Chris Amon — a good oldfashioned Kiwi bloke
Donn Anderson remembers Chris Amon’s outstanding carhandling and -testing abilities, abilities that made him a motor sport great
For Chris Amon’s 60th birthday party in 2003, his wife Tish thought it might be an idea for many of his farming friends to learn a little bit about the motor racing past of their famous neighbour. Now, you’d think that even non–motor sport folk would know at least the headlines — that he’d headed off to Europe in 1963 as a 19-year-old — “just for one year, to say I’d done it”; ended up staying until 1977; and, in the interim, won Le Mans, drove for Ferrari, and forged a reputation as one of the very best racing drivers on the planet. Hell, even the Toyota ads promoted the fact that he’d been rated as the best test driver Ferrari ever had.
But the fact that many of his buddies knew so little about his illustrious past says much about the man — he oozed modesty and was simply content to be Chris Amon the farmer, Chris Amon the family man. He didn’t need to remind the locals about what he’d done; that was then, and now there was the serious task of getting on with the rest of his life rather than resting on past laurels or having regrets about how things might have turned out very differently — he knew the score.
Chris had initially proven himself to be fast enough when he first started in Formula 1 (F1) — “the first Grand Prix I attended, I was in it” — but it wasn’t until he was picked up by Ferrari in 1967 that he had the chance to show just how good he was. Ferrari was beaten by Ford at Le Mans in 1966 — it hadn’t lost there since 1959, and this hadn’t gone unnoticed in Maranello. An approach was made to Chris, who’d gone through boarding school reading Motor Sport in the mid to late ’50s, when the Italian teams epitomized the romantic notion of European motor racing. The lure was too strong, and he spent three years at the scuderia — there were great times, there were frustrations aplenty, and there were dark days — like when his teammate Lorenzo Bandini was killed at Monaco. It was Chris’ first Grand Prix for Ferrari — he and the dashing Italian had driven from Milan to the principality together, after having already shared the winning car at Daytona and Monza.
He always regarded his finest performance in a Grand Prix as being his drive at the daunting Clermont-ferrand in 1972. That day, the Matra V12 was cooperating for once, and he led away from pole, simply dominating the opposition. It was a masterclass act, and it would undoubtedly have resulted in victory had it not been for a puncture. After returning to the track following the unscheduled pit stop, he hammered away at the lap record on each lap. The record books say he finished third, but, as with most statistics relating to this very special driver, this hardly reflects what was seen that day in the middle of France.
But Chris does not rate that as his greatest drive — that, he believed, was in a Can-am race at Bridgehampton in 1966, when he and Bruce Mclaren were running the twin Mclaren-chevs. It was another race he didn’t win, but he and Dan Gurney, in a Ford-powered Lola, cleared out in a race in which, “Dan and I ran away — we were about half a mile ahead of everybody else. I think if I could have got by Dan, I probably would have pulled away, but the Ford worked particularly well there”. Chris loved cars in which there was an excess of power to grip — it all went back to his days in the 250F Maserati as an 18-year-old. He had car control other drivers could only dream of — I sent a photo of Chris, which I’d never seen before, in the Matra at Kyalami to Howden Ganley, who said, “Oh, that is so Chris”. He wasn’t destroying tyres or martyring suspension — he had the thing dancing, like only the best can.
In 2003, Chris attended the Australian Grand Prix as a guest of Toyota — on the Friday, he was surprised that the steady line of people wanting to talk to him never seemed to shrink. He’d not been to Grand Prix for over 25 years, and never imagined that anyone would remember him. The line remained all Saturday and most of Sunday. When he got back, I asked how he’d enjoyed it all: “Well, I hardly saw very much … but I met a lot people who all wanted to talk about the old days.”
Chris’ love of the sport never diminished — he followed the exploits of Kiwis abroad but could happily chat about a variety of subjects — politics, cricket, dogs, the world economy, modern trends in passenger-car design, Tish’s golf — and lots about his kids, and their kids. At the heart of it all, Chris was a good old-fashioned Kiwi bloke from the sticks, who loved his family, doted over his dogs, appreciated a good red, was good to his mates, and wondered what those clouds up there might bring if there was a chance of getting out on the lake. And he was a phenomenally good racing driver — with the driest sense of humour around and an infectious chuckle.
The Formula 1 (F1) cars were barely a metre or two distant. I could almost reach out and touch them. The noise was deafening, and you could feel the angry vibration of the machines. And there he was, lap after lap — Chris Amon placing the works V12 Ferrari in precisely the same position and in near-identical beautifully controlled slides, with just the right amount of opposite lock.
This was New Zealand’s best-ever racing driver in command, leading the 1968 British Grand Prix (GP), and surely en route to his first ever F1 victory. I was standing right on the edge of the track at Druids Corner watching this marvellous spectacle, absorbing the striking performance of a master in action. In those days, health and safety seemed to be not such an issue as it is today, and the wearing of an accredited photographer’s pass entitled you to the right to stand almost anywhere.
It was July 20, and Chris was celebrating his 25th birthday, leading the world’s top drivers. As the 80-lap race progressed, however, he had no control over the savage deterioration of his tyres that ultimately slowed his pace and allowed Lotus driver Jo Siffert to secure a 4.4-second victory over the red Ferrari. A few months later, at Saint Jovite in Canada, I witnessed a repeat performance, when Chris seemed assured of a GP win only to suffer a transmission malfunction — all this after taking pole position by a remarkable four seconds. Unsurprisingly, a distraught Amon had to be consoled by teammate Jacky Ickx. But, looking back on a spectacular career, it matters not that Amon never won a F1 race. Stirling Moss failed to win a world championship, yet we all recognize his greatness. The same can be said for Amon, who did not consider himself unlucky, because he survived at a time when many other drivers did not.
