Ricardo ‘El Colorado’ Zunino is as known for the events transpiring around him as he is for his own sake. Like Harald Ertl, he happened to be at the right place at the right time, regarding the very same man: Niki Lauda. Zunino’s last-minute replacement of Lauda at the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix gave the Argentinian a year and a half in and out of the top level of motorsport. Without sufficient success or backing of his own, however, the collapse and difficult democratic transition of his native Argentina sent him home a reject in Formula 1.
|Date of Birth||April 13th 1949|
|Teams||Brabham (1979-80), Tyrrell (1981)|
|Best Result||7th (1979 Canada, 1980 Argentina)|
Early Years: Local Boy to Touring Car Hero
Ricardo Zunino was born into a household in San Juan, Argentina. His family owned a chunk of land in the area, and Ricardo’s father was a banker. The history of the family in the region seems to have been focussed on the financial profession, though that did not stop the young Ricardo from diverging and taking part in his first local races in the late 1960s.
So much of life is circumstance, and it was just Ricardo’s luck that he, in his teenage years participating in local races, that he should meet one Carlos Reutemann:
“I was 18 years old and Carlos, who was an official FIAT driver at the time, invited me to be his partner for an edition of the 1,000-kilometre race in the City of Buenos Aires,” Ricardo Zunino remembering his first chance encounter with his compatriot.
Records start mentioning Zunino’s name in 1969, where he started his career for good in local and regional road-racing scenes. For that year and the following few, he participated in tin tops and sportscar events with occasional success, such as a podium or two in national Turismo Carretera. In 1972 he already had a few years under his belt, and undertook his calling in the national Touring Car Championship alongside these other open-wheeled endeavours.
It was in his homeland’s touring car series that Zunino made a name for himself and built up the necessary thrust for an international racing career. Although his first year in Group B was difficult and only rewarded a podium, his move the following year to Group C was a sea change of performance. Moving from a Fiat 128 to a 125, his four wins in 1973 and another the following year put the local boy from San Juan in the national sphere. It was here he also gained his nickname “El Colorado” after the colour of his hair: he and all his competitors were blessed with such nicknames and epithets from the national press, and many of them have stuck to this day.
With his largely unmodified Fiat 125, Ricardo Zunino took touring cars by storm, and storm he did to a title in 1975. 18 rounds, six wins and a podium in almost every one. A full calendar indeed, backed up by rally rounds at the local and regional level. A man of his time, Ricardo belongs to an era much like Helmut Marko’s on the other side of the world, where it was common to race every other weekend, in and out of different series, in one-off appearances, and wherever he might have fancied. Zunino was so busy in fact that the records simply aren’t good enough to follow where he might have been all this time!
1976-1979: The Scope Widens and Ricardo takes Europe
In his resident series of Argentinian Touring Cars, he defended his title in 1976 with four wins to his credit in the process. By this time a known, respected, and fast figure in his homeland, Ricardo had other things on his mind.
“I drove here [in Argentina], but my mind was always in Europe…”
He was, after all, already 27, and more than past the traditional age even in his day, of getting into open-wheelers and the international scene. However, even so, he was not too old to take the opportunity when it presented itself.
In the time of his greatest success, Ricardo was being tempted and groomed by the Automobile Club of Argentina, whose funding made the careers of other Argentinians like Reutemann a decade prior. They saw Zunino as Argentina’s next big thing, and so they created a plan of action to make this dream a reality. They even placed Reutemann’s former manager Héctor Staffa in charge of managing Ricardo as he made his way over to Europe for 1977.
Zunino’s opportunity had not come without cost for his benefactors. Even with such success behind him, someone with Ricardo’s financial and geographical background would never make it in European open-wheel racing without some kind of backing and organisation. He relied on princely sums from the Automobile Club to move to Europe and enter into F3 and European Formula 2 simultaneously. The Argentine explains how his move eventually came about:
“There are moments in life where you only have five seconds to say a few words and that moment in my life passed. I introduced myself and told [Bernie Ecclestone] that I wanted to race in Europe. The people who were there told him that I was a kid who drove nationally and that I had become a champion. He looked at me, gave me a card, and said ‘Anything, I’ll contact you’… A week later I sent him a message and the secretary replied to ask me to talk to Max Mosley”
The opportunityhad gone far. Zunino joined Mosley’s March team in F2, which was by no means poor equipment. Despite a quality team behind him, his only point over the whole 1977 season came at Pau, where his late-race crash helped cause the red flag that stopped the race, which in turn gave him that point. The results were not strong, and his double duty in F3 was proof he was driving to get the experience as much as anything else.
