American Richie Ginther impressed many during his F1 career, including the legendary Enzo Ferrari. He raced against icons such as Phil Hill, Clark and Jackie Stewart.
Ginther is one of two Americans in this series. He and Lorenzo Bandini are alike in how their motorsport careers started. He started as a mechanic helping Phil Hill tune cars, like Bandini. The Californian then teamed up with Hill as a mechanic and co-driver in the 1953 Panamericana. This race was a South American version of the Targia Florio and Mille Miglia. The duo ran high in the race before a crash.
The long road to F1, via Ferrari
Ginther took his own path into F1, driving Volkswagens, Porsches, and the biggest of them all, Ferrari. He contacted Luigi Chinetti, who was a fantastic driver for Ferrari at Le Mans and sold their cars in North America. He also ran the North American Racing Team at Le Mans as an owner. In the next three years, Ginther would become one of the best drivers from the Americas. He won several events in America and competed at Le Mans and Sebring.
Enzo Ferrari was impressed with Ginther, and it helped that Hill had started driving for Ferrari. Enzo pounced and signed him to race for a few races in 1960. Ginther proved his worth, scoring points in the three races he competed in. He took the first of fourteen podiums in his F1 career in Italy. Finishing second behind Hill, who took his maiden win, Ginther gained a permanent drive in 1961. He impressed, scoring three podiums and finishing fifth in the driver’s standings.
The consistency shown by Ginther in 1961 earned him a drive with the BRM team. Here, he would not be playing third fiddle to his teammates as he had in 1961 with Hill and Wolfgang von Trips. 1962 was difficult, with four retirements in nine races (or 44% if you like percentages) but scored podiums in 2/5 of the races he finished, whereas teammate Graham Hill won the World Championship.
Consistent, raw speed
Ginther’s prime was in 1963, having one of the best seasons for an American driver in history. Only Phil Hill in 1961 and Mario Andretti in 1978 have done better, and they won the World Championships in those respective seasons. In his BRM, Ginther finished joint second in the World Championship with 29 points. With the modern scoring system, he finished second overall, beating reigning champion Hill. The American took five podiums and scored points in every race he finished.
1964 was another consistent season, finishing on the rostrum twice despite the season being dominated by John Surtees, Jim Clark and Hill. Ginther finished in the points in six of the nine races he finished, claiming fifth in the drivers’ standings with 23 points. In 1965, he moved to the new Honda team, who had only made their debut a year prior. Ginther became team leader and started developing the car, something he had not been able to do at either BRM or Ferrari due to Graham and Phil Hill.
The Honda was one of only three cars to have its own engine and chassis, as most of the grid relied on BRM or Climax for their engines. Only the former and Ferrari used their own chassis and engine. The Honda, like many of the cars from that era, was quick on raw pace. This was evidenced by Ginther having an average starting position of seventh, with five top-three qualifying performances, often behind only Jim Clark and Graham Hill.
Unfortunately, the American broke down four times over the season. The final round of the season in Mexico looked like Honda and Ginther had made a breakthrough.
Victory at last
The weekend started well with Ginther qualifying third on the grid, but it was a race of high attrition. Ginther took the race lead at the first corner and by lap one’s end, led from Jackie Stewart, Mike Spence and fellow American Dan Gurney.
Spence overtook Stewart for second while Ginther still led. Behind him, Spence and Gurney were duelling for second between lap 12 and lap 20. Gurney got ahead and started to pull away from Spence, but Ginther held on, taking the first 1-2 for America in F1 since the 1961 Italian Grand Prix when Hill won from Gurney. It was an incredible drive from both Ginther and Gurney. It demonstrated the incredible talent that North America had in the 60s with Hill, Hermanos Rodriguez, Gurney, Ginther, Foyt, Andretti and Jones to name a few.
However, this would be the final time that Ginther was on the podium in a Formula One race, as he raced only five times in 1966 for both Honda and Cooper, finishing fourth in Mexico.
Accident curtails career
Ginther moved to Gurney’s new team Eagle for 1967 but never raced for them, as he had an accident whilst qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. He survived but suffered burns, and due to the death of his friend Lorenzo Bandini just three days earlier, Ginther chose to retire from motor racing. He never raced competitively again.
Ginther passed away in 1989 from a heart attack while on holiday with his family in France. He remains one of only five American Grand Prix winners alongside Hill, Gurney, Andretti and Peter Revson, unless Indianapolis 500 winners are included. Ginther won one race in his F1 career, taking 14 podiums in 35 finishes and 52 starts. He also took three fastest laps during his seven-season career in Formula One with two in 1961 and one in 1966.