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F-1's Quintessential Number-Two Driver, Snags a Win in Mexico City--The 1965 Mexican Grand Prix

This was not exactly the role Richie Ginther had envisioned for himself. What he had been hired to do was to be a test driver, and backup for Ferrari's two star drivers, Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips. Indeed, all the previous winter Ginther had been testing and developing the new P156 Ferrari. But here he was running third behind his teammate, and being signaled by the team manager, to pass Hill, overtake the great Stirling Moss, and win the 1961 Monaco Grand for Scuderia Ferrari.

Ginther should have known it would come to this; he'd been assigned the newest Ferrari F-1, the one featuring the more powerful 120-degree V-6 engine, which put out 190 horsepower--ten more horses than either Hill's or Trips' Ferrari. The 120-degree V-6 was lighter, sat lower in the chassis, and had been moved forward slightly, which meant Ginther's Ferrari not only had more horsepower, but handled better, and so was better suited to Monaco's onslaught of hairpin curves. In practice, Ginther had been faster than his teammates (whose Ferraris had been slowed by incessant carburetor troubles). Indeed, Ginther qualified second fastest, while Hill and Trips struggled to qualify fourth and eighth fastest, respectively.

At the start, Ginther had jumped out to a sizable lead, but Moss gradually reigned him in, and on lap 14 passed him to take the lead. A few laps later, Hill passed Ginther, drove hard, and got within five seconds of Moss, only to fade as his carburetor troubles returned, and his overtaxed brakes began to lock. On lap 78, Ginther was given the "faster" sign. He dutifully responded by retaking Hill and setting out after Moss. Despite a tremendous effort, Ginther could not catch Moss, and thus was deprived of his first Grand Prix victory.


When Richie Ginther first joined Ferrari, it was at the behest of his friend, Phil Hill. Ginther's first assignment was to find a solution to the high-speed instability that plagued the new Ferrari GTO. The sleek sports coupe was scaring the hell out of drivers at anything over 100 mph. Having worked in the airplane industry in Southern California, Ginther was familiar with the lift created by airplane wings, and how, upon landing, flaps were raised to "stall" the lift.

To Ginther, the curvature of the GTO's roofline, looked suspiciously like the topside of an airplane wing.  Obviously, the Ferrari GTO was lifting at speed due to the air rushing over the curvature of its roof.  Ginther's solution was simple--mount across the back of the car, a type of flap in the form of an upturned lip, that would stall the lift, and thus make the GTO more manageable at speed.

Ginther's solution worked so well that the Ferrari brass wanted to hide it's true purpose from the competition (which likewise were plagued with the very same problem on their sports coups). The answer was to tell everyone the true purpose of the upturned lip was to prevent gasoline from splashing onto the tailpipe during refueling stops!

Ginther's next project was to sort out the new Ferrari P246, Ferrari's first ever rear-engined F1.

Ginther's job was to unlock the car's potential.  However, there wasn't much time, as Ferrari planned to debut the new car at the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix, which was one week away.  Ginther did all the testing, and after a week of making several changes to the car's suspension, pronounced the new machine fit for competition.

At Monaco, Ginther qualified the new rear-engined Ferrari eighth fastest, but in the race was sidelined by a broken half-shaft. That replaced, the car was then shipped to Zandvoort, for several more days of testing. It was here that Hill and Trips first drove the new rear-engined Ferrari, and raved about its ease of handling and superior road-holding capability.

With that, the new machine was loaded back onto the transporter, and not  seen again until mid-July, at a Formula Two race in Solitude, Germany.  By then, the bodywork and been significantly revised, and the 2.4-liter V-6 replaced with a 1.5-liter V-6.  In Trips' experienced hands, the car won easily.

Over the winter months, Ginther would continue to develop the new rear-engined-machine, a car that would serve as the prototype for next year's Ferrari F-1.  This would be the famed Ferrari 156 "Sharknose", an F1 machine that would dominate the 1961 Grand Prix season, and make his friend, Phil Hill world champion.


