You could be forgiven for thinking that Mexico was a relatively new force in Formula 1. But while Sergio Perez receives a hero’s welcome at his home race each year, the full name of the circuit in Mexico City pays tribute to a pair of highly-talented drivers from the city who took the world by storm many decades ago.
Born two years apart to wealthy father, Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez raced motorcycles in their homeland from a young age before they switched to four wheels in their teens. The younger Ricardo especially impressed onlookers with his performances, winning his very first international race in California in 1957 aged just 15.
In no time at all, the two brothers were racing at the famous Le Mans 24 Hours, although Ricardo was actually stopped from making his debut alongside his Pedro in 1958 because the 16-year-old was deemed to be too young. But just two years later, Ricardo finished second overall in a Ferrari: a marque the Rodriguez brothers would have a close relationship with from early on through the North American Racing Team (NART) of Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti, himself a three-time winner at Le Mans.
In 1961, the Rodriguez brothers continued to upset the establishment with their speed in sportscar races – including, on occasion, their Ferrari team-mates and bosses. But Ricardo especially was seen as highly-promising, and Ferrari gave him a Formula 1 debut in its all-conquering 156 ‘Sharknose’ car at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
Amazingly, Ricardo qualified on the front row in second place: at 19 he remained the youngest driver to ever achieve the feat until Red Bull’s Max Verstappen did so in 2016. Rodriguez remains today the youngest driver to race for Ferrari in Formula 1.
The 1962 season was much more difficult for Ferrari as the 156 struggled to keep pace with its British-built rivals, but Ricardo Rodriguez managed some of its best results, including a second place in Pau and fourth at Spa. But that year’s Italian Grand Prix would be his last: in practice for the inaugural non-championship Mexican Grand Prix race on the new circuit in his home city, he died when the Lotus he was driving crashed into the barriers at the fast, banked final corner.
Pedro Rodriguez initially returned home to Mexico and started a car import business, but would go on to star in Formula 1, initially with outings in the United States and Mexican grands prix for Lotus and then Ferrari.
No longer compared to his brother, he seemed to improve as a driver and became a full-time professional racer, claiming his first grand prix win at Kyalami in South Africa in 1967 with Cooper. A year later he won Le Mans in a Ford GT40.
Perhaps unusually for a driver from a country considered to be hot and dry, Pedro gained a reputation for being especially effective in the wet: a key to his second F1 win at Spa in 1970 with BRM. By this time, he had joined Porsche to race its famed 917 sports car, claiming numerous wins including two Daytona 24 Hours. But on returning to a privately-entered Ferrari 512M for a race at the Norisring in Germany in 1971, he too lost his life in a fiery accident. The family was marked both by glory and tragedy.
Mexico had cruelly lost its two motor racing trailblazers, men it treated as national heroes; whose victories were celebrated like festivals. Ricardo had been accompanied to Europe by his friend Jo Ramirez, who later went on to work for McLaren alongside Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Ricardo, he believed, could have been just as good as those two heroes.
In 1973, the circuit in Mexico City was renamed the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in their honour. After many years away, Formula 1 returned in 2015 now that the nation finally had another grand prix hero to cheer for in Sergio Perez.
Each year, the local crowds give every single driver a fantastic reception, but if Perez were to ever add to his collection of podiums on home ground (so far, his best result in Mexico has been seventh, in 2017) the scale of celebration might just reach something like those that greeted the Rodriguez brothers.
The conformation of the country has favored...