Mexico’s best circuit – the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez – is named in honour of the country’s two great F1 drivers, legendary brothers Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez. Ahead of this weekend’s race at the track that bears their name, F1 Hall of Fame journalist David Tremayne remembers their tragic story…
They were born in Mexico City, Pedro on January 18, 1940, Ricardo on February 14, 1942, and were close friends as well as brothers. Pedro saw in Ricardo the spark of unique talent; Ricardo learned from his older sibling’s own impressive performances.
They called Ricardo El Chamaco – The Kid. He was stocky, handsome and rode, swam, skied and water skied with aplomb. He was Mexico’s champion motorcycle racer by the age of 13, and a nerveless race car driver by 15.
Today he is better known to many fans as the tragic younger brother of the better-known Pedro, who would himself go on to win two Grands Prix, and whose exploits in sportscars, particularly in the wet, were other-worldly.
But when Ricardo was alive he was the national hero and the rising star on the international racing scene, and Pedro walked in his shadow.
The brothers spearheaded Mexico’s thrusting global sporting emergence and were celebrities who rubbed shoulders with the likes of President Lopez-Mateos, a close ally of their father Don Pedro who financed their ambitions.
After impressing against top line US drivers, Ricardo was spotted by US Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti who ran the North American Racing Team, NART. By 1960 Ricardo was racing a NART Ferrari 250GT and finishing second at Le Mans with Andre Pilette. He and Pedro also finished third in the Sebring 12 Hours and second in the Nurburgring 1000 kms.
The following season Ricardo was recruited by Enzo Ferrari for his works team, becoming the youngest driver in Formula 1 at 19. He would repay that faith by winning the Montlhery 1000kms, and again in 1962 when he also won the Targa Florio with established stars Olivier Gendebien and Willy Mairesse.
At Le Mans in 1962 he and Pedro wrote another dramatic chapter with a fantastic drive in Chinetti’s 2.4-litre 246SP to keep the pressure on the winning works 4-litre 330 TR1/LM driven by Hill and Gendebien.
Their secret was driving flat-out even in darkness, and they kept the veterans honest for 15 hours before the NART racer’s transmission wilted after 174 laps.
In F1 Ricardo was frequently as quick in 1961 as world champion-elect Phil Hill, albeit less restrained. At Spa in 1962, when Ferrari’s V6 was left breathless against the British Climax and BRM V8s, he finished fourth in Hill’s wheeltracks, then out-qualified him round the Nurburgring before finishing sixth.
When Ferrari decided not to participate in an inaugural non-championship F1 race in Mexico City in November, Ricardo did a deal to race Rob Walker’s Lotus 24 Climax in front of his adoring countrymen.
Rob worried that they expected him to win, “which was a lot of pressure for such a young man”. Typically, he called Ricardo from England on the morning of Thursday, November 1, to wish him good luck.
Ricardo was thrilled with the 24 even if it wasn’t the latest Lotus, and was fastest in practice until John Surtees went slightly quicker near the end of the session in his Bowmaker Lola. Ricardo got back into the cockpit, crossed himself, kissed his father’s hand, and went out to restore local honour.
He lost control on the bumpiest part of the famed 180-degree Peraltada corner’s banking, and when the Lotus hit the barrier head-on he was thrown out and suffered the same horrific injuries as Francois Cevert would nine years later.
Rob wondered if the 24’s tricky handling on the limit had caught him out; others suggested that the gifted 20-year-old’s final run had been no do or die effort, but that perhaps a suspension component had broken.
His death touched Mexican society at every level, just as Ayrton Senna’s would later in Brazil.
“It was as if my whole world had ended,” famed mechanic and team co-ordinator Jo Ramirez admitted in his autobiography. “I was ill for two days, shivering and shaking, without the will to do anything. I never thought that I’d take the death of someone who wasn’t one of my own family so hard; but then Ricardo had come to be like one of my family.
“He was always such a good friend, there whenever I needed him, always happy, always ready for a joke. He won the affection of all his fellow drivers because, although he was quicker than most of them, he was of a very simple nature.
“He should have won the world championship one day and brought it to Mexico, as was his dream.”
For some years thereafter Pedro languished, occasionally driving Grands Prix as stand-in at Lotus but apparently unsure whether he should be doing it. Where Ricardo had been the extrovert, he was introverted.
But then he joined Cooper in 1967, and through slightly fortuitous circumstances won first time out in the South African GP. For the remainder of the season he gave team leader Jochen Rindt a hard time, and that said it all.