Towards the end of the '61 season, the management at BRM (British Racing Motors) approached Ginther about joining their F-1 team.  Aware of his incredible success as a Ferrari test driver, BRM management wanted the Californian to help develop their new and promising BRM P57.  To sweeten the deal, BRM told  Ginther it was planning to create a turbine-powered sports car to run at Le Mans in 1963, a machine that most certainly would benefit from Ginther's input.  For the technically-minded Ginther, this would seal the deal.  The Californian would also double as BRM's number-two driver, behind yet another Hill, Englishman Graham Hill.  The pay was better, and the working conditions were less dramatic.  At  BRM Ginther could speak his native English, and not be bothered with the daily intrigue and internal politics that were so much a part of working at Ferrari.  He accepted, but missed competing in the first race, due to burns received in a freak accident during testing.

While Ginther was mending in a hospital, Graham Hill gave BRM it's first Grand Prix victory in three years, by winning the Dutch Grand Prix.  It was a sign of good things to come, as Hill would score three more wins, and be crowned the 1962 drivers' world champion.

For Ginther, however, it was more of the same, backing up the team leader and getting none of the glory.  However, this was fine with Ginther, as the Californian derived most of his satisfaction from race-car development, rather than from competing.  For him, working on race cars was fun.  Indeed, this was what had brought Ginther and Phil Hill together when they first met.  While Hill raced foreign sports cars, Ginther, the erstwhile California hot-rodder, served as his mechanic.  Later, when Hill was invited to race a Ferrari sports car in the Carrera Panamerica, he invited Ginther to be his riding mechanic.  After Hill moved to Italy to race full-time for Ferrari, Ginther replaced him as John von Newman's driver.  Soon thereafter, Ginther began making a name for himself winning races in Newman's new Ferrari Testa Rosa.  With success, Ginther caught the attention of an east coast Ferrari distributer, named Luigi Chinetti.  With Chinetti's factory connections, and help from Phil Hill, in 1960 Ginther began testing and competing for the Ferrari factory team.

While Ginther was more than competent competing at the highest level of motor racing, winning races was never really that important to him: testing and race-car development was what truly gave him satisfaction.

  While Ginther did not win a single race driving for BRM, his consistency as an F1 driver was such that it had tied him with teammate Graham Hill for second place in the 1963 championship standings, behind world champion Jim Clark.


Midway through the 1964 season, Ginther was invited to join the newly-formed Honda F1 team.  To Ginther the challenge was too good to pass up; developing the new Honda RA272.  The Japanese machine was a technical marvel that featured a transverse V12 engine, coupled to a transverse six-speed transmission. The fuel injected, 48-valve engine developed a whopping 230 horsepower, far more than any of the F-1 engines at that time.

While there was no guarantee of the car's success, Ginther saw the car's potential just waiting to be unlocked, and accepted Honda's offer whole-heartedly.  Besides being Honda's number-one driver for the 1965 season, better still, the Japanese team would do all its testing at a circuit located near Zandvoort, a Dutch resort community located on the North Atlantic.  Zandvoort was strongly reminiscent of the beach towns of Southern California where Ginther was raised.  For the athletically trim Ginther, this meant he could follow a day's testing, with a relaxing dip in the Atlantic ocean.

As quick as the RA272 Honda was, it was not exactly ironclad in the reliability department.  While Ginther often put the Honda on the front row, in the race his Japanese machine was too often sidelined with a variety of nagging mechanical failures.  As a result, he failed to finish all but two races.  It wasn't until the season finale in Mexico City that Ginther's efforts would come to fruition.

There might never have been a Mexican Grand Prix, had not Adolfo Lopez Mateos been elected president in 1958.  Up to this time, the Mexican government had been against motor racing, since it had stopped running the Carrera Panamericana road race.  However, Mateos was an aficionado, who in 1961 encouraged the Comite Directivo del Gran Premio de Mexico to stage a major international race.  To help them on their way, Lopez Mateos granted the committee special permission to construct a circuit from the public roads within Magdalena Mixhuca, a municipal park in the suburbs of Mexico City.

