1965 Mexican Grand Prix
: 1965 Mexico Grand Prix: Ginther Finally Gets It! By Jeremy McMullen
Richie Ginther had come so close so many times in the past but had always been outshone by someone else for victory. Now with the new Honda Team, it seemed anybody other than Ginther would win. But all of that would change on the 24th of October, 1965.
Ginther's debut in Formula One would be rather impressive. Following two 6th place finishes in his first World Championship events, he would start the 1960 Italian Grand Prix from the middle of the front row and would follow his Ferrari teammate, Phil Hill, home to a 2nd place result in just his third World Championship event. It seemed victory was right around the corner.
In fact, it seemed victory was right around the turn of the new year. At the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix, the first race of the season, Ginther would just be beaten out for the pole by Stirling Moss. During the early part of the race Ginther would be in the lead and looking quite comfortable until Moss began to run laps at qualifying pace.
The old legend would take over the lead from Ginther while the Ferrari pilot would fall down the running order slightly. It wouldn't be too long before Richie would recover and would mount a charge back toward the front of the field. As with the Italian Grand Prix the year before, Ginther would slide in behind Hill and would be content running in 3rd place behind his teammate. However, neither Hill nor the team management at Ferrari would be happy with the small-sized man staying there. It was clear he was quicker around the circuit than Hill. Richie would receive the signal from the pit-board and via a wave from Hill. Ginther would be allowed to pass and to take up the challenge of tracking down Moss.
Ginther would do just that. Lap after lap, Ginther would reduce Moss' advantage. It seemed the American would be able to capture his first victory after all. However, Moss would use all of his skills and experience to keep Ginther at bay until the laps ran out. Once again, Richie's opportunity for victory had slipped through his fingers.
In 1963, Ginther would get more than his fair share of opportunities for earning that first victory. Starting out the season with another 2nd place at Monaco, Richie would go on to score two more 2nd place results over the course of the season as he and Graham Hill would be the only two capable of mounting any kind of challenge against Jim Clark and Team Lotus. At the end of the season Ginther would finish the World Championship 3rd, but he still would be without that first victory.
Ginther would remain with Owen Racing Organization, or BRM, for a period of two years and would enjoy some of his best success in Formula One during that period. However, by the end of the '64 season it was clear the BRM was beginning to lose its competitive edge, especially against the mighty Team Lotus. Ginther started to look to another opportunity that held promise for the future.
Actually, Ginther would not have to look for an opportunity. The opportunity would come looking for him. He was known as a team player and was certainly known as a strong developmental driver. This would make Ginther very attractive to Honda. Not only did they need a capable driver able to extract the very best from their car but they also needed a driver that fit their model of operation. Honda's ethos was very much centered around the team instead of the individual driver. Ginther fit that mold perfectly.
Honda's debut in Formula One would come in 1964 with another American as their driver. Ronnie Bucknam would take the new RA271 to a 13th place finish in the German Grand Prix. It was the team's very first race ever in Formula One and they had finished just outside the top ten. The future seemed bright, until, they experienced two-straight retirements. One would come in the Italian Grand Prix. The other would come in the very next race, the United States Grand Prix.
This would be just the beginning of Bucknam's ill-fortunes in a Honda. The following year would see Ronnie suffer three more retirements, and in his first three races of the season. Ginther wouldn't fare much better with the new RA272. After retiring in the Monaco Grand Prix, Richie would manage to score a 6th place result in the Belgian Grand Prix. Unfortunately, that result would be followed by two more retirements. Following the Netherlands Grand Prix, Honda had just two World Championship points to show for a year and a half of effort and that is all the team would have until arriving in Mexico at the end of October.
Things had turned around for the team, at least slightly. Ginther had earned a 14th place result in the Italian Grand Prix. And while this may not have been a result the team would have been all the excited about it meant Richie had managed to finish two races in a row. When that was followed with a 7th place in the United States Grand Prix it seemed the team had turned a corner for sure. Even Bucknum would come away with a 13th place result in the United States Grand Prix. That meant it was the first time all season Honda had managed to have both cars finish a race. So while the trip south of the border was not filled with any great amount of excitement and momentum, the team could have certainly had some feeling things were going to be better.
The trip to Mexico City would be difficult for Honda and the rest of the teams. The setting was fine and the people excited about the presence of Formula One. The problem was the altitude and the small 1.5-liter Formula One cars. In the thin air, the cars struggled to perform as they had been designed. Lacking the power to really overcome the loss due to the altitude handling would be of great importance.
The capital of Mexico, Mexico City sits nestled in the Valley of Mexico in the high plateaus of central Mexico. Rising to more than 7,000 feet, the city not only rests high in the air but also has a huge land area. Just to the southeast of what is considered the center of the city is the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
The circuit itself would be built in a public park in 1962. Not long after opening Ricardo Rodriguez would die in practice for the Mexican Grand Prix. A few years later, Pedro Rodriguez would die behind the wheel of a race car. Therefore, the name of the circuit would be changed to Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
Featuring one straight of considerable length, the numerous esses and chicanes would cause the 1.5-liter cars more than a little difficulty. Cars and drivers breathing hard around the circuit it was not surprising the times were not as fast as they could have been, even with the slightly-banked Peraltada leading to the long start/finish straight.