“Before going to Europe I tried a National Formula 2 car, but when I got there I realised that I didn’t know anything and that I had to start from scratch. It was a year of very hard learning because at that time an F2 was a car with 300 horsepower and a weight of 400/450 kilos and it was difficult for me to adapt.”
It is important to take a moment to really grasp the change from Argentinian touring cars to European Formula 2, which was one of the standard stepping stones to Formula 1 in those days. For Ricardo to be competitive at all was quite the feat, and his initial difficulty in bringing home the points can easily be chalked down to sheer inexperience with the cars and the environment. It is therefore easy to track his improvement the following year, and the year after that.
For example, 1978 saw some improvement and regular battling for the lower points. Still with the March team, he finished the year with seven points – better than the single point he earned the year before, but it was slow going for a man hitting his 30s very soon.
Then suddenly, Bob Sparshott planned to enter his own Formula 1 team in the late 70s, and had been in touch with interested parties from Argentina to make this happen. Zunino was their number one candidate for a 1979 drive with BS Engineering (and what a wonderful team that would have been). Sadly, in the end nothing came of it as the hoped-for sponsors pulled out jointly, and their BS Team project faded away without an entry.
On Ricardo’s side, he was looking at moving elsewhere. Things were clearly not going upwards fast in Formula 2, and so after a few disappointing early rounds in 1979, he changed scenery. This is where British Formula 1, or Formula Aurora, came in, and it was here that Ricardo was able to shine through and get his big break.
Formula Aurora brought an astounding change of fortune for Ricardo. With a year-old Arrows he did very well from the moment he sat in the cockpit, with four podiums, two poles and a win at Brands Hatch. Despite competing for just over half the championship, his late-season form had been brilliant, and with an earlier start could easily have seen him fight directly for the number one spot itself. His win had been his first (and would be his only) in Europe, and was turning Bernie’s head in the Formula 1 paddock.
“It was a 450-horsepower car, and the only thing different from F1 was the tyres and the same compound being used for all of the teams. It was a lot cheaper. There my relationship was more fruitful with Bernie, and even more so after winning at Brands Hatch. So I started testing his Brabham and travelling on his personal plane.”
And here is that win at Brands Hatch
1979: The Right Paddock at the Right Time
It was on the 28th of September 1979 that everything changed for Zunino. Niki Lauda drove around the Circuit Ile Notre-Dame (now the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve) for a few laps in practice, before deciding he was done with Formula 1 and was retiring for good. He parked the car, informed his boss Bernie Ecclestone, (presumably) got on a plane with his name printed on the side of it, and went home. From Lauda’s own mouth later, Ricardo was “found in the paddock”, put in Niki’s outfit and sent out. It had been a perfect example of “right place at the right time”, as Zunino was in the paddock as a spectator. He had now tested the Brabham car twice himself, including a few weeks prior in Europe, so there couldn’t be any question about his suitability for the role.
“He made sure in a thousand ways that I was going to be in Canada, and Bernie is very precise. I had no idea Lauda’s contract would end just on Friday… ”
Zunino could only start preparing from a late practice session, having no experience of the Canadian Grand Prix circuit. Lauda had been asked by Ecclestone to leave his overalls, so Ricardo grabbed those and the helmet. He borrowed boots from Jacques Laffite and gloves from Gilles Villeneuve. He qualified an impressive 19th with such little running behind him, and finished just outside the points in seventh (albeit four laps down!) after a fault with his transmission box forced him into a delaying pitstop.
