By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Fifty years after he began his own journey from Mexico to Formula One, following compatriot Ricardo Rodriguez to Europe in 1962, Jo Ramirez is thrilled to think his country could again have a grand prix winner.
The 71-year-old mechanic-turned-team manager has more than a passing interest in Sergio Perez's move from Sauber to McLaren as replacement for 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton.
Once the warm and friendly face of a team whose image was distinctly grey, the retired Ramirez knows McLaren inside out and was the man who first introduced a callow Perez to his future employers.
"When he first started doing GP2 (in 2009) I said: 'I have to introduce you to the right people at McLaren, so they just know your face and name. It's always a good thing to do'," he told Reuters in an interview.
"We were lucky because we went to the motorhome...and when we got in there (chief executive) Ron Dennis, (shareholder) Mansour Ojjeh and (team principal) Martin Whitmarsh were all there. So he met everybody at once."
Ramirez, who worked with Jackie Stewart and Emerson Fittipaldi before joining McLaren in 1983 for an 18-year stint that spanned the sensational Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost years as well as titles with Mika Hakkinen, did not stop there.
The man who has worked for, or been friends with, every Mexican driver to have competed in Formula One in the past half-century offered Perez advice on the way up through the junior series and played a role behind the scenes once the driver was at mid-table Sauber.
When he got wind that Hamilton was unsettled, and mulling a move to Mercedes, the Mexican set to work.
"This year, when I heard that Lewis was not very happy at McLaren and the relations between Lewis and Ron Dennis were a bit fragile and that Martin actually had a good eye for Sergio, then I sort of started to move the ball around and fusillade Martin with emails and that," he smiled.
Whitmarsh recalled the situation slightly differently, telling Reuters that he first met Perez one-to-one at the Hungarian Grand Prix in July, months before Hamilton's departure was finally settled.
"Jo introduced me to (Perez's manager) Adrian Fernandez, I do remember that, last year," he said. "If he did introduce me to Sergio (before), sadly I can't remember it."
His new driver would be happy to jog his memory: "I've known Jo since a very long time ago," he told Reuters. "He helped me at the beginning of my career and always gives me good advice.
"He was an important guy to make the approach; actually he introduced me to Martin so he's very happy to be part of this."
The last Mexican to win a grand prix was Ricardo's brother Pedro Rodriguez for BRM at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium in 1970, the year before his death at Germany's Norisring circuit.
Ricardo, who died aged 20 in practice for the non-championship Mexican Grand Prix of 1962 after five races with Ferrari, was a boyhood friend of Ramirez and one of the lost talents of Formula One.
Where 'Checo' Perez will ultimately rank remains to be seen.
"He's certainly the best we have now, not the best we've ever had...I think the Rodriguez brothers were very special," said Ramirez, speaking before a dinner organized by Motor Sport magazine for the Grand Prix Mechanics Charitable Trust, of which he is a trustee.
"Ricardo was a complete phenomenon. He would have been one of the greatest but unfortunately he didn't live long enough."
Already the first Mexican since Hector Rebaque in 1981 to score points, Perez had three podium finishes with Sauber this season including second places in Malaysia and Italy that threw him into the spotlight.
Ramirez said the Guadalajara-born youngster, who has been replaced at Sauber by 21-year-old compatriot Esteban Gutierrez, was far from the finished article however.
"I think Sergio has done all the steps in the correct way, been very focused and he's been good and very tough," he said. "But in the last two years he has developed himself much more as a driver than as a person.
"He's still a child, very young. As a driver he's full of confidence, when he talks with his engineers he really very much knows what he wants to do on the car and he doesn't let himself be convinced otherwise.
"Where he has to learn a lot, especially going to a team like McLaren...he doesn't much like the press, he doesn't talk too much to the press. The minute he sees a press guy, he runs...so that he's got to learn. In a team like McLaren he has to be good to the press," smiled Ramirez.
Flying visits to Mexico will also have to be curbed.
In his entertaining 2005 book, 'Memoirs of a Racing Man', Ramirez recalled how Rebaque would rush home to Mexico between races with the result that he frequently suffered from jet lag at grands prix.
Ramirez said Perez, who began racing in Europe at an early age, could not afford any such distractions.
"You saw how Michael Schumacher applied himself, like Ayrton Senna did; like Fernando Alonso. They are there 10/10ths all the time. If you don't do it, the next guy is going to do it. To be successful, you've got to do it," he said.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)