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 Ferrari's 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 him, 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 did not catch Moss, and thus was deprived of his first Grand Prix victory.
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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 very much like the curvature of an airplane wing. Obviously, the Ferrari GTO was lifting at speed due to the air rushing over its streamlined 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 Ferrari 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 F-1.
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 severals 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 broke drive-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 superior handling.
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' hands, the car won easily.
Over the winter months, Ginther would continue to develop the new rear-engined Ferrari, a machine that would serve as the prototype for next year's Ferrari F-1. This would be the famed Ferrari 156 "Sharknose", an F-1 machine that would dominate the 1961 Grand Prix season, and make his friend, Phil Hill world champion.
Towards the end of the 1961, BRM (British Racing Motors) approached Ginther about joining their F-1 team. Aware of his incredible success as a Ferrari test driver, the BRM brass wanted the Californian to develop their new and promising BRM P57. Ginther 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 easier (unlike at Ferrari, where everyone spoke Italian, at BRM Ginther could communicate in his native English). 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. What he now craved was to be BRM's number-one driver. It seemed he had always been the back-up man.
Ginther got into motor racing seated beside driver Phil Hill, in the Carrera PanAmerica. When Hill moved to Europe to drive full-time for Ferrari, fellow Californian John von Newman offered Ginther the opportunity to drive his new Ferrari 250 Testa Rosa. Soon thereafter, Ginther began making a name for himself winning sports car races up and down the California coast. Not long after that, he began driving for 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.
Two years after signing with BRM, the change Ginther was seeking arrived in the form of an offer to be the number-one driver for the newly-formed Honda F-1 team. The new Honda RA272 was a mechanical 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 F-1 engine at the time. The car was lightweight, and had incredible acceleration off the line.
While there was no guarantee of the car's success, and testing would be very much be a part of the deal, Ginther accepted whole-heartedly. Besides being Honda's number-one driver for the 1965 season, 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, too often he was 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 be rewarded.
There might not have been a Mexican Grand Prix, had not Adolfo Lopez Mateos been elected president in 1958. Up to this point, the Mexican government had been against motor racing. However, Mateos was an aficionado, who in 1961 encouraged the Comite Directive de Gran Premio de Mexico to stage a major international race. To help them on their way, Mateos granted the committee special permission to construct a circuit from the public roads within Magdalena Mixhua, 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. The start-finish line and the pits were located on the long front straight. The straight led to a series of challenging curves, including a slow hairpin. The esse curves that followed led to a 180-degree banked curve that concluded the lap.
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. Tragically, young Ricardo, trying very hard to win the pole, 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.
THE 1965 MEXICAN GRAND PRIX
When the F-1 teams arrived in 1965, Jim Clark had already been crowned champion, his second in three years.
As with all F-1 teams, Honda initially suffered from air-fuel mixture problems, due to the thin air of Mexica 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 last four seconds. Ginther was elated to at last have won an F-1 race.
The Mexican Grand Prix victory was not only a first for Ginther, it was also a first for Honda, and a first for the Goodyear Tire Company.
Ginther would continue to drive for Honda in 1966, but under the 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. Compounding Honda's problems was the fact that the new car was not ready until mid-season. As hard as he tried, Ginther could not get Honda's latest GP car to handle, never mind to finish.
Ginther decided he'd had enough, and for 1967 signed to drive for Dan Gurney's All-American Racers F-1 team. Unfortunately, this too proved to be more of the same, with Ginther as the team's number-two driver to Gurney's numbe-one. Midway through the 1967 season--after watching Gurney and A.J. Foyt win Le Mans in a Ford GT40--yet another racecar Ginther had helped develop--he surprised the racing community by announcing his retirement.
About his F1 career, Ginther said: "I guess I wanted to finish more than I wanted to win." Besides being a superb test driver, consistency was the hallmark of Ginthere's career. Phil Hill, his lifelong friend, summed up his F-1 career thus: "Among Grand Prix drivers, Richie Ginther is the most underrated. Look at his statistics: he led 91 of 52 races. He was in the points 28 times out of these 52. Nine times he started from the front of the starting grid. Besides the one win he was second eight times, third five times, fourth six times, fifth four times and sixth four times."
While he may have won only one F-1 race, it's important to remember that Phil Hill won only two F-1 races the year he was crowned world championship (1961); the same number of F-1 wins John Surtees captured in his championship year (1964), and that before them, Mike Hawthorne won but one F-1 race in his championship year (1958).
In the end Ginther's lasting legacy no doubt will be his contribution to race-car design and development while being his era's premeir test driver. Racing machines he helped develop at Ferrari (besides the championship-winning P156 F-1s), include the iconic and highly successful GTO sports coupe, and the equally successful rear-engined 246SP sports cars; at BRM, the championship-winning BRM P57 (1962), the simi-monocoque P61 (1963), the full monocoque P261 (1964), as well as the Ford GT 40 Le Mans cars, that would win Le Mans four-years running: 1966-69.
Most important of all, perhaps, was that for one shining moment, on October 24, 1965, Richie Ginther was the best racing driver on the planet.