NIGEL ROEBUCK’S HEROES
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
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 – AFTER THAT THEY THOUGHT I WAS MAGIC!
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