo, but back then Pedro had to try harder to match his times in the same car, and it was usually Pedro that had the accidents.”
Ricardo and Mairesse duly won the Targa at record speed. Back at Maranello Jo pleaded with Dragoni for a job, any job, at Ferrari. With no work permit, there was no job – but Dragoni offered food and accommodation at races in return for hard work. “I did everything nobody else wanted to do, cleaned the cars, cleaned the parts; they make a mess, I clean it up. Now I was in this world I’d dreamed about for so long.” Ricardo and his young wife Sarita had a permanent suite in the Palace Hotel in Modena, and they let Jo bed down in a little side room.
First he had to learn Italian. “I bought myself a little transistor radio and I stuck it in my ear all day long, and I picked up the language quite quick.” He scrounged lifts to the races with the drivers. “Giancarlo Baghetti took me to the Nürburgring for the 1000Kms in his Ferrari 250GT, and on the way he crashed into the back of a lorry, smashing a front wing. When we got to the Nürburgring it was raining. He offered me a lap, but I made an excuse and went round with Dan Gurney instead, who was there for Porsche. It was my first meeting with Dan: a brilliant driver, a brilliant man, and later for me a brilliant boss. He was the driver that Jim Clark always said he feared most.
“With Ricardo I met my hero, Fangio, and I told him about my ambitions for a proper job in racing. He took me to Maserati and introduced me to Giulio Alfieri, and I ended up with a job there. He was five times world champion, he didn’t need to help me, but he did.
“For the non-championship Mexican GP, Ricardo fixed a drive in Rob Walker’s Lotus 24. I had no money to go back to Mexico, of course, but I took Ricardo and Sarita to the airport. They were compulsive shoppers and they had a mass of stuff they couldn’t take home. Ricardo gave me lots of clothes, and his spare helmet and overalls.
“On the Friday morning somebody at Maserati said they’d heard on the radio that Ricardo had had an accident. I didn’t know what to do. I went back to the Palace Hotel and the girl on reception said there was a phone call for me from Mexico. As she passed me the phone she started crying. They all loved Ricardo at the hotel.
“It had been in the first practice session. Ricardo was fastest, and then John Surtees went quicker, so Ricardo went out to beat him. He went off on the outside of La Peraltada, the long right-hander at the end of the lap, hit the guardrail and was thrown out. When I heard that it was like my whole life was crushed.”
Jo stayed at Maserati for the 1963 season, helping to run the monstrous Tipo 151 Le Mans car with which André Simon and Lucky Casner led Le Mans. Then his boss Gian Paolo Dallara was recruited by tractor magnate Ferruccio Lamborghini to set up a new factory. The goal was to make a road-going GT better than Ferrari.
“Gian Paolo took me with him. I was the second or third employee of Lamborghini. It was fantastic experience because I was involved in everything – building the engine, all the chassis, the suspension. I did a lot of the testing myself on the first prototype. But Modena wasn’t the centre of the racing world any more. England was the place now. So I wrote letters to everybody I could think of: Chapman, Brabham, Broadley. Some answered, some didn’t, but I packed up my Fiat 500, drove to England, and knocked on doors.
“One person who answered my letter was John Wyer, who was running the Ford GT40 programme at Slough. I said to him, ‘I can’t speak English yet, but I know how to work on racing cars. Just try me, you don’t have to pay me, and if I’m any good you keep me.’ I started the next day. My transistor went back on my ear, but now it was the BBC, any station with talking, even The Archers.
“John Wyer was a very imposing personality. He insisted on everything being tidy and clean. When he came into the workshop everybody went quiet, you could hear a fly walking on the wall. He spoke his gentleman’s English very slow, and you had to get your words right when you talked to him. It was like Enzo Ferrari: I was afraid to stand close to Il Commendatore unless I knew what to say, in case I put my foot in it. He didn’t say much: he listened behind his dark glasses.
“We took the GT40s to the Le Mans test weekend in April. Lucky Casner was there with the latest Maserati. In Modena Lucky and I had dinner often, to talk about everything, not just racing cars. He was my friend. At Le Mans we were laughing in the paddock, and a few minutes later the big Maserati went off into the trees at the end of the Mulsanne Straight and he didn’t come back. That was difficult for me. You should not get involved outside your job with the drivers, because they come and they go. But sometimes they are such personalities, so you have to.
