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

New Zealand Classic Car - - Special Feature - Words: Michael Clark Chris Amon in the 1972 French GP

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.

Fast enough

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.

Finest per­for­mance

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.

Sur­prised

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.

Fine-tun­ing

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.

Canny knack

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.

Chris Amon lead­ing the 1968 Canadian GP in the works Fer­rari (photo: Donn An­der­son)

Chris Amon in a beau­ti­fully con­trolled slide at Rail­way Bend at Pukekohe on his way to win­ning the 1969 New Zealand GP (photo: Jack In­wood)

Chris Amon driv­ing a Masarati 250F at Hamp­ton Downs, Jan­uary 2011.

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