New Zealand enthusiasts would also be treated to amazing Amon displays. It was a delight to stand near Railway Corner at Pukekohe in January 1969 and watch Chris handle the Tasman Ferrari on his way to winning his second New Zealand GP. His was a F1 career spanning 14 years — from 1963 until 1977 — during which he competed in almost 100 GPS, won Le Mans, raced Can-am, and even tried Indianapolis. He always preferred singleseaters, and the 1968 Ferrari F1 was his all-time favourite. This was the first F1 car to wear a rear aerofoil, which made its debut at Spa for the Belgian GP that year. How lucky I was to see him in action in this car in most of the world championship races 48 years ago.
I have fond memories of spending a day with Chris 24 years ago, in 1992, motoring around the Wellington region, evaluating a car and discussing driving. We were not in an exotic Ferrari or Lotus but a Toyota Corona sedan that Amon was fine-tuning for the local market. For much of the time, the dilemma was who was to be behind the wheel. I wanted Amon to drive, since it was such a pleasure to ride with him as a passenger, yet he wanted me to take the wheel so that he could tell me all the things I was doing wrong! Great to have such a talented tutor, but much better to watch an expert such as Chris in action.
Following his career from the early days, right from the Maserati 250F and the Cooper Climax, had been fascinating, and it always seemed that the lad from Bulls was destined for greatness. In the spring of 1963, photographer Jack Inwood and I had gone to meet Chris at Whenuapai, the old airport for Auckland. Aged only 20, he was returning from his first experience racing F1 in Europe, and the experience for the boy off the farm had been mind-blowing.
New Zealanders knew little of Chris, and Jack and I were the only two people to meet him off the plane from England. As a working journalist, I would find Amon the best leading driver to communicate with.
Fire and enthusiasm
That 1963 year was a mixed and sometimes frightening one for the beginner, but he scored his first European win in the Lola V8 Climax in June at Mallory Park in Britain, winning the Formula Libre race and scoring his first world championship point with a sixth place at Rheims in the French GP. Things went downhill from then. On his first visit to the Nürburgring, for the German GP in 1963, the steering broke, and Chris suffered a knee injury after being catapulted into the trees. Then, at Monza, he lost the Lola on the 185kph Lesmo corner after striking a patch of oil. Graham Hill was right on the Lola’s exhausts, and said that Chris had overcorrected the slide and spun around the opposite way into the bank. Amon was tossed out and broke four ribs, as well as suffering bruises and grazes. Those were dangerous days.
Six years later, we sat down and discussed his success in the Tasman Cup championship. He was unchanged since the first time he’d sat in the 250F at the tender age of 17. He retained the same serious, cautious approach. Chris faced criticism from the European media following his appalling bad luck in the 1968 F1 series, yet he had consistently shown fire and enthusiasm. But you cannot win races with an ailing car — and it was the far-fromperfect Ferrari that failed him in Europe, America, and South Africa.
Chris accepted that there were more risks in his day than now. Looking back, he was rarely happy about safety — or the lack of it — in the ’60s and ’70s. “Yes, racing was more dangerous in hindsight, but we got into the cars and drove them,” he said. Certainly, Amon was never short on bravery, and who could forget his amazing lap in the March 701 at Spa in Belgium, in 1970, when he averaged an astounding
contracted him to fine-tune its locally assembled models. Toyota management spoke highly of Amon’s involvement with detailed suspension changes, tailoring the car to the local requirements of road condition, speed limits, and driver behaviour in general.
He had a canny knack of understanding and honing problems inherent in a car and solving such issues. During development work with Mclaren and Firestone, the tyre company was amazed at his abilities in this area. On one test day, Amon pitted after several laps and reported the problems with the car and the tyres. The technicians, keen to catch out the New Zealander, told him to go away for lunch, and they would make the changes with respect to differing tyres, pressures, and even suspension tweaks. An hour later, Chris returned, took to the track for more laps, and then said, “I don’t think there is any difference — the car and tyres are exactly the same.” He was right — the technicians had shuffled tyres about, put the same ones back on the car, and not changed a thing. They could have permanently compromised Amon’s career, but he had proved he knew what he was talking about.
His test driving for Mclaren in Britain was a factor in earning him a place in the Ferrari F1 team. “I learned a lot from Bruce Mclaren in the early days, and I also benefited from the fact that, when Firestone started their European programme, Bruce was usually too busy racing to test, so I ran thousands of track miles in 1965 and 1966 looking for tiny differences in tyre performance. We ran against the stopwatch all the time, but, after I’d been doing it for a while, I could pick up the changes, and I could tell if I’d been a tenth or two quicker before I saw the times,” Chris said.
He remembered this as a great learning programme. “Then, at Ferrari, I did a lot of testing with another good teacher in Mauro Forghieri. It wasn’t only Formula 1, because we were testing sports cars and Formula 2 cars as well. During 1967 and 1968, I was in a car testing three or four days a week, and then two days of practice and a race at the weekend. Most drivers say [that] they prefer racing to testing, but I enjoyed those lonely laps,” he said. In fact, Chris believed some drivers will always be better at testing than others: “I was always interested in doing it, almost as interested as I was in racing, and, if you like the involvement, that helps a lot. I guess I had the ability to be reasonably perceptive about it.”
In retirement, Chris was not especially enamoured with the current direction of F1 and the concentration on aerodynamics with nonsensical wind-tunnel testing. “The racing has zero relationship with road cars, and I’d like to see more emphasis on mechanical developments,” he said.
And now, sadly, he has gone, and much too soon. A bright star has failed. We have lost a truly great New Zealand sportsman, a wonderful driver, and a good bloke, to boot. Gone is the trio at the top — Chris Amon, Denny Hulme, and Bruce Mclaren — and things will never be quite the same.