“A Canadian team, Comstock Racing, bought two GT40s and I was sent to look after them for a couple of months. At Sebring they overheated in practice, and I had to do something, so I changed the front bodywork to open out the air intakes of the GT40s. I thought, what would Wyer and Len Bailey say! But it worked. Both cars were going well when the quickest of the drivers, Bob McLean, crashed just after a refuelling stop. The car exploded like a bomb, with poor Bob trapped inside. It was the first time a driver died in a car I prepared. I had to collect the wreck, and his charred shoes were still inside. It was horrible. That kind of thing happened so much then.”
When Dan Gurney was setting up the Eagle Formula 1 team he offered Jo a job, and he joined Anglo-American Racers in Rye in April 1966. At first they used the out-dated 2.7 four-cylinder Climax, but for 1967 the beautifully prepared blue and white cars had their glorious-sounding Weslake V12. With Richie Ginther in the second car they finished first and third in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, and then came Dan’s historic victory in the Belgian GP at Spa.
“Most of the money for the Eagle F1 project came from Goodyear, and it was never enough. We really struggled. Dan was one of the greatest drivers I was ever lucky to work for. But when drivers become team bosses, they fancy themselves as engineers. Dan always had to fiddle with the car. At Spa, when the paddock was on that steep hill with rough ground, he was standing on the back of the truck and he said, ‘That left front wheel, it’s got too much toe-in.’ ‘No, Dan, we checked it in the garage, it’s spot on.’ ‘It’s not,’ he said, ‘add one turn.’ He would ask for a change, then to prove he was right he would push himself even harder, so his lap times justified it. Then he would say, ‘It’s quicker than before, but it’s not so easy to drive, so put it back to how it was.’
“But he is a fantastic man. When he won at Spa and we heard the US anthem, we were cheering and crying at the same time. We should have won the German GP too. We had a big lead with just over a lap to go when a driveshaft broke.
“The Eagle F1 thing stopped mainly for lack of finance. Dan couldn’t keep up the two operations – Anglo-American Racers in Rye and All-American Racers in California – and he had more sponsorship in America, so Rye was closed down. It was very sad for all of us. Now, when I see an Eagle at Goodwood, I know it was the most beautiful grand prix car ever. It lifted the standards in F1.
“Dan offered me a job with the American operation, and my wife and I – I’d married Bea in 1967 – moved to California. We did Indy, Can-Am and Trans-Am. I loved Trans-Am with the Barracuda: Swede Savage was the driver, and Dan did some races too. I was mechanic and fabricator, and with the truckie we were five. The camaraderie between us and all the other teams was great.
“I loved my two years in America. My wife had a good job too, working for a real estate company, but she was homesick for England. So when John Wyer suggested I come back to help run the Gulf Porsche 917s I couldn’t say no. The lead drivers were Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert, and John put me with Siffert because he said one Mexican per car was enough. Siffert was a real racer, not much different from Pedro – except in the wet.
“One of the best races for me was Daytona. After 18 hours in the lead Pedro’s car, shared with Jackie Oliver, came in stuck in fifth gear. You weren’t allowed to change the gearbox, but you could change the bits inside. Everything was red hot, the gears almost welded to the main shaft, but with hammers, levers and a welding torch we got it apart and rebuilt the box. It took us 90 minutes. Then we sent Pedro out. First time round he put his thumb up, so we knew it was working. He drove flat out, passed everybody, caught the leading Ferrari in the closing stages, and won.
“Now he wasn’t under the shadow of his younger brother, Pedro went better and better. He became probably the greatest wet weather driver of them all. At the Targa that year he took me round in a Porsche practice car, exactly 10 years after Ricardo had taken me round in a GTO, when I’d just arrived in Europe. After the lap Pedro said, ‘How do I rate against Ricardo?’ To wind him up, I said, ‘Six out of 10.’ ‘Good’, he said, ‘I still have room for improvement.’
