For many Mexicans, the sports that mean the most are football and baseball, with national heroes such as Hugo Sánchez, Rafael Márquez or Fernando Valenzuela.
But with the rise of Sergio Pérez as a driver for Sauber, Formula One is once more regaining the popularity in Mexico that the sport last had in the 1960s. Back then, the main reason for the sport’s high profile was a pair of brothers: Ricardo and Pedro Rodríquez.
The two boys were born in Mexico City, Pedro on 18th January 1940 and his younger brother, Ricardo, was born just over two years later on 14th February 1942. Both raced bicycles and motorbikes successfully from a young age – Pedro was a national motorcycle champion at the age of 13 – and made the transition successfully from two wheels to four.
Initially it was Ricardo, the younger brother, who made more of an impact. In 1956 he was refused entry to race at Le Mans as he was considered too young at 14. He tried again at the age of 16 but was again refused until finally, in 1959, he made his debut at La Sarthe. The following year, he partnered André Pilette to second place in the race and became the youngest driver ever to stand on the Le Mans podium at just 18 years of age.
In 1961 Ricardo was offered a drive with Ferrari. The two brothers had driven sportscars for the North American Racing Team (NART), which attempted to promote the Ferrari brand in the USA, but this was an opportunity to drive for the Scuderia itself. His F1 debut was on the Italian squad’s home turf at Monza that year, where he made an immediate impression by qualifying second, becoming the youngest driver to start from the front row of the grid. Unfortunately he was forced to retire due to problems with the fuel pump after just thirteen laps.
The following season he again raced for Ferrari and at Spa came home fourth, becoming the youngest driver to score points in an F1 race – a record which he kept for another 38 years until Jenson Button finished sixth for Williams at Interlagos in 2000. Unfortunately Ferrari decided not to enter the non-championship Mexican Grand Prix that year at the Magdelena Mixhuca racetrack in Mexico City. Offered the opportunity to drive instead for Lotus, he took the opportunity to perform in front of his home fans, but tragically his rear right suspension failed during the first day of practice and he crashed into the barriers at the final curve. Ricardo was killed instantly. The entire country was plunged into mourning and his brother Pedro, racing in sportscars, considered retiring. The circuit changed its name soon after to the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez (Rodriguez Brothers Racetrack) as a memorial to the great young driver and to his brother.
Although he considered quitting after the death of his brother, Pedro carried on behind the wheel and made his own Formula One debut driving for Lotus in the 1963 US Grand Prix, where he retired due to engine problems after 36 laps. He drove in the following race, the Mexican Grand Prix, now a championship race, a year after his brother’s death, where he again failed to finish. That race was, incidentally, the only F1 race that has featured a car numbered 13, driven by fellow Mexican Moisés Solana.
Pedro made occasional forays into F1 over the next three seasons, driving in one American and two Mexican Grands Prix for NART in 1964 and ’65, then driving for Lotus again in four races in 1966. The following season though he started driving for Cooper, and took part in eight out of eleven races for the team, winning his first race for them in South Africa at Kyalami and eventually finishing the season sixth in the driver’s world championship.
This impressive form allowed him to move to the BRM team for the ’68 season, where despite never really gelling with the team he again finished sixth in the world championship, only to be moved to BRM’s second string team under Reg Parnell. Frustrated by this Pedro left BRM after Monaco, following his third DNF out of three races as a result of technical problems, and spent the rest of the ’69 season driving a Ferrari 312, under Scuderia colours in Europe and in NART colours in North America.
Ferrari did not offer him a drive in 1970, but as BRM has lost John Surtees at the last minute after he left to set up his own team, they offered Pedro the number two seat alongside Jackie Oliver. He quickly proved himself once again as a driver and in 1971 many saw him as a potential world champion. However alongside Formula One, Pedro had always continued to race in other motorsports, including Can-Am, sportscars and rallying and it was in a sportscar race at the Norisring in Nuremburg, driving a Ferrari 512, that Pedro Rodríguez hit a bridge wall and was killed as his car burst into flames. For a second time Mexico had lost one of its great drivers and the nation was in mourning once more.
It is always difficult to assess the ‘what might have beens’ of Formula One – they may never have become world champions, but it is clear that neither of the Rodríguez brothers achieved what they were truly capable of. Perhaps Sergio Pérez will finally win the first world championship for a Mexican driver that was denied to them and who knows, perhaps he will even do it driving for Ferrari, the same team that both of the hermanos Rodríguez drove for during their careers.