“[Bernie] told me ‘The international press are waiting for you. But don’t forget: everything happening now is thanks to me, not because of you.’ Would I have achieved what I did seeking support from home? Probably not.”
His performance in Canada was strong enough that Brabham took him on for the final round of the season at Watkins Glen – the same weekend Ricardo was due to return for the Formula Aurora finale. At that round, he qualified as all Piquet’s teammates seemed to, well behind the Brazilian, but in a brilliant ninth all the same. Nothing came of that opportunity, however, when he spun mid-race and dropped out.
In the winter, it was rumoured but unconfirmed that Ricardo’s team were offering Bernie Ecclestone no less than $1.5 million to drive the following season! However much it was, it was enough to convince Bernie to take on the Argentinian for a full year.
1980: The Sophomore Slump
This is where his story starts to lose its shine. In 1980 the disparity between Ricardo and Nelson Piquet was heightened mightily. Now with an off-season to prepare himself, Zunino had been given a golden opportunity to do something in F1. However, in every round he would qualify towards the very rear of the grid and finish the race multiple laps down on even his teammate, with vital mistakes dropping him out of any chance of success.
At his home race in Argentina he finished last and two laps down, while Piquet challenged for the win. In Brazil he knocked himself and John Watson out of contention with a bungled move, while at Long Beach he got caught in a first lap midfield pileup. Famously, Zunino did not qualify at the Monaco Grand Prix that year, while Nelson started fourth on the grid. Embarrassing doesn’t do the situation justice. Small mercy was the non-championship Spanish Grand Prix, which at least saw Ricardo flirt with a top six finish before he was overtaken and subsequently retired with gearbox trouble.
Ecclestone decided to give Zunino one last chance to prove himself and come up with a good result at the French Grand Prix. Three seconds off Piquet in qualifying, and not making it around the first lap due to a clutch issue, Ricardo failed the test. While Ecclestone was very fond of the Argentinian’s wallet, he needed results to go along with it. Héctor Rebaque, recently having dumped his own team project the year prior, took over the second Brabham for the latter half of the year. Rebaque provided money, and at the end of things, a single point for the team by season end. Only one more than Ricardo could manage.
The money problems took precedence over everything. Ecclestone claimed he had not been sufficiently paid, while simultaneously making airy promises about finding Zunino a seat somewhere else on the grid. It seems neither of these quarrels were ever solved, but neither does it seem that either party took it personally. This is because, when Rebaque was unable to take part in the South African Grand Prix in February 1981 due to contracting hepatitis, Ricardo was called up again. Here he finished 8th and only two laps down on Piquet, albeit in a race that lacked the manufacturers due to the ongoing FISA-FOCA war of the time.
“In Argentina the car was unmanageable and I was still able to finish seventh. Besides, there were political problems. I had got a very good opportunity in Canada and Bernie was waiting for a response, that is, financial support from Argentina. The issue was that at that time there was a political problem in F1 between Ballestre and Bernie for control of the category. So, as the [Automobile Club of Argentina] was more with Ballestre, there were things that did not work well. In the middle of the year I ran out of budget and had to get lost.”
1981-1982: Last Call with Tyrrell
In 1981 Ken Tyrrell was struggling badly to get money into the Tyrrell team. While there were promising drivers coming up the ranks that Ken badly wanted – Desiré Wilson, who had driven against Zunino in South Africa, was the latest rising star from Formula Aurora – but it was the money that talked in the end. Zunino’s one-shot opportunity at Kyalami had given him another lifeline in F1.
Unfortunately, there was no happy ending to this story. Ricardo qualified last in both of the South American rounds that he participated in for Tyrrell, although there was one last heroic move at his home race. The 1981 Argentine Grand Prix saw him overtake ten cars on the first lap before copping a giant one-lap penalty for missing a chicane. Without that penalty, he would have been fighting for sixth and the final point come race-end. Ken Tyrrell didn’t see any future in the two’s relationship, and so Zunino was not called back for any future races.
The story peters out quite quickly following these events. The Ensign team were in talks to take Ricardo on for the Spanish Grand Prix that year, but they never materialised after the Argentinian reportedly turned them down – for what reason remains unclear. He was even reported for a second time to have signed papers with BS Engineering for 1982, but again these plans fizzled out without an entry.