“At Le Mans JW always stayed at La Chartre sur Loir. We worked on the cars in the garage beside the hotel, and drove them 25 miles on the public roads to the track each morning. Before the race we didn’t have enough brake pads bedded in, so I said I’d bed in a set on my way in on Saturday morning. All the way I was accelerating hard in the traffic and then standing on the brakes, but when I got to the circuit and took them off they still looked new. I just wasn’t driving hard enough. I tell you, in third gear a 917 is like an aeroplane. You have to drive one of those cars to realise why those guys earned so much money.
“Pedro loved England. He liked his old Bentley Continental, and he liked wearing his deerstalker hat. With the Porsches and F1 with BRM, he was usually racing every weekend, but after the French GP he had a weekend off. He and his lady, Glenda, had a new house in Bray, and they were due to come to dinner with Bea and me at our house in Maidenhead. But he rang me a couple of days before to postpone, because Herbie Müller had asked him to drive his Ferrari 512 in a race in Germany. It wasn’t until I got to work on Monday morning that I heard what happened.”
Pedro was leading when, for reasons that have never been explained, the big Ferrari hit the barriers and caught fire. It took several minutes to extricate him; he died on the way to hospital.
“In October I went to Brands to watch the end-of-season F1 race. Jo Siffert, who I’d worked with all season at JW, was on pole in the BRM, and I chatted to him on the grid. Half an hour later his BRM hit the bank and he was dead. With Pedro and Jo both gone, I didn’t want to stay with JW.
“So for 1973 I joined Ken Tyrrell, and you couldn’t work for a nicer team. F1 teams were so small in those days: we were less than 30 people including Jackie Stewart and François Cevert. It was like a family: Ken was the father, and Norah – we called her Mrs T – was the mother. It was three sheds, three cabins and a muddy yard, and they won the championship three times in five years. I was on Cevert’s car.
“There was a wonderful relationship between Jackie and François. At Zandvoort the two Tyrrells were miles ahead of everybody, nose to tail, and Jackie missed a gear. François could have gone by, but he lifted off and waited for Jackie to sort it out. After the race Jackie said to him, ‘You silly idiot, why didn’t you pass me?’ François said, ‘I would like to beat you one day fair and square, not just because you make a little mistake.’
“That year Jackie clinched the championship at Monza. Then we went to North America for the last two races. At Mosport Cevert tangled with Scheckter’s McLaren and hit the barriers very hard. I don’t know how he got out of it, only bruised and with strained tendons in his legs. If he had broken a leg maybe he would be alive today, because at Watkins Glen during Saturday morning practice he had his fatal accident. Everything went silent, and when all the other cars came back to the pits he was missing. I tried to jump on a service vehicle that was setting off for the crash scene, but Jody Scheckter grabbed me and said, ‘Don’t go, there’s nothing you can do.’ The worst thing was having to go to his hotel room later and pack up his clothes and passport and stuff.
“François would have been a great successor to Jackie to lead the team. He was getting better and better every race. I don’t think he would ever have left Ken: they had such a bond.” Jo stayed with Tyrrell for 1974, working with Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler, but then moved to the new Fittipaldi Copersucar team as team manager.
“It was a step up in my career, and I felt if it didn’t work out I could always go back and be a spanner again. But it was three very hard years. We had a lot of problems the first year, with Wilson Fittipaldi driving, but for the second year Emerson came over to us. He was twice World Champion, and it should have been better. But Emerson was very hard to deal with. He always wanted his own way, and he was not always right. It’s strange how top drivers don’t usually make good team bosses. Look at Prost: a great driver, a clever guy, but his F1 team was a failure.”
In 1978, after the defection from the Shadow team that created Arrows, Shadow boss Don Nichols hired Jo to rebuild his team. There were only three employees left, and the opening round in Argentina was four weeks off. Jo set to, hiring mechanics, welders and fabricators: “I was as busy as a dog digging a hole in a marble floor.” They got two cars to Buenos Aires for Clay Regazzoni and Hans Stuck, and both finished.