The circuit in 1965 would have an additional difficulty that would actually play into Honda and Ginther's hands. Before changes were made to the circuit to fashion its current form there was a tight hairpin turn at the south side of the circuit. And, although there would be a straight leading up the esses prior, the esses would absolutely wreck top end speed heading into the very slow, tight hairpin. In 1965, Goodyear would be in its first season in Formula One. One of the other major tire manufacturers of the period would be Dunlop. Dunlop knew what to expect. Goodyear would construct a tire based upon what information they had and didn't quite know what to expect. The conditions and the lack of horsepower at that high of elevation would cause Dunlop-shod vehicles to struggle a bit more. The drivers would complain about this and would be forced to change to accommodate the challenge. Honda's drivers would not be aware of as much a problem with their tires and they felt more comfortable pushing their cars to the limit. This would be very important as it would allow the Goodyear drivers to maintain a higher average speed through corners precisely because they didn't suffer the same kind of problem as the Dunlop tires.
The difference would show in practice and the Goodyear cars would be impressive around the 3.1 mile circuit. Were it not for Jim Clark digging deep within himself to pull out a truly special lap it would have been an entirely Goodyear front row. Instead, Clark would start on pole in his Lotus-Climax. Dan Gurney would start in 2nd place in his Climax-powered Brabham. On the second row of the grid would be Ginther. His lap time of 1:56.48 would be just three-tenths of a second slower than Clark and proof the Honda-Goodyear combination had great potential heading into the 65 lap race.
The grid aligned. The cars ready to go, the scene would be set for what would be a truly memorable Mexico Grand Prix. Of course this wouldn't seem entirely possible given that Clark had already won the championship, but the Scot was still going to victories and that would help to keep the excitement level up heading into this final round for 1965.
The flag would wave to start the race. Ginther would make a great start from his second starting spot. Before the field made its way into the increasingly-tightening right-hander at the end of the long start/finish straight it would be Ginther splitting Clark and Gurney to take the lead.
To see Ginther leading the field in the struggling Honda would be an unexpected sight, but according to his fellow drivers, such a sight was not considered much of a concern. In fact, many of the drivers would not the speed of the Honda in practice but they would not consider the car much of a threat given the team's struggles over the course of the year. It was widely believed the car wouldn't be able to last. Therefore, Ginther leading the way really only delighted the man who was trying to chase him down.
Gurney would be quoted as saying that while he would have liked to win the race he would have liked to 'see Richie get the victory too. He deserves it…' Ginther certainly did deserve it. He had been so close so many times. It seemed like this was the perfect setting, when everything seemed against him and nobody was really giving him a chance, for that first win.
But it would be much too early to think about a victory when he crossed the line for the first time. Jackie Stewart would be in 2nd place but would have Mike Spence right there in 3rd place. Jim Clark, whom just about everyone thought would win the race, would make a terrible getaway from the line and would complete the first lap down in 10th place. It was clear there was some kind of problem with the Lotus.
Ginther continued to lead the way as Spence took over in 2nd place as Stewart began falling down the running order. Gurney would complete the first lap in 4th place and would stay right around there until the first 10 laps had been complete. Then he would begin a charge that would see him up behind Spence waiting to pounce.
Ginther would be remarkably poised at the head of the field. He would continue to build up an advantage over Spence and Gurney as the American in 3rd place struggled to get by the Lotus of Spence. This fight between the Brabham and the Lotus enabled Ginther to add to his advantage even more and it would frustrate his fellow countryman to no end.
In the thin air of Mexico City, Gurney could get a run on Spence only down the straights. Then when he pulled out to try and pass the engine rpms would shoot up and Gurney would have to breathe the throttle a little bit to ensure he didn't over-rev the engine. This enabled Spence to hold onto his position longer than what he likely would have had the race been held anywhere else but the altitude of Mexico City.
Meanwhile, the 1.5-liter Honda V12 powering Ginther seemed to be ideally-suited to the conditions and Richie would carry on without a hint of Honda's normal problems. The engine was powering out of the tight hairpin and other slower corners much easier than most of the rest of his competition. It was clear his Honda was working well. He just needed it to keep working well for all of the 65 laps.
While many believed the Honda incapable of lasting the race distance and the safe money was on drivers like Clark, Brabham, Stewart and Hill, all would be out before the end of the race. Clark would actually be the first to retire from the race when his engine suffered issues. This is why he would make such a poor start and struggle as he did through the 8 laps that he actually did complete. Bruce McLaren, Bob Bondurant and Jackie Stewart would all be out of the race by around the halfway mark of the race.
Before Stewart retired he managed to indirectly offer about the only excitement the fans would see throughout the middle portion of the race. Heading into the tight hairpin at the south end of the circuit Pedro Rodriguez would be all over Stewart when he would suddenly slow with ignition problems. Lorenzo Bandini would try and take more than was offered to him and hit would smash his nose into a part of the circuit that would break the nose of the car into several pieces. Rodriguez and Bandini would make it to the pits after their problems reared their heads. They would lose a lot of time while the issues would be addressed but they would head back out onto the circuit. Both would end up finishing the race but nowhere near the front.
