Ricardo RodrÃguez was a wild and fearless Mexican who entered Grand Prix racing with a bang. He was already being considered as a future World Champion when he was prematurely taken away just over a year later in his inaugural home GP.
Ricardo Rodríguez was born in Mexico City, Mexico, February 14th, 1942, the younger of the two racing Rodriguez brothers. Their father, Don Pedro Rodriguez, amassed considerable wealth and influence from a variety of different business interests in the 1950s, after he was head of the country's elite motorcycle police unit, including being the sole supplier of the 202 litre barrels that Pemex, the state oil company, used.
Ricardo started out competing on bicycles, and he followed the footsteps of Pedro, his older sibling, and became national youth champion, before switching to motorbikes and winning several Mexican championships in different classes. He quit motorcycle racing formally in 1957, when he was already racing cars and on his way to his first national title.
He started with a FIAT 500 Topolino and he moved on to an Opel and several larger touring cars but his first proper racing car was an OSCA 1500, which he promptly substituted with a Porsche 550RS in which he made his international debut at the inauguration of Riverside, California racetrack, in September 1957, and won the under 1.5 litre class, beating some of the best American drivers in the process. He repeated the feat at the Nassau Trophy, and the world suddenly took notice of a new star.
In 1958 he started having trouble with his age and his entry was refused for Sebring, so Don Pedro and the Mexican national representative to the FIA asked for a clarification. Don Pedro had bought a Ferrari 500 TRC (0600), which Pedro raced in Nassau, and it was entered in Le Mans by the N.A.R.T. of Luigi Chinetti, but the organisers refused to let him run, although they allowed Pedro, who was already 18. He was partnered by José Behra, brother of the famous Jean.
After more international excursions and an almost complete domination of Mexican races, in 1959 the brothers were allowed to race at Sebring, after the FIA ruled age was not a factor if ability was proved. Ricardo raced a works OSCA S750 TN Sport at Daytona USA, but was refused an entry for a NASCAR race, and the brothers raced a similar car ((766) at Le Mans, retiring on lap 32 with overheating. He also overturned a new RSK at Meadowdale, and by the end of the year he was racing a Dino 196S and a Testa Rossa 250 at Nassau.
In 1960, he used the RSK in Cuba, but partnered Pedro in the Dino at Sebring and they did a small European tour taking the Targa and Nürburgring before Le Mans, taking 7th in Sicily, but retiring at Sebring and at the Nürburgring. At Le Mans, the brothers were separated; Ricardo drove the North American Racing Team's Ferrari 250 TR (0766). He finished second, driving with Andre Pilette, behind the works Ferrari of Paul Frere and Olivier Gendebien, the youngest driver ever to stand on the podium. Towards the end of the year, they started racing Formula Junior and karts. Ricardo and Pedro finished 2nd in the 250TR (0746) at the Nassau Trophy, behind Dan Gurney.
In January 1961 he won his first single-seater race, driving a Cooper Formula Junior at Mexico City, beating Lorenzo Bandini and Jim Hall, among others, in a program in which he won another three races in different classes, using a Sunbeam Rapier, an Alfa TI and a Corvette.
In the 1961 World Sportscar Championship at Sebring, Pedro and Ricardo finished third in the 12 Hour race driving a Ferrari 250 TR59/60 (0746), and took a fine second place in the Nürburgring 1000 Kms in a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa (0780). They would have been 8th at Le Mans but were not running at the finish in another NART TR250 (0792). They had had an epic duel with the winners, Gendebien and Phil Hill, which saw them alternating the lead for about 17 hours.
Invited by Enzo Ferrari to drive for Ferrari in the Italian Grand Prix that year, he sensationally qualified on the front row, just a tenth slower than World Championship leader Wolfgang Von Trips. He challenged Phil Hill and Richie Ginther for the lead until a fuel pump failure put him out. He thus became the youngest ever driver to debut in an F1 race. Though he had retired early in the race, he had shown enough for Enzo Ferrari to sign him for a full season 1962. And the brothers finished the year winning the Paris 1000 Kms in a 250GT SWB (3005) and came back with several trophies from Nassau.
In the 1962 F1 campaign he was used sparingly partly due to his age and partly because he still had a few rough edges and Ferrari were also going through a tough time and were far from the dominant team of previous year. Never the less, Ricardo finished second in the non-championship F1 race at Pau and picked up World Championship points with a fourth in the Belgian GP, having let Hill by on the last lap on team orders, and a sixth in Germany, where no other Ferrari 156 finished.
For 1962, already married, Ricardo came second, driving a Ferrari Dino 246SP (0796) with Phil Hill, in the 3 Hours of Daytona in February. He then retired at Sebring with Pedro, but in May 1962 he won the 46° Targa Florio driving the same car, with Olivier Gendebien and Willy Mairesse, the youngest winner of a World Championship race. The brothers failed to finish the Nürburgring 1000 Kms and the Le Mans 24 Hour race, though Ricardo had set the fastest lap and they led for several hours against the 4-litre TR of Phil and Olivier. At the end of the season, on 21st October they repeated their win at the 1000 Kms of Paris, at Montlhéry, in a Ferrari 250 GTO (3987).
Ricardo was already being considered as a future World Champion, but had to find a car when Ferrari opted not to enter the non-Championship Mexican Grand Prix. He therefore signed to drive Rob Walker's Lotus 24 Climax V8 (941). He desperately wanted to win the first Mexican F1 GP, and he was the first driver out on track when it opened for non-official practice Thursday before the race.
At 17:00 on the 1st November 1962 Ricardo had finished for the day, after more than 80 laps, he had stepped out of the car. John Surtees had just set the fastest time in a similar car, and when the mechanics told him that the Lotus’ carburetion problem was fixed, Ricardo decided to go back out again to get back the fastest lap. After one practice lap, he went to set a time. Witnesses said that they remembered seeing something brake in the rear of the vehicle that then veered sharply to the left in the middle of the fearsome 180-degree banked Peraltada corner and crashed heavily at about 140 km/h. The Lotus was caught in the space between the guardrail and the track, and Ricardo was almost sliced in half by the windshield as he was thrown out. The car caught fire; Ricardo landed on the rail and died instantly. Though some of the other drivers and witnesses think he went in to the corner too fast, Trintignant, who raced the car at the US GP earlier that year in October and had ended up in the grass, feared the suspension might have been damaged and that caused the accident; Lotus were well known for these kind of problems, in fact Innes Ireland had just broken a hub in practice in another Lotus.
After the accident, his brother Pedro announced his retirement though some months later he changed his mind and went back to racing, winning the Daytona Continental in 1963 and later, in his ninth F1 race, the South African GP in a Cooper-Maserati in 1967. Then, just as he was developing into one of the sport's greatest all-rounders, he was killed in an Interseries Group 7 race at the German Norisring in July 1971.
hr. With thanks to Carlos E. Jalife, Secretary General of the Scuderia Hermanos RodrÃguez A. C.and author of the definitive biography on the RodrÃguez brothers.