Jo Ramirez is probably one of only a handful of people to bestride the pioneering years of the original Mexican Grand Prix track, located in the world’s largest metropolitan city, and the new version of the Circuit Hermanos Rodriguez which will host this weekend’s Grand Prix.
A trusted friend and confident of the Rodriguez brothers, a colleague and sounding board for Ayrton Senna, and a man immersed in racing history that spanned five decades, it comes as no surprise that ahead of the Mexican Grand Prix this weekend, Jo will be a proud man.
Fully infusing his homeland’s bubbling values of passion and sporting mania Ramirez has memories and anecdotes to throw away, but the man who has lived most of his life in Europe has always valued the present and future over the success and occasional heartbreak of yesterday Ramirez was of course a very close friend of Ricardo Valentín Rodríguez de la Vega, otherwise known as Ricardo Rodriguez, and the two journeyed to Europe together in 1960 as the talented young Mexican set off on a wonderful but cruelly short ascent to the cusp of racing greatness.
“Ricardo was a very special person, a guy full of life, always ready for a good joke,” recalled Ramirez “He didn’t need to work hard in a racing car, he was natural like Ayrton, Alain and Michael. He had an instant facility to drive at the limit without looking like he really had to try. He was very well loved in Mexico. He would have been among the greats, I have no doubt.”
One of Rodriguez’s most potent displays came on his Grand Prix debut in 1961, in a Ferrari, at Monza, amid a title fight with two of his team mates – Wolfgang von Trips and Phil Hill. Ramirez remembers it clearly.
“At Monza in his first Grand Prix he qualified on the front row with Von Trips, amazing. Some of the other drivers came up to him and started asking things like ‘which gear are you in for Parabolica?’ and ‘When you brake for Lesmo?’ Ricardo said: “I don’t know, I have not driven Grand Prix here before, why ask me’ But they were all asking him because he was so quick, so immediately. It was a very special time and he even led in that race but retired with a fuel pump problem. But of course that was completely unimportant as von Trips died with all those spectators. It was a sickening day.
A telling theme that Ramirez returns to more than once is Rodriguez’ attitude to a life doing what he had an innate affinity for – driving any racing car very fast.
“You know, Ricardo was not in awe of any of those drivers at Monza that weekend, that is why I say he was such a natural,” continues Ramirez. “They were just opponents to him, not heroes. In his mind he was at the same level as them but not in an arrogant way. He was the opposite; he got on with everyone and was very easy going. He was an important person in my life and he introduced me to people like Signor Dragoni, and also a young engineer called Mauro Forghieri, who I still have a great friendship with today.”
Young Rodriguez’s life was taken in a crash during qualifying for the 1962 non-championship race. He was three months shy of turning 21. When the Mexican Grand Prix starts this Sunday afternoon it will be 53 years to the day that Mexico mourned its devastating loss.
“I wasn’t there,” says Ramirez. “I actually couldn’t afford to go back for the race to my home city, and I had to stay where I was living, in Modena. I remember he was trying to get a proper solution with Ferrari for 1963, and if he didn’t then he would have driven for Rob Walker who was on the lookout for someone to try and fill Stirling’s shoes. I would have worked with him whichever way it went.
Over half a century on and Ramirez will remember his friend on 1st November, at the very location which extinguished so much potential, so much hope for the next decade and beyond. Now, Mexico has a new young star, one that could follow up on the promise shown so far in 2015.
“I think Sergio (Perez) can have a strong race,” Ramirez opines. “The track has a very long straight, so I think with the Mercedes engine being so good, he will be quick. Sergio has not raced in Mexico for many years. The extra adrenaline he will get will be substantial and if he uses it well it could be fantastic. It is easy to say you can treat the pressure like any other race, but it isn’t any other race is it. I remember being in Brazil when Ayrton was racing and he was the top guy. Everyone wanted a piece of him. It was intense and sometimes it showed even to him.
“It is still the early days of Sergio’s career. I think he has measured his aggression well and he is improving every year, so let’s hope we see that continue as it would be fantastic if he could get another big result at his home race.”
Perez will race on a track that has been much modified since the fearsome Peraltada hosted the magical 1990 Mansell ‘red-mist’ overtake on a startle Gerhard Berger, to some truly terrifying shunts suffered by the likes of Derek Warwick and Philippe Alliot, both in 1988, and even Ayrton Senna in 1991. The bumps were no respecter of reputation, the tyre-walls even less so.
“The track itself was built on a lake and actually the track used to move slightly because of this, so you had the famous bumpy track,” remembers Ramirez. “I recall that they were so bad in the 80s and 90s that the drivers could not actually focus and very often they either braked too early because they couldn’t actually see clearly, or too late and they would go off.
“Now they have different asphalt that has three different cuts of a much more modern and special surface material to make it harder, so that there will not be so much undulations. On the other hand I think that some of the best drivers always liked a bit of rough surface, they don’t like a billiard table to race on all the time. I remember that Ayrton when he would follow rivals would study where and in which area the car in front was reacting compared to his car. He used to talk about that in great detail sometimes.”
Ramirez will attend the Grand Prix this weekend and when he enters the circuit the memories will be too strong to hold back.
“You know, I went back to the track recently for the official opening,” he says. “So much has changed, it is a totally different place from when I first went there.
“So much has happened at this place. Bad things, good things, unforgettable things. I hope that the positive ones will continue because for Mexico and Mexican motorsport having a Grand Prix can only help the new Ricardo’s, Pedro’s and Sergio’s to come up and continue our nations racing legacy.”