The un­der­rated Richie Ginther

sound can stop you in your tracks, and it was just so with me at the Good­wood Fes­ti­val of Speed a few years ago: as I ar­rived early one morn­ing, the si­lence was splin­tered by a rau­cous Honda V12. In­stantly I thought of Richie Ginther.

While not a great driver, Ginther was yet ca­pa­ble of great­ness on a given day: there have been many like this – Bon­nier, Ire­land, Ban­dini, Bel­toise, Alesi, Trulli – and it is a bless­ing of the sport that most had their day in the sun, when a grand prix vic­tory came their way.

Ginther’s only win – and Honda’s first – was in the 1965 Mex­i­can Grand Prix, the fi­nal race of the 1.5-litre For­mula 1.

If in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive, the trans­verse-en­gined car rarely fin­ished, but at high al­ti­tude it thrived, and Richie led all the way.

“My car was just flat bet­ter than any­thing else. When Gur­ney be­gan to catch me, there was no prob­lem – I had a fuel mix­ture con­trol, and ran at full rich to pro­tect the en­gine: if I needed to, I could switch any­where up to full lean – and the dif­fer­ence was 300 revs on the straight­away...”

Ginther had ar­rived in F1 five years ear­lier, one of those Cal­i­for­ni­ans – like Phil Hill and Dan Gur­ney – in­vited to join Fer­rari af­ter sports car suc­cess at home. He had got into rac­ing af­ter meet­ing Hill, who be­came a close friend. When Phil needed a com­pan­ion for the ’53 Pan-amer­i­can Road Race, Richie was asked.

Their car, a 4.1-litre Fer­rari coupe, Ginther re­mem­bered as hav­ing only two short­com­ings: “It didn’t stop, and had a tremen­dous aver­sion to go­ing around a cor­ner...” That said, they made the leader board be­fore plung­ing down a steep drop, end over end, and the fol­low­ing year re­turned to fin­ish sec­ond.

Af­ter rac­ing such as Austin-healeys and Porsches, Ginther be­gan driv­ing Fer­raris for John van Neu­mann, and that led to an of­fer from the fac­tory team in 1960. Swiftly he es­tab­lished him­self as a su­perb test driver, with acute me­chan­i­cal sym­pa­thy.

“I never could bring my­self to abuse an en­gine,” he told me, “and that was some­thing the Fer­rari guys found hard to un­der­stand! At Reims in ’61, I knew the en­gine was go­ing to blow and came in – and, hey,

I was lead­ing! Of course they in­sisted I go back out – half a lap later the en­gine was wrecked…

“They be­lieved I had some sixth sense, and that went back to a test day at Monza in 1960. I came in early, be­cause I sensed some­thing was wrong, but they got ag­i­tated, fired it up again, revved the hell out of it, and said I should go back out. I said no, so they put Willy Mairesse in.

“Be­fore he went out, I said, ‘That thing is go­ing to blow in 12 laps – and, would you be­lieve, it did! Not on the sixth, not on the 20th, but the 12th – I’d just plucked a fig­ure out of the air, but af­ter that they thought I was magic!”

As Ginther could at­test, back then you drove for Fer­rari for love: “As I re­call, I got $400 a month – for F1 and sports cars…”

Al­though he re­mem­bered Fer­rari well, Richie didn’t leave un­der happy cir­cum­stances, hav­ing ac­cepted a BRM of­fer for ’62. “Enzo was so an­gry that I wasn’t even al­lowed to go round the fac­tory to say good-bye – hap­pily, all the me­chan­ics came to my apart­ment.”

On his day Ginther was as quick as any­one: at the ’62 Oul­ton Park Gold Cup, for ex­am­ple, he beat Jim Clark to pole po­si­tion, hav­ing never seen the cir­cuit be­fore. The fol­low­ing year, Richie fin­ished equal sec­ond (with BRM team-mate Gra­ham Hill) to Clark in the world cham­pi­onship.

Al­though Ginther won a grand prix, the per­for­mance for which he is most re­mem­bered came early in his F1 ca­reer, at Monaco in ’61. This was Stir­ling Moss’s

great­est day: in Rob Walker’s un­der­pow­ered Lo­tus 18, he fought off con­stant pres­sure from Fer­rari, most of it from Richie, driv­ing in only his fourth GP.

“With­out any doubt,” he said, “that was my best drive – I was on the limit all the way, and I think Stir­ling was, too. About

20 laps from the end I got a pit board, say­ing, ‘Ginther Give All’ – Je­sus, what the hell did they think I was giv­ing?!” The sta­tis­tics of that race beg­gar be­lief. Qual­i­fy­ing first and sec­ond, Moss and Ginther had lapped in lm 39.1s and lm 39.3s, but in the race – 100 laps back then – their av­er­age lap time was lm 39.5s, and jointly they left the record at 1m 36.3s.

“Stir­ling says that was his best race, and mine took only three sec­onds longer, so you can see why I think it my best, too! Any time you did well against him, you knew you’d re­ally done some­thing – by a long way he was the great­est I ever saw.”

For what was to be his fi­nal year, ’67, Ginther joined Gur­ney’s Ea­gle team, and Dan’s plans for the pair in­cluded both F1 and In­di­anapo­lis. At the Brands Hatch Race of Cham­pi­ons in March, Gur­ney won, while Ginther – faith­ful to his creed – shut down his


ail­ing Wes­lake V12, when ly­ing sec­ond.

As it turned out, this had been his last race. “At Monaco I didn’t qual­ify – OK, I had a lot of prob­lems, but I was re­ally up­set be­cause I loved the place, and had usu­ally done well there.

“Then we went to In­di­anapo­lis. I’d never been there be­fore, but got along fine, fifth or sixth in prac­tice, but then, on the first qual­i­fy­ing day, I was in the car, and sud­denly I called Gur­ney over and said, ‘Dan, I just don’t want to start this race’. He just said, ‘OK, fine, I un­der­stand’, and I was moved by that – I thought his un­der­stand­ing was re­mark­able. Back at my mo­tel, go­ing through my mind was the thought that, hey, if I don’t want to start this race...i’m a race driver, I should... And I de­cided to get out be­fore I couldn’t – if I kept go­ing with that men­tal­ity, I was go­ing to hurt my­self. I never raced again.”

When I saw Ginther at Hock­en­heim in ’77, he told me that, hav­ing sold not only a suc­cess­ful com­pany but also his house, he was now liv­ing in a mo­torhome. “Kind of old to be drop­ping out, huh?” he grinned. “But I’m happy, I’m free, and whether it’s the moun­tains or the beach, I can change my view ev­ery day…”

At only 59, he died of a heart at­tack in 1989.

Top left: Monaco, 1960, driv­ing the Fer­rari Dino 246PMid­dle left: Monaco ‘61 was con­sid­ered to be Richie’s best per­for­mance. He fin­ished just 3.6 sec­onds be­hind Stir­ling Moss, in a race Moss thought was besthis Bot­tom left: Ginther cel­e­brates his only GP win, at Mex­ico in the last race of the ‘65 sea­son Above: The ‘65 French GP was one of many races where Ginther found the Honda RA272 too frag­ile

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