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Ricardo Rodriguez: Youth, Fame & Tragedy in F1

In September 1961 the then 19 year old Ricardo Rodríguez arrived in Grand Prix racing. He was the youngest ever driver to appear in F1, until the arrival of Max Verstappen in 2016. His full family name in the Mexican style was Ricardo Valentin Rodríguez de la Vega. His older brother Pedro also became a famous F1 driver.

Ricardo Rodríguez began by racing bicycles and motorcycles. His first important automobile race was in 1957 at Riverside near Los Angeles where he won his class driving a Porsche 550RS. His career was lavishly financed and encouraged by his father Don Pedro Rodríguez who was helped by Luigi Chinetti and his North American Racing Team.

With Chinetti's assistance Rodríguez was entered in a Ferrari 500TR at Le Mans for 1958 but was refused because of his age and inexperience, only to return the next year with an O.S.C.A. 750 co-driving with his brother Pedro. He then finished second overall at Le Mans the following year, driving a Ferrari 250TR/59 with the experienced Belgian André Pilette.

Don Pedro then arranged for his son to obtain a guest drive in a Ferrari 156/F1 at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the last Grand Prix to be run on that track's combined road and oval circuit. Ricardo astounded the observers by qualifying second just 1/10th second behind works driver Wolfgang von Trips who was on pole and ahead of both other Ferrari drivers Richie Ginther and Phil Hill. The race was marred on its second lap when von Trips and Jimmy Clark touched wheels on the approach to Parabolica at the end of the back straight with von Trips being killed along with 15 spectators in the resulting crash. Rodríguez ran as high as second place but retired on the thirteenth lap with reported fuel pump failure.

Rodríguez appeared during 1962 in a Ferrari F1 car at four races, but the Ferraris were now not as successful as in the prior year and their entries were sometimes pulled due to strikes in Italy. However the young Rodríguez had success with both sports and GT cars during 1962, sharing a win at the Targa Florio with Willy Mairesse in a Ferrari 246SP and another win with his brother Pedro at the 1000km of Paris at Montlhéry with a Ferrari 250GTO.

Rodríguez very much wanted to compete in his home Grand Prix in November, but Ferrari decided not to send a car. Don Pedro therefore rented a Lotus 24 from the Walker team for Ricardo to use in the Mexican Grand Prix. Ricardo was trying very hard in practice when in the final 180º banked Peraltada corner his Lotus turned sharply left and shot up the banking into and under the top guard rail. Rodríguez was thrown from the car and died instantly. The cause of the crash was never fully explained, although suspension failure was considered as was the possibility that the Lotus oversteered and Rodríguez had turned into it resulting in his car's swift change of direction on the steeply banked right-hand corner.

Photo by Günther Molter ©The Klemantaski Collection –

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