The 3.1-mile circuit they laid out, was relatively flat and comprised of ten curves.  Turn One was a 180-degree banked curve that led onto a long straight. The straight led to a series of challenging curves, concluding with a slow hairpin.

The first race was held in 1961.  The winner was an 18-year-old Mexican racing sensation named Ricardo Rodriquez, who, with his older brother Pedro, had been winning sports car races around the world.  As expected, the brothers, driving a pair of Sunbeam Rapiers, finished first and second.

The first F-1 race was held one year later, where one of the Rodriquez brothers was expected to win.  Sadly, young Ricardo, trying very to qualify fastest, lost control of his car and died in a crash.

The first actual Grand Prix was held in 1963, and won by Jim Clark, who would go on to win that year's world championship.


When the F-1 teams arrived in November, 1965, Jim Clark had already been crowned champion, his second in three years.

As with all the F-1 teams, Honda initially suffered from air-fuel mixture problems, due to the thin air of Mexico City, which was some 7000 feet above sea level.  Once this was resolved, Honda began to find speed, with Ginther having qualified third fastest, behind Clark's Lotus-Climax, and Gurney's Brabham-Climax,

On race day, Ginther got off to an amazing start, passed both Clark and Gurney, and led into the first turn.  From there, he built up an eight-second lead, which he held until the closing laps, when a determined Gurney managed to whittle Ginther's lead down to four seconds.  As determined as he was, Gurney could not overcome those vital four seconds. Ginther was elated to have fulfilled Honda's promise by winning the race, as well as being the dominant driver in his very first F1 win.  On top of that it was the first ever Grand Prix victory for the team's most prominent supplier, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

Ginther would continue to drive for Honda in 1966, but under new rules, which called for an increase in engine size, from 1.5 liters to 3.0 liters.  As with the 1.5-liter Honda RA272, the new 3.0-liter Honda RA273 was a highly-sophisticated mechanical marvel, but it was also relatively heavy, and mechanically troublesome.  And it arrived too late in the season to be much of a factor.  Indeed, Ginther spent the first half of the 1966 season, developing the heavy, cumbersome Cooper-Maserati.  By mid-season, Honda's F1 machine was ready for competition, while, ironically, the Cooper-Maserati was just beginning to show its potential.

  As a result, Ginther was having to start all over again.  However,  as hard as he worked, he could not get Honda's latest F1 race car to handle, never mind to finish.  At the end of the season, a dispirited and emotionally drained Richie Ginther decided he'd had enough, and moved on to drive for fellow-Californian Dan Gurney's All-American Racers F-1 team.  In his very first race --a non-points F1event at Brands Hatch, England--Ginther finished a creditable second to Gurney.   After this rare 1-2 finish, Ginther joined Gurney's AAR Indy team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  As excited as was about the technical challenges this would present to him, he suffered minor burns in a crash, and while recovering in the hospital, decided motor racing was no longer as fun as it once had been, and much to the dismay of his many friends and fans, announced his retirement.

While he had retired from driving in competition, it didn't mean Ginther would not continue being involved in motorsports development. He spent the latter part of the 1960s running successful teams for Porsche and Toyota in U.S. production car racing.  In 1971, he entered a special 911S in Le Mans, where, in the eighth hour of the race, the Porsche's engine gave out.  After that Ginther decided to retire completely, thus ending his brilliant motor racing career.

Summing up Ginther's F-1 career, journalist Denise McCluggage wrote: "Ginther led 91 laps of 52 races.  He finished in the points 28 times out of these 52 races.  Nine times he started from the front row.  Besides the one win he was second EIGHT times, third FIVE times, fourth SIX times, fifth FOUR times and sixth FOUR times." She quoted Ginther's explanation for having not won more F1 races: "I guess I wanted to finish more than I wanted to win."  For Richie Ginther, consistency was more important than winning races.

- END -

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