One of the hirings was a young lad called Nigel Stepney, who was desperate to get into F1. “He’d been working on the Broadspeed touring car team, a very bright guy, very quick, very hard-working, and a fantastic mechanic. My second year at Shadow our drivers were Elio de Angelis and Jan Lammers, and when Elio went to Lotus he asked Chapman to hire Nigel too.”
From Shadow Jo went to ATS, and then Teddy Yip’s Theodore team. Then in late 1983 Ron Dennis, whom Jo had known since Ron was a Cooper mechanic in the 1960s, offered him the job of McLaren’s team co-ordinator. He was to stay for 18 years, and the roster of drivers he worked with in that time is impressive: Lauda, Watson, Rosberg, Johansson, Berger, Häkkinen, Brundle, Blundell, Magnussen, Mansell, Coulthard and Räikkönen. And, of course, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
“When I joined McLaren it was Lauda and Prost. Alain was very professional, very down-to-earth. He would always go just as quick as he needed to go. If someone beat him to pole on 1min 24.38sec, he would go out and do 1min 24.34sec. I don’t know how he could do that. Later, when Keke Rosberg was with us, after the race his cars would be finished, brakes, tyres, gears, everything chewed up. Alain’s car would be perfect for another race.
“Niki had to cope with Alain coming into the team, just like Alonso has to cope with Hamilton now. Niki was very clever: he couldn’t beat him in the car, so he beat him outside it, with the team, with the press, all the other things. Alain won seven GPs that year, Niki won five, but Niki got the title by half a point. But the next two years Alain was champion.
“When Ayrton arrived in 1988 Alain was very comfortable with that, received him with open arms. At first it worked pretty well. There was respect between them, they could have been good friends. But Ayrton was always so determined to beat Alain. He didn’t care about anyone else. When he crashed at Monaco in 1988 he had built up a huge lead, but after Alain took second place he started to go faster and faster, breaking the lap record over and over. He didn’t need to, because he was 46 seconds ahead, and Ron was desperately trying to slow him down. And then he crashed at Portier. He got out of the car, pushed past the marshals and disappeared.
“I couldn’t find him for hours and hours. I kept calling his apartment in the Avenue Princesse Grace over and over, but his phone didn’t answer. Finally his Brazilian housekeeper picked up. I’d been there for dinner with Ayrton two nights before, so I knew this lady, and I talked to her in Portuguese. She said, ‘He is not here.’ I said, ‘I know he is there, it’s Jo, he will talk to me.’ In the end she passed the phone to Ayrton, and he was still crying. He said, ‘I touched the barrier at the apex and then went to the other side and hit hard. I am the biggest idiot in the world.’
“At Estoril Alan took pole and won the race. Ayrton led from the start, but at the end of the first lap Alain came out of the corner before the pits quicker and slipstreamed alongside. Then Ayrton pulled across on him and almost squeezed him against the pitwall. Alain was really mad at that. After the race he shouted across to Ayrton, ‘If you want the championship so bad you are ready to kill for it, you can have it.’
“That year Ayrton won eight GPs, Alain won seven. In the end Alain had scored 105 points, Ayrton had 94, but on the dropping-points rule Ayrton was champion by three points. Then at Imola in 1989 they were both on the front row, with the Ferraris behind. Ayrton was the one who suggested they should not fight into the first corner and risk throwing the race away to Ferrari. So they agreed that whoever had the best start would stay ahead until they came out of Tosa, and then they would race. The race started, Ayrton led, took the ideal line into Tosa. Prost followed him and made no attempt to go up the inside. Then Gerhard Berger had his big accident, with the Ferrari on fire, so they stopped the race. I remember so clear before the restart, Ayrton said to Alan, ‘Same routine, OK?’ And Alain said, ‘OK’. But this time Alain made the best start and went into Tosa first, looked in his mirrors, no worries, braked, took a wide line, and boom, Senna went by on the inside.
“Alan was just so mad about that, and afterwards they had it out in front of Ron. But Ayrton said, ‘No, the agreement was not to pass under braking for Tosa, but I passed you before the braking point.’ It was not true, but the thing with Ayrton, he would tell himself something over and over, and then he would believe it himself.
