Mexican maestros who dared all to win

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THE RODRIGUEZ brothers were the Mexican masters of motorsport but they both drove like demons and paid the price for their bravery. PETER COSTER salutes the deed of two great drivers:

THE MEXICAN Grand Prix returned as a championship event two years ago after a break of 23 years, reviving the passion and pride of the highly-emotional Mexican aficionados. Children waving Mexican flags weep for their heroes.

Aficionados is a Spanish word appropriated by the English. The greatest drivers are remembered in the name of the circuit in Mexico City, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, which is Spanish for the Brothers Rodriguez.

Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez were two of the most talented drivers to race on the world’s motor racing circuits.

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The first race at what was then the Magdalena Mixhuca circuit drew a vast and excited crowd to watch Ricardo, who was a works Ferrari driver at the age of 19.

Looking more like a schoolboy than a racing driver, he was in the car not because of his father’s money, but a prodigious talent that many believed would make him a world champion.

The race was a non-championship event and Enzo Ferrari saw no reason to enter his cars, but the teenage Rodriguez was determined to drive in front of an ecstatic home crowd and paid to enter a privately-owned Lotus 24.

One of the corners on the circuit was the banked and frighteningly-fast Peraltada, where Rodriguez either refused to lift off or crashed to his death because of a suspension failure when the lightly-built Lotus hit a bump in the track.

Two years younger than Pedro, he was thought to be the more gifted of the brothers, particularly in sportscars. Ricardo had won an international sports car race at Riverside in California at the age of 15.

Ricardo had been refused entry at the Le Mans 24-hour race at the age of 16, but two years later finished second driving a Ferrari for Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team. Chinetti was the United States dealer for Ferrari’s fabulously-fast road cars.

That second placing brought an invitation to drive for Ferrari in the 1961 Italian Grand Prix at Monza where Rodriguez qualified a 10th of a second behind polesitter Wolfgang Von Trips and nearly a second ahead of that year’s world champion, the American Phil Hill, also in a Ferrari.

Italian GP at Monza, 1961. (Photo by: GP Library/UIG via Getty Images)

A year later he was dead, some said trying to drive beyond the limit to stay ahead of another future world champion, John Surtees, who bettered Rodriguez’s qualifying time.

His friend, Jo Ramirez, believed Rodriguez would have been the equal of Alain Prost or Ayrton Senna, both future world champions. “He was very, very special,” said Ramirez.

Ricardo’s death devastated his family and it seemed all of Mexico, but Pedro Rodriguez was to emerge as a driver close to the brilliance of his brother.

He won the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami in 1967 on his debut for the Cooper works team.

Over the next four seasons, he drove not only for Cooper, but also for BRM and Ferrari.

This was the so-called “golden age of motorsport”.

But it was also the bloody red years of motorsport when so many drivers died.

Professional drivers were in demand and raced almost every weekend. Sportscar racing then was a very close second to Formula One.

I was one of its aficionados, very aware of the Rodriguez brothers and Pedro, who was colourful off the track as well as one of the best drivers, but I arrived in London too late to see the little Mexican master at the wheel in his relaxed, arms-length style.

He won the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa and the non-championship International Spring Trophy at Luxton Park, where the New Zealand driver, Chris Amon, was only a second or so behind him. After the race, Amon said he was waiting for a mistake that never came. “Pedro’s precision was fabulous.”

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Rodriguez regarded winning the 1968 Le Mans 24-hour race alongside Lucien Bianchi in a thundering Ford GT40 as his greatest race. Even more impressive was his handling of the legendary Porsche 917 in the world sportscar championship.

The little Mexican master had become a little Englishman, living in Britain and wearing a deerstalker hat as he drove about the country lanes in a Bentley.

As a sportscar fan, I made the trip in a pitching hovercraft with vomiting day trippers to watch South Australian driver Vern Schuppan race at Le Mans in 1973, but it was too late to see Rodriguez in the rain.

The wet is the supreme test of nerve and skill. Pedro Rodriguez was the rain-master, faster on his day than the great Belgian driver, Jackie Ickx.

There were victories at Brands Hatch in the rain where he lapped the field and at the Osterreichring in 1971, driving the Porsche 917. The car was a flat-12 fire-breathing monster and no-one, including Jackie Ickx, could challenge Rodriguez.

His co-driver, Dickie Atwood, does not believe “anyone could have been faster in that car at that time. He was on a different planet.”

Even greater than Jo Siffert, who until then was regarded as the greatest Porsche driver of all time. Pedro was peerless.

Atwood was content to hold his place while Rodriguez took his mandatory driving breaks. “I never envisaged Pedro having a long life,” said Atwood. “I’m not saying he had a death wish, but he left no margin for error.”

When the little rain-master stepped from the Gulf Racing Porsche, no sweat was seen on his face and his slick hair was dry.

Two weeks later he was dead after taking a pay drive in an old Ferrari that had seen better days. It crashed through suspected mechanical failure when Rodriguez was in the lead.

At the Mexican Grand Prix at the end of last month, two weeks before the circus moved on to Brazil, where Felipe Massa drove his last Brazilian GP before he retires after the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi this Sunday, the Mexican aficionados remembered the Hermanos Rodriguez.

Although I missed seeing Pedro at Le Mans, death having got in the way, I imagined him, tiny behind the wheel of the Porsche 917. Standing in a downpour along the seemingly-endless Mulsanne Straight, I imagined him sitting calmly at more than 200 mph, the headlights showing only a misty tunnel between the surrounding trees.

Sitting with Vern Schuppan, Derek Bell and John Watson in the Gulf Mirage caravan before the race, I asked Schuppan, who was to win there 10 years later, what it took to drive down that tunnel in the dark, in what must seem a race towards oblivion.

“Balls to the wall,” he grinned.

The Rodriguez brothers had big cojones.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

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