Opportunities had all but run out for Ricardo. The Falklands War and the collapse of Argentina’s economy and their junta government had left him in a difficult situation both politically – motorsport being a highly Anglo-centric place – and financially. Now already into his 30s, he could no longer invest in anything, and neither was he seen as a good investment. So it was in 1982 that he returned from Europe to Argentina for good.
1983-present: A Swift Retirement
Zunino’s retirement was very sudden – almost immediate, in fact. A few rallies by invitation were all his official participations, and by the end of the year he was done. Of course, in the meantime during his F1 stints, he had been taking part in all manner of events, such as the Rally of Argentina in 1981, and the occasional other return to his homeland for seasonal racing.
The focus of his life subsequently went into local business, and he has lived much of the rest of his life out of the spotlight. He did make some various appearances and held some duties during Argentina’s brief return with a Grand Prix circuit in the 1990s, and became a star regular runner of the annual historic Mil Millas, which was a sort of Argentinian version of the Mille Miglia in Italy.
He returned to and now lives in his hometown of San Juan. His choice of post-motorsport career was, to everyone’s surprise, more racing. This racing being of a different kind, however: horses! The Zuninos own a whole tourist and sport resort in the area, which includes husbandry and training for animals. Ricardo himself even rides horses, and has been winning local titles as recently as 2007 at the spritely age of 58!
A debate that will rage around the actual ability of Zunino is whether Brabham were a one-car team by choice or circumstance. Piquet was in his prime years, Ecclestone’s golden boy, and like another Brazilian, tended to resent having competent teammates.
“Nelson was being prepared to be world champion and I didn’t have the same means. I took the motors that he had used in the previous race or in qualifying. They gave me tyres when he had any left over. There wasn’t much of a budget. At the end of the day, there were only two teams with two cars at the same level: Ferrari and Williams”.
Arguments to the contrary come from Zunino and Rebaque’s successor Riccardo Patrese, who says he never felt as a number 2 and always had the machinery that he needed to do well and fight for wins in. It paints today’s driver in a very bad light if that is the case, because Zunino qualified around three seconds off the Brazilian’s time every race, while going nine pointless races in a competitive car his teammate accumulated 25 points and a win in. The reader can decide whether they think it fair to compare Zunino to Piquet in his prime, but the results speak for themselves, and Ricardo’s were zero.
Another debate is as to how much of a “fluke” Ricardo’s jump into an F1 car was that fateful day in Canada. It seems a big coincidence that Bernie Ecclestone would have had no advance suspicion of his double-world-champion driver’s decision to quit, and that he was just testing and taking Ricardo out of his Formula Aurora duties for the fun of it. In this author’s opinion, Ecclestone had Zunino in as a backup in case this very occasion occurred, and it did.
While his early momentum faded rapidly, Zunino’s subsequent abrupt retirement can be chalked up to things like the Falklands War and the economic crisis that followed in his home country. However, he has less of an excuse for the final results on his F1 career than, say, Miguel Ángel Guerra, whose career in Europe and F1 was only getting started when the downturn occurred.
Zunino had his chance, which is more than most get, and he defends his career every step of the way:
“In Europe you always have to show courage and get yourself noticed. If you have to hit all the cars in the first corner, do it. And never give way. You have to be a bulldog because they all are. When I arrived there were 35,000 racing licences in England, 45,000 in Germany, around 38,000 in France. So when you come from abroad you have to stand out … I worked hard to get to Formula 1. The possibilities are few and I did everything to get one. A driver was asked for ability, talent and courage. And I had it all.”
Sources: racingsportscars.com; oldracingcars.com; bbc.com; grandprix.com; carlos-reutemann.com; autoclub.org.ar; forums.autosport.com; driverdb.com; statsf1.com; riccardopatrese.com; Stampa Sera newspaper; hemeroteca.mundodeportivo.com; forix.com; diariodecuyo.com.ar; f1forgottendrivers.com; motorsportmagazine.com; f1rejects.com; infobae.com