Sunday, May 4, 2008

Cinco de Mayo: Mexicali Gran Primo Piloto’s - Redux

Hector Rebaque at Speed...
Otay, I know Y’all are supposed to be hootin ‘N hollerin over the fact that it’s Cinco de Mayo… And don’t forget to eat the worm; Ariva-Ariva-Ariva…

Several years ago - when I scribbled this originally 'Wayback in 2008; (having modified it on April 30, 2012) this elspeciale day made me ponder just how many Mexicali’s had taken part in Formula 1 and did they ever host a Grand Prix? And of course some of you out there are probably way ahead of me, eh?

As yes indeed, Mexico once was a part of the Gran Primo Calendar, well actually it was part of the calendar twice, with all races being held at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, with the first race being run in 1962 as a Non Championship event. Yet, from 1963 to 1970 the Mexican GP played havoc with the then top flight Grand Prix machinery, as these carbureted beasts were extremely susceptible to the city’s notoriously thin air, since the track was at an elevation of 7,400 feet.

The 1963 Formula 1 World Championship race was won by Scotland’s Jimmy Clark, also the winner of the 1967 event, while America’s Dan Gurney claimed one of his four Grand Prix victories aboard a Brabham-Climax (1.5 liter inline four cylinder engine) race car in 1964.

The final season’s penultimate race of the 1.5 liter Normally Aspirated era (1961-65) was a watershed event, as American Ritchie Ginther scored his lone F1 race win and Honda Racing’s maiden Grand Prix victory aboard the Honda RA272 with a transversely mounted V-12 power unit. This would also be Goodyear’s very first Grand Prix victory.

Mexico City would remain on the F1 schedule thru the 1970 season, when it was dropped after the circuit was unable to control spectators from continuously hovering too close or being on the racing line…

The 4.421 Kilometer circuit located in Magdalena Mixhuca, a public park in the northeast of Mexico City was updated to FIA standards in time to return to the F1 Calendar in 1986, as high fencing and ferocious guard dogs kept spectators at bay. This event would see another surprise victor, as Gerhard Berger would score his and Benetton’s maiden Grand Prix victory, largely credited to their Pirelli tires outlasting the competition. The Autodrome would remain a fixture until 1992, when sadly once again the track would be dropped from Grand Prix competition, as the circuit’s bumps had finally outgrown the F1 Constructors welcome.

Interestingly, rumours first surfaced in 2003 about Mexico’s possible return to action with Bernie Ecclestone stating in 2006 that Mexico would indeed return to the GP limelight with a round of the 2009 season being held at a brand new $70 million facility built in Cancun, which now has fallen by the wayside.

Although CART contested a pair of races there from 1980-81, with both events being won by Rick Mears for Penske Racing, CART also turned its back upon the aging circuit which laid largely dormant until Gerry Forsythe instigated a massive rebuilding project in the new millennium.

Champ Car then began competing at the refurbished circuit from 2002 thru 2007 and could Tony George be pondering a future return to Mexico City as the Indy Car World Series? Presently, the only two major American sanctioning bodies venturing down South of the Border are Grand Am and the Nationwide series…

And while searching for Drivers, I was quite surprised to learn that only four Mexicans have ever contested the Formula One World Championship. (Prior to Sergio Perez’s F1 debut Down Under in Melbourne in 2011...)  

As you may be aware of the most notable Mexicali’s being the Rodriguez Brothers - who interestingly, their father Don Pedro reputedly made a small fortune as head of the countries elite Mexican Motorcycle Police force, thus his background of “Scooters” apparently rubbed off on his two sons, who would begin their racing careers as Motorcycle racers, as both brothers were National Champion multiple times before moving onto automobiles.

Although Ricardo was refused entrance into the 24 Heurs du Mans due to his early age (16) Ricardo and Pedro often competed in top notch machinery bought for them by their father, as the brothers contested several events for Luigi Chinetti's N.A.R.T. (North American Racing Team)

“Pedro was just 20 and his brother Ricardo was two years younger when US Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti dispatched them to Le Mans at the wheel of a Ferrari 250 "Testa Rossa." There the Mexican kids put the fear of God into all their rivals and would have won the race had the car lasted.”

Ricardo Rodriguez
Years: 1961-62
Teams: Ferrari
Races: 6 (Starts: 5)
Poles: 0
Wins: 0

Supposedly it was the younger (19yr old) brother Ricardo who sparked the Nation’s lust of hosting an International Grand Prix with his rise to prominence during his various Sports Car drives, having finished second at Le Mans and third at Sebring. These performances apparently caught the attention of Enzo, thus being invited to drive for the Scuderia Ferrari in the 1961 Italian Grand Prix before graduating to a full time works drive in 1962.

Although 1962 wasn’t a hugely successful year for Ferrari in F1, Ricardo did win the Targa Florio aboard a 246 Dino SP, while making five starts in Formula 1 (1961-62) and scored points in the Belgian and German Grand Prix’s before Enzo decided not to send his cars to Mexico City. Sadly Ricardo would perish during practice for the 1962 non-championship event while driving a rented Rob Walker Lotus 24 racing car.

