1943 - 2016
Forever the man ‘who never won a grand prix’, Chris Amon had talent as great as any
Chris Amon: even the name said I watched the glamorous young star, then aged 19, on the crest of an early wave in an old David McKay-entered leaf-spring Cooper-Climax 2.5, drifting and placing, drifting and placing. He was a god of a driver, a prodigy – just as everyone said. In foggy black-and-white photos, we followed Chris’ early F1 life: the Parnell Lotus 25, the London at, the Cooper S. The Beatles and Christine Keeler wore the headlines; Chris was an extra, a star waiting to shine.
He was ferociously quick in early McLaren sportscars, the Brucedeveloped Ford X1 Spyder, and the Cooper-Maserati F1 car. Just as Bruce was turning to F1, though, Ferrari rang Chris Amon with an offer too good to refuse: as well as joining Lorenzo Bandini in the F1 team, Chris would race sports prototypes, CanAm, F2 and Tasman. He and Lorenzo won the 1967 Daytona 24 Hours and Monza 1,000km with the Forghieri-designed Ferrari 330 P4. They were the golden boys of Italian motorsport. Then, at Monaco, Lorenzo died in a ery accident. Aged 23, and with only three Ferrari drives behind him, Chris was suddenly the new Main Man at Maranello.
He should have won plenty of F1 races with Ferrari through to the end of 1969. Chris nearly won the 1968 British GP on his 25th birthday: he was beaten by the superior power of Jo Siffert’s Rob Walker Lotus 49B-Cosworth. At Sainte Jovite, near Montréal, on a fast, undulating, owing circuit that Chris put right up there with Oulton Park and Clermont-Ferrand, he dominated the 1968 Canadian GP, minus clutch. He was leading by over a minute, his down-and up-shifting as smooth as silk, when the steel ring behind the clutch diaphragm nally failed with 18 laps to run. Only two weeks before, Chris had walked away from a titanic testing accident at Monza, when something broke on his Ferrari as he entered the Lesmos, which were much quicker then than they are today.
There were golden moments, too: endless testing at Modena, long lunches with Enzo Ferrari. In the 1968 Australian GP at Sandown Park, Jim Clark (Lotus 49T) and Chris ran wheel-to-wheel for the entire distance, with Jim nally winning it by a nose. I spoke to Chris this year about how we should celebrate 50 years since that race in 2018. “I’d love to,” he said. “That was one of the most enjoyable races of my career. Nothing wrong with being beaten by Jim Clark…” I added (because I knew Chris wouldn’t say it) “But it was a power circuit. Jim had a good 30-40 more horses than you…”
At Longford, in support of the 1968 Tasman race, Chris drove McKay’s 4.2-litre, quad-cam V12 Ferrari P4 Spyder on the recordbreaking edge. After admitting pre-race that “conditions will have to be perfect if I’m going to stretch it,” he set 182.9mph (294km/h) between the trees on the Flying Mile at an average of 119.3mph (192km/h) – 0.2s quicker than Jim Clark’s pole time in the Lotus 49T. Indeed, later that year, in August, at the F1 Gold Cup, Chris wowed the crowds at Oulton Park’s Old Hall corner (below left) with four-wheeldrifts comparable only with Jim Clark’s control of a Lotus-Cortina.
Inexplicably, though, Chris would never achieve solid results commensurate with his talent. Downcast by the performance of the Ferrari V12 alongside the new Ford Cosworth DFV, Chris left Ferrari for March-Cosworth in 1970. The new Ferrari at-12 proved straight away to be at least a Cosworth match and Jacky Ickx a winner. Even so, Chris raced right up there with fellowMarch driver Jackie Stewart, won the Daily Express Trophy race at Silverstone, and was at-out behind Pedro Rodríguez’s oil-leaking BRM at Spa, waiting for the BRM engine to blow, as it always did, when, for once, the V12 went the distance: Chris had to live with second place. He switched to Matra for 1971-72 and should have won at Monza, where he was leading, at last free of the bunch behind him, when he reached up to remove a visor tear-off. As he did so, the entire visor fell away – and, with it, Chris’s race.
I saw Chris at Clermont in 1972, blowing away the eld in the blue, functional, high-revving Matra MS120D. The V12 wail pierced the mountain circuit like a dagger. Chris’s throttle application and gear-changing were Technicolor pure. The inevitable puncture robbed him of a win but for me this was always Chris’s race; indeed, Clermont ’72 in my mind will always be Chris Amon.
The latter part of Chris’s career was blighted in the main by uncompetitive cars – the Tecno, his own Amon, the Ensign. He stretched them all to breaking-point but always looked smooth, even when holding them on 30° of opposite lock. He was a fusion, on any corner, of Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt.
In 1977 Chris retired with his wife, Tish, to New Zealand. I knew him as a friend who would always oblige and as a genius of a racing driver devoid of ego. “The cars just need more power and no aero,” he would say, whenever we talked about F1. “And what’s with all the run-off area? It’s as if the drivers intend to use it or something…”