“I think he thought about giving it up after Ricardo was killed,” said Ramirez. “But that didn’t last long. I think that Ricardo was perhaps a little bit more mad about racing at first, but then Pedro began to take his very seriously.”
At Brands Hatch in March 1968 I watched him drag his BRM P133 from the back of the grid (after a late spark plug change), to second place in the Race of Champions.
Back then BRM was my team, and his drive that day was magnificent. I still believe that, had he started from his rightful position on the third row of the grid, he might have beaten eventual winner Bruce McLaren.
All that season he drove the underpowered BRM beautifully against rivals with Ford’s more potent Cosworth V8s. He led in the International Trophy race at Silverstone, and the Spanish GP, before crashing on oil.
He was a great second at Spa despite a broken front anti-rollbar, a superb third in the wet at Zandvoort, and led a lap in the rain at Rouen where he was on target to finish second until the gearbox broke.
Fastest lap owed more to his talent than to the car, for by that time development of the Len Terry-designed machine had faltered following the death of team-mate Mike Spence. He was sixth in the rain and fog at Nurburgring, third in Canada, fourth in Mexico.
When he won Le Mans that season, driving John Wyer’s JW Automotive Ford GT40, he had become a seasoned professional, reaping the respect he deserved.
After BRM boss Louis Stanley stupidly dropped him for 1969, he bounced back with the rejuvenated Bourne team in 1970. He won the Belgian GP at Spa despite race-long pressure from Chris Amon’s March, and finally the cognoscenti acknowledged that he had matured into a truly world class driver.
A stunning drive in the Gulf Porsche 917 in appalling conditions in the Brands Hatch 1000kms endorsed that view.
The rain truly was his metier, and that drive was arguably the greatest wet weather performance of all time. Delayed by a black flag and a lecture from Clerk of the Course Nick Syrett for inadvertently passing under a yellow that he simply hadn’t seen in the murk, Pedro simply stared ahead until it was over, then boiled back into the race a lap down.
Where Vic Elford, no mean racer himself, would push his Porsche Salzburg 917 through the 180 degree Druids right-hander in a series of 50p-like slides, Pedro slithered the Gulf car through in one harmonious oversteer arc that was the purest artistry.
He beat Elford by five laps, driving one of the most powerful cars in the world on an ice rink. Like Bernd Rosemeyer and the Auto Union, Pedro and the 917 were made for each other. Nobody drove it better.
John Wyer, as no-nonsense a character as ever ran a race team, had no doubts whatsoever. “To me, Pedro was the greatest driver of his time… I mean, the greatest.”
Wyer’s team manager David Yorke thought him, “one of the most intelligent drivers around today. He can analyse a situation almost before it develops.”
“It was as if he had sleight of hand in the wet,” said a resigned Chris Amon, adding of that day at Spa, “Pedro never put a wheel wrong, just drove beautifully. He was just so precise, everywhere. If it hadn’t been for finishing only second, it would have been beautiful to watch.”
“The other drivers used to joke about it and say, ‘Why doesn’t someone tell Pedro it’s bloody raining…’” BRM team manager Tim Parnell said. “It was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, the way he could balance the car!”
The week after a faulty fuel metering unit forced him to settle for second to fellow rainmaster Jacky Ickx after a feisty battle at Zandvoort in 1971, Pedro was racing the Gulf Porsche in the Osterreichring 1000kms.
He led initially, then lost six minutes with a flat battery, fought back, surrendered the wheel for only 10 laps to team-mate Dickie Attwood, then jumped back in and stormed back on to the lead lap. He won after pressurising Clay Regazzoni into crashing his Ferrari.
Wyer firmly believed that to be his greatest race, while spectating journalist Mike Cotton remembered: “It was an amazing drive, four and a half hours. And when he got out of the car he wasn’t even sweating.”
Though he was tough on the track he was also fair. But he was aloof, telling Parnell, “I don’t really like to know the other drivers, or for them to know me too well and perhaps know how I think and react to things.”
Never one to waste a racing weekend, when BRM’s P167 CanAm car broke its Chevrolet in testing he accepted a drive in an Interseries sportscar race at the Norisring in Herbie Muller’s Ferrari 512M.
He was leading when, it is thought, the right front suspension or wheel broke and he crashed to a fiery death.
Pedro was Anglicised and dapper with his Bentley and his deerstalker hat, though friends often had cause to regret that he always carried a bottle of Tabasco sauce with him, too. To those for whom he drove, especially the mechanics, he was a fearless little god.
For this young fan, he was my first racing driver hero. And July 11, 1971 remains one of those days when a light went out in racing.