Pedro Rodriguez
Years: 1963-71
Teams: Ferrari, Lotus, Cooper, BRM
Races: 54
Poles: 0
Wins: 2

While Mexico was deeply morning the loss of 20yr old Ricardo, elder brother Pedro was now contesting major Sports Car events, having won the 1963 Daytona Continental for Chinetti behind the wheel of an N.A.R.T. Ferrari 250 GTO. The Continental was the forbearer of today’s Rolex 24 and originally began as a three hour race. In 1964 Pedro would win once again, this time sharing the N.A.R.T. Ferrari 250 GTO with Formula 1 World Champion Phil Hill as the event had been lengthened to 2,000 Kilometers.

Pedro had also made his way into Formula 1 by 1963 and would blossom into Mexico’s most successful Grand Prix driver, ultimately contesting 54 Grand Prix’s for Ferrari, Lotus, Cooper and BRM, (1963-71) as Pedro would win two events, the 1967 South African GP for Cooper and the 1970 Belgian GP for BRM.

Pedro was also a gifted Sports Car pilot, having contested Le Mans 14times; Pedro was victorious for John Wyer’s Gulf Ford GT 40 effort in 1968 before signing a contract with the Englishman and winning the World Sports Car Championship aboard the all conquering Porsche 917 two years in a row.

Pedro also won the North American Ice Racing title in 1970 as well as finishing fifth in that year’s Charlotte World 600 RASSCAR event before his untimely death in a Sports Car event at the Nurburgring behind the wheel of a Ferrari 512 in 1971.

Moises Solana
Years: 1963-68
Teams: Cooper, Lotus, Scuderia Centro Sud
Races: 8
Poles: 0
Wins: 0

This is a long forgotten Formula 1 driver I hadn’t heard of previously. He was a journeyman driver who drove for Cooper, Lotus and Scuderia Centro Sud. (1963-68) along with limited forays into Formula 2 with Lotus and Ferrari, making a total of eight Grand Prix starts, primarily contesting the Mexican Grand Prix several years in a row.

Moises also contested road racing in the Northern Hemisphere, in the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) forbearer of the Can Am championship and was the first driver to score points in an USRRC International event aboard a McLaren.

Solana was killed in 1969 when he lost control of his McLaren Can Am car in a Hill Climb event upon smashing into a bridge.

Hector Rebaque
Years: 1977-81
Teams: Hesketh, Rebaque, Brabham
Races: 58 (Starts: 41)
Poles: 0
Wins: 0

A final, lesser known driver would emerge from the shadows of the Rodriguez Brothers. Coming from an affluent Mexican family, Hector bought his way into the Hesketh team in 1977, of which he had mix results at.

For 1978, Hector decided he needed better equipment and bought a used Lotus to run under the Rebaque banner. The following year he bought another used Lotus, but bbecame increasingly frustrated with his perceived lack of support from Colin Chapman. He then decided to build his own chassis and hence commissioned Penske Racing to fabricate what would become known as the HR-100, largely based on his old Lotus.

Hector made a total of 58 starts for Hesketh, Rebaque and Brabham (1977-81) and upon shutting down his languishing Rebaque team, Hector moved onwards to Bernie Ecclestone’s F1 team alongside teammate Nelson Piquet at Brabham in 1980.  While vastly overshadowed by World Champion Piquet, it’s reported that Rebaque’s insistence to fly home between Grand Prix’s was a contributing factor to his lackluster Formula 1 career.

Being left without an F1 ride for 1982 after Bernie had hired Ricardo Patrese as his replacement; Hector took up residence in CART for Gerry Forsythe and inherited a lone Champ Car victory in 1982 for Forsythe Racing when Al Unser Sr ran out of petrol while leading the inaugural Road America race. Rebaque then had a major shunt on the high banks of the Michigan International Speedway and decided to retire from motor racing...

F1 Returns
Meanwhile,  during the resurrection and second coming of Grand Prix racing at Mexico City (1986-92) the events date was shifted to the spring in 1989 to coincide with the reborn USGP. (Phoenix, AZ)

(1989-91) During this time, Mexico also began hosting a round of the World Sports Car Championship and a young German named Michael Schumacher scored one of his earliest career victories co-driving an all conquering Sauber-Mercedes with Jochen Mass in 1990 at the Hermanos Rodriguez circuit.

Most wins at the venerable Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez are split between three drivers, having two wins apiece: Jimmy Clark, 1963, ’67; Alain Prost, 1988, ‘90 and Nigel Mansell, 1987, ’92.

Mexican Grand Prix winners
1963) Jimmy Clark; 1964) Dan Gurney; 1965) Richie Ginther; 1966) John Surtees; 1967) Jimmy Clark; 1968) Graham Hill; 1969) Denny Hulme; 1970) Jacky Ickx.

1986) Gerhard Berger; 1987) Nigel Mansell; 1988) Alain Prost;; 1989) Ayrton Senna; 1990) Alain Prost; 1991) Riccardo Patrese; (1992) Nigel Mansell...