The big names continued to fall. Following Stewart, Brabham would retire, then Rindt. The final retiree would be Hill. His race would come to an end just 8 laps from the finish. However, there was one big name left in the field that had the potential of causing Ginther all kinds of fits.
Spence had managed to hold up and frustrate Gurney until the 20th lap. It had been a long and grueling 4 laps for Gurney as he battled with Spence. This allowed Richie to build up an impressive lead. Back in 1961, at the Monaco Grand Prix, Ferrari had released Ginther from following Hill late in the race. He was waved through to try and take the fight to Stirling Moss. Ginther didn't have anywhere near the kind of record Moss had earned over the course of his career but now it was he that was in the role of keeping the pace, controlling the race. If he could the race victory, his first for himself, for Honda, for Goodyear, for just about anyone else, would be his. If he faltered, yet another close call would be added to his racing resume.
Gurney seemed to have plenty of time. Finally by Spence, he had more than 40 laps to close the distance and get by Ginther for the victory. Ginther's early laps were just under the two minute mark. This put the pressure on the rest of the field just to stay in touch. At the beginning of the race such a pace was of little consequence because it was believed the Honda wouldn't make the difference. However, as the race headed into its final half, that early pace would translate into a gap of nearly half a mile.
Ginther's advantage enabled him to run steady laps. Gurney, on the other hand, had to practically burn up his engine to try and reel in his fellow American. Sitting on the redline more than a couple of times each lap, Gurney would have to punish his engine like this to be able to eat into Ginther's margin. Gurney also had an ally out on the track.
Before he retired from the race, Brabham continued to circulate in his Brabham, the teammate of Gurney. Brabham was still capable of some decent lap times but not nearly as fast as Ginther. Nonetheless, Richie would find it difficult to get by Brabham as he practically parked his car right in the middle of the track. Ginther would get stuck behind Brabham for a little while enabling Gurney to close the gap even more. What's more, Ginther would have to push the usually unreliable Honda just that little bit harder to get by and enjoy smooth sailing once again.
The move Ginther would put on Brabham to get by would be the stuff of legend. Powering into the banked 180 degree turn leading to the start/finish line, Ginther would kick the back end of the Honda out and would drift his way around Brabham on the outside of the turn. It was a move that could have cost him the race, but on this day, would ensure his place in Formula One history.
The move, and the pressure from Gurney, would cause Ginther to respond. Suddenly the usually-fragile Honda had much more to give and Richie would begin setting some fast laps himself. Gurney would still gain ground but Ginther was much more capable of managing the gaps. The increased speed also meant the laps were going by faster and faster. Suddenly, as with Moss at Monaco in 1961, the few remaining laps were also Ginther's friends. As long as he didn't put a wheel wrong and maintained a decent pace the laps would help him out.
Heading into the final lap, Ginther had received his last bit of help from the race itself. It was now up to him to be perfect over the course of the final lap. The gap was between three and four seconds. If he didn't make a mistake he had more than enough time in hand to ensure victory.
All race long he had leaned upon the power and the pickup from the Honda engine to deliver him around the circuit one lap at a time. Seeing Gurney approaching, Ginther would lean upon the engine all the more asking everything from the engine. Before, the engine had given up the fight. Unsure of what he would get, Ginther would push all the more.
Gurney had given his car everything it had. He would break the lap record and would believe he would snatch the victory away at the last moment since he spotted what he thought was some kind of fluid coming from Ginther's engine.
As it turned out, the fluid leaking from the car would be fuel, and it had been leaking for more than a few laps. Neither Ginther nor Gurney would realize just how little fuel was left in the tank as the two cars headed into the banked 180 degree turn for the final time. Gurney would back off slightly realizing neither the Honda nor Ginther were going to let the victory be snatched from their grasp. Gurney's car had taken a beating and was threatening to fail before the finish as well.
Ginther would finally do it! After five long seasons in Formula One he had finally earned his first World Championship victory crossing the line literally on fumes. Had Gurney pressed a little more it may not have been. Shedding all unnecessary weight to stay in front, Ginther's Honda would cross the line a little more than three and a half seconds ahead of Gurney. Mike Spence would finish the race a minute behind in 3rd place. What's more, Honda, who barely could get a single car to finish a race, would have its already great day get even better when Ronnie Bucknum finished one lap down in 5th place.
But the moment would certainly belong to Ginther. He had been invited by Honda to come and help their program and he had succeeded in doing just that. In spite of the struggles, Honda's recognition of Ginther's talent would make it possible for him to finally step up to that top step of the podium. They knew that by his coming to the team they too would climb to the top. So it would be fitting to see Ginther, with hands raised high and that trademark smile beaming from his face, the whole Honda team would be right there with him celebrating the moment. It would be the only time in which Ginther would enjoy such a scene in Formula One, but it would be a moment that would forever remain in memory.