“Then Alain gave an interview to the French press and said Senna was a liar. After that they hardly spoke to each other, which made things difficult inside the team. After a while Alain tried to make it up, but Ayrton wouldn’t hear of it. Ayrton became a little paranoid. At Hockenheim he had a slow tyre stop: the mechanic on the slow wheel normally worked on Alain’s car, and Ayrton said he did it on purpose.”
And then in Japan, with the championship battle going to the wire between the two McLaren drivers, came that notorious collision in the chicane six laps from the end. Alain went off to Ferrari for 1990, and they returned to Suzuka 12 months later with the battle for the title once again between the two of them.
“The McLaren and the Ferrari were side by side on the front row, and Ayrton said to me before the race, ‘He better not get to the first corner before me, because I’m not going to slow down.’ So you knew if Prost was in front there was going to be an accident. And that’s what happened. I was gutted when I saw that. It wasn’t until a year later that Senna admitted it was a deliberate thing, a payment for the year before.
“He was not an easy man. He was so intense. On the grid for his last race for McLaren, Australia 1993, he beckoned me over. I thought he wanted some help with his seat belts. He grabbed my hand very hard and said, ‘I feel very strange doing this in a McLaren for the last time.’ At that point Ferrari and McLaren were on 103 GP wins each since the beginning of F1, so if we won that day McLaren would become the most winning F1 team of all time. So I said to Ayrton, ‘If you win this one for us, I will love you for ever.’ And he gripped my hand harder and I could see tears in his eyes. I thought, ‘Damn, I don’t want to make him emotional when the race is about to start.’ But no problem: he won the race.
“When Prost left Gerhard Berger replaced him, and Gerhard was very good for Ayrton. He wasn’t a threat to him, and he made him laugh. Gerhard was terrible for practical jokes, and Ayrton learned to play a few jokes too. Over the winter Ayrton would disappear to Brazil, he’d say, ‘I don’t want to do any testing, call me when the car is ready.’ At the end of the 1990 season Gerhard said, ‘I will work very hard over the winter, I will get very fit, I will do all the testing, so I will be really sharp.’ And then Ayrton turns up for the first race at Phoenix and straight away he’s over two seconds a lap quicker than Gerhard. Gerhard was so demoralised he nearly wanted to leave the team. I told him, ‘Don’t worry, this guy is different, you won’t go quicker than him. Just get as close to him as you can.’ By the time Gerhard left us in 1992 to go to Ferrari he was burned out. He said to me, ‘I love Ayrton, I go on holidays with him, but I can’t keep driving in the same team when I haven’t a hope in hell of beating him.’”
“Senna was very much aware of the dangers of motor racing. He never thought he could cause his own death – none of them do, do they? But the fear is always that something will happen that is not under their control. When he crashed at La Peraltada in practice for the 1991 Mexican Grand Prix, and was trapped in the car upside down, he was shaken. I took him back to his hotel, and he said to me, ‘Today I saw it come close.’ I tried to make a joke of it, so I told him the old Mexican saying, ‘A bad weed never dies’…
“I used to arrange hire cars for the McLaren drivers, book their helicopters, all that. At Imola in 1994, although Ayrton was with Williams now, he came to me on Saturday and asked me if I’d mind booking a helicopter right after the race to get to Forli, where his plane was, so he could fly to Portugal. Roland Ratzenberger had been killed on that day, which had shocked everybody, and Ayrton was missing his girlfriend Adriane and wanted to get home as soon as possible. I said I was glad to do it: it showed that although we were in different teams now we were still friends. I went to see him on Sunday after the warm-up and told him where the helicopter would be and what name it was booked in.
“When the crash happened I just tried to carry on and do my work. He had been at the top for so long, your mind did not associate something happening to a man like that. The race was stopped, then restarted. After the race I kept doing the things I had to do, and Keke Rosberg came over and said, ‘You heard the news?’ I knew what he meant. I said, ‘Don’t tell me it’s bad?’ Keke said, ‘It’s bad.’ It was a terrible day.
