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Ricardo Rodriguez of Mexico, the life-loving driver who grins from this week's cover, may have personality failings, but false modesty is not one of them. Young Rodriguez will be among the topflight international stars on display this Saturday at Sebring, down among the Florida orange groves, in this country's foremost sports car race. He views his prospects in that 12-hour world-championship-caliber event with composure. "With the favor of God," he says, for he is as devout as he is daring, " Ricardo Rodriguez will be the winner this time."
Because Ricardo is always saying things like that, and because he has yet to win a road race of the first rank there are those who believe that he has a swelled head. The fact is that he may very well do what he says. What's more, he may conceivably go on this year to win the highest honor in racing, the Grand Prix championship of the world, although admittedly the odds are heavily against him. His rivals include such gifted and determined artists as America's Phil Hill, the present champion, and that British master driver, Stirling Moss, not to mention a dozen lesser well-seasoned drivers.
But Ricardo is a rookie to make the veterans sweat. He already has put in five years of mettlesome international sports car racing. Last year, co-driving a private Ferrari with his older but less talented brother, Pedro, he stayed ahead of the official factory Ferraris at Sebring for five hours. In the great Le Mans 24-hour race, egged on by Papa Rodriguez, the brothers bedeviled the leading factory Ferrari for hours on end. But it was at Monza in September that Ricardo made the big time. He drove in his first Formula I Grand Prix race—a race that sealed Hill's championship and cost Count Wolfgang von Trips his life.
This year Ricardo is to be a fullfledged member of the Ferrari team—easily the most powerful in road racing—joining Hill himself and probably the Italian newcomer, Giancarlo Baghetti, surprise winner of last year's French Grand Prix. There is a faint possibility that Moss will switch from British Lotuses to Ferraris for the Grand Prix season. If he does, Ricardo's championship prospects would be sharply diminished, but his day as a Grand Prix star clearly is coming.
Ricardo says as much himself in his expressive, if imperfect, English: "For me is much easy the Formula I car. It is like Formula Junior but, how you say, crazy. Much nervous. Much horsepower. Always, Stirling Moss is fastest, but I see at Monza that other experienced pilotos are not fast to me. Phil Hill is a great driver, but once at Monza I even go ahead of Hill."
Unfortunately, at Monza as in other races, Ricardo's ride was cut short by mechanical failure. He has yet to prove to his many critics that he has the sensitivity and self-discipline not to be excessively hard on his racing cars. He has, however, convinced some expert observers. Says Lorenzo Pilogallo, motoring writer for Milan's Corriere della Sera: "Rodriguez was an impetuous and scornful driver who often overstressed the vital parts of his cars. Now he seems to have changed. He has the makings of a world champion. He is on the way to becoming a future Moss."
A nearly perfect style
Adds Count Giovanni Lurani, editor of Auto Italiana: "Ricardo combines the reflexes of youth with the experience of more mature drivers. His style has not been fully molded, but already it is close to perfection. At Monza he showed how a first-class driver can easily switch from sports cars to single-seaters."
These glowing opinions coincide closely with those of Ricardo's patron, Luigi Chinetti, the chief Ferrari distributor in the U.S. and sponsor of the North American Racing Team, which is a sort of junior varsity to the works stable. But Chinetti wishes that Ricardo's well-wishers would soft-pedal the praise a bit. Three times winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours and the survivor of a heavy smash-up at Spa in Belgium, Chinetti knows something of racing's hazards as well as its glories. He is acutely worried for Ricardo; he cannot get out of his mind the sad case of Guy Moll, a French Algerian youth of similar talent and dash who was killed in 1934—his first big season—after a series of dazzling victories. The memory is especially poignant for Chinetti, because it was he—then with Italy's Alfa Romeo firm in Paris—who had sold Moll an Alfa the previous year.
"Everything came easily to Guy Moll, as it does to Ricardo," Chinetti recalls. "He had none of the little accidents from which other drivers learn. His first accident was a big one—and his last. The first day I saw Ricardo race, a sixth sense told me that he might become a great driver. If Ricardo is careful, he will go very far, but he still has much to learn."