“That morning, in the pit lane, Prost was there for French TV, and he said to me, ‘Guess what, I talked with Ayrton and we had a really nice friendly chat. It was like when we were first going to be driving together, no animosity either way.’ I said, ‘Good, maybe you are going to become friends.’ A week later, Alain was one of the coffin bearers at Ayrton’s funeral.
“Ayrton was an extraordinary man. He pushed the standard higher in everything he did. Everyone who worked with him learned something from him. He was such a precise guy in everything he did, the way he controlled his life. He probably could have become Prime Minister of Brazil. He wouldn’t have just retired and spent his millions. He would have done something for his people.
“At McLaren Ron was always very intense about trophies. He believed they were team property. He had it written into drivers’ contracts that they couldn’t keep any trophies they won. But Ayrton insisted in his contract that he kept his trophies. So Ron got me to find out the maker of each trophy and get replicas made. Ayrton said to me, ‘Make sure mine is the real one.’ Ron said, ‘Don’t you ever give him the real one.’ I told both of them they were getting the real one, and I’m not going to tell you now which I did!
“But Prost was never interested in trophies. His last win for McLaren was Monza 1989, when he’d already signed for Ferrari. The crowd of tifosi around the podium were shouting ‘copa, copa,’ so he dropped the cup down to them. They tore it to pieces, of course – one guy got the handle, one got the lid. Ron was furious. He thought Alain was saying I don’t give a shit, I’m leaving McLaren, I’m going to Ferrari. Alain didn’t mean it like that at all. He just thought it would be a nice gesture to the crowd.
“Mika Häkkinen was very uncomplicated. Sometimes he’d try impossible things because he was too naïve to understand they couldn’t be done. And sometimes he succeeded. Overtaking Schumacher at the top of the hill at Spa: I wonder if even the Sennas and Prosts could have done that. The guy was so cool, never got excited.
“David Coulthard is the nicest guy, a real team player. In qualifying perhaps he doesn’t have the killer instinct like Mika did, but on his day, on his track, he is a very fine racing driver. At the 2001 Hungarian GP it happened to be my 60th birthday, and Mika and David produced a beautiful leather jacket and put it on me. A really nice present, I thought. On the back of the jacket was the Harley Davidson badge, so I said jokingly, ‘Now all I need is the bike.’ They lifted me onto their shoulders and carried me to the back of the motorhome, and I heard the sound of a big bike being revved up, and there was a brand new shiny Harley-Davidson. They had bought it for me. I had a big lump in my throat, I couldn’t say anything. It was one of the nicest things that ever happen to me, so generous for them to do. And they say F1 drivers have deep pockets and short arms…”
Is Bernie Ecclestone as terrifying as he seems? “I always got on brilliant with Bernie. He said to me, ‘I envy how you can be friends with everybody.’ I said, ‘I’m not important like you, so I don’t need enemies.’ When I was at Fittipaldi and we were short of money I did a dodge to save on FOCA travel costs to Long Beach, and he found out. I was petrified, I thought, shit, Bernie will really make me suffer for this. In the paddock he pulled to me to one side and said, ‘Ramirez one, Ecclestone nil. But it’s only half-time…’ He never held it against me, seemed to like me for it. It’s how he is, he loves the game.”
Jo’s last race for McLaren was Indianapolis 2001. In the paddock afterwards, long-standing friends such as Emerson Fittipaldi and Placido Domingo drank champagne with him. Then the mechanics gave him their own send-off: he was tied to a tyre trolley and pelted with eggs. Now he divides his time between Spain, where he has built a house near Mijas, and London. Tragically Bea, his wife of 38 years, died of cancer in 2005.
Does he miss Formula 1? “Of course, very much. After 40 years on the inside, it is a strange feeling to be on the outside looking in. You don’t want to abuse your welcome. I see old friends, they want to talk, but I know they are busy and I am taking up their time. But I still go to two grands prix a year, Barcelona and Silverstone. I know Lewis Hamilton from when he came to the McLaren factory as a kid, so I am up to speed.”
He has been up to speed across five decades. Jo Ramirez has been part of the Clark era, the Stewart era, the Senna era, the Schumacher era and now the Hamilton era. He has given his working life to motor racing: and he wouldn’t have had it any different. Even now, he is still a link in the chain.