An afternoon with Chris Amon
Ihad the pleasure of meeting Chris only the one time, at his home in late 2011. The occasion was rather a special one for Chris, as he got to see the BMW 3.0 CSL — dubbed the ‘Batmobile’ — 38 years after he had raced it with Hans-joachim Stuck.
Usually resident in BMW’S museum in Munich, where it is a prized exhibit, this was the first winged CSL to win a race. The valuable racing saloon was brought to New Zealand by BMW New Zealand to take part in the 2012 NZ Festival of Motor Racing (celebrating the Bavarian marque), and it went on a brief tiki tour to be exhibited at various key BMW dealerships throughout the length and breadth of New Zealand.
On the final leg of its nationwide journey — during the return trip to Auckland — the CSL made a slight detour for an appointment with Chris Amon, who had last seen the car during the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) series in 1973.
After examining the car in which he and Stuck had won the 1973 6 Hours of Nürburgring that marked the debut of the CSL’S famous wing, we sat down with Chris and prepared to be taken back to a time when drivers such as Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, and Jochen Mass vied for touring-car honours. And, with the arrival of the 3.0 CSL, a mighty battle for supremacy against the rival Cologne Capris ensued.
From Formula 1 to touring cars
Amon was supposed to be racing in Formula 1 (F1) for Max Moseley’s March team in 1973, but, in one of Moseley’s typical manoeuvres, he ended up racing that BMW in the ETCC. It was an odd position for Amon, whose entire racing career had been largely focused on openwheelers.
Chris explained, “It actually came about because of the March connection — in that, BMW, at that time, was supplying engines to the March F2 [Formula 2] team, and, in typical sort of March fashion, they thought that if I drove for BMW, BMW would do most of the paying and they’d have to pay less. As it turned out, I never did actually drive for them; we fell out with them before the first F1 race. But it was through that March connection that it arose. There was another connection there, too, because Jochen Neerpasch was managing the BMW team — well, he was managing BMW Motorsport — at that time, and he and I had driven at Le Mans together for Carroll Shelby in a Daytona coupe in 1964, so we knew each other well.”
After many years racing in F1 — plus several Can-am drives and, of course, his epic win at Le Mans in 1966 with the Ford GT40 — racing a touring car presented a fresh challenge for Amon: the CSL was far heavier and less powerful than the F1 cars he normally raced. So, how did it feel as opposed to an F1 single-seater, and how did he get on acclimatizing himself to racing a saloon car?
“Very different!” Chris answered, with a short laugh. “It certainly did take me a few races to get used to it. I’d done almost zero touring-car driving, and everything is quite different — with an F1 car, you’ve got very little body roll, and you haven’t got much suspension movement, but, with a touring car, it rolls, and you’ve got vertical movement. Yeah, totally different. The other thing is that, because your cornering speeds are a lot lower, there’s a real tendency to try [to] … overdrive, because you feel like you’re not going fast enough. And, of course, you’ve got a lot more weight. If you do tend to try [to] … overdrive, actually, to overdrive scrubs off speed and [you] go slower, so, yes, it took me a while to adapt to it.”
Hans Stuck was much more of a salooncar racing specialist than Amon — but did
the Kiwi manage to pick up a few driving tips from the German veteran?
“Not really. I mean, he was very quick, and it took me a few races to get up to his speed — I got the feeling with Hans that he used to wring the thing’s neck all the time. He was a bit of a larger-than-life character; it was actually a bit special to be driving with him, because his father, who was still around at that time — he was quite an old man by then, his father, of course — was part of the Auto Union team before the war. He was Hans Stuck as well, and I got to meet him on several occasions, and that took me back to the Caracciola and Nuvolari era. He was one of Auto Union’s probably most successful drivers, Hans’ father. What I did learn from Hans was that you had to go bloody quickly to be on his level.”
Many years after their partnership ended, Stuck remembered Amon as “[t]he best driver I ever shared with. I learned a lot from him”.
Amon’s first competitive outing in the 3.0 CSL came at Monza, where, with Stuck, they finished in fourth place. Amon missed round three at the Salzburgring, Stuck partnering with Dieter Quester for that race. Although they qualified the BMW on pole, a bent valve led to retirement. Amon also missed round three at Sweden’s Mantorp Park. That race took place only a week before Le Mans, and BMW intended to enter two works CSLS for the 24-hour race, with Amon and Stuck in car No. 50. The CSL qualified in 30th position — in a field of 55 cars — but struck gearbox problems during the race when it became stuck in fifth. Although it was eventually fixed, on lap 160 during the night Stuck hit a Ferrari and ended up in a sand trap, so their race was over.
Birth of the Batmobile
By now, Amon was becoming comfortable working with the BMW team, which had a reputation for being a slick operation. Chris recalled — “Yeah! I guess, when I went there, everybody’s perception of German engineering in motor racing terms, certainly in my case, went back to the Mercedes era of the ’50s, so it was interesting to be linked with a German team. I wasn’t involved with Porsche at any stage, so BMW was my first experience. It certainly was slick operation — a very competitive situation, in that, basically, you had two German teams against each other — you had the BMW team and the Ford Cologne operation, they were the main opposition as such.”
For round four of the ETCC, the drivers faced a demanding six-hour race at the infamous Nürburgring, but the boffins at BMW had a new weapon in their arsenal to combat the all-conquering Cologne Capris — that famous wing.
For the 6 Hours of Nürburgring race, the CSL appeared for the first time in all its be-winged glory, quickly earning the title of ‘Batmobile’. Amazingly, the wing slashed lap times at the ’Ring by a huge 14 seconds.
It took a little prodding to get Chris to remember the wing’s debut race: “To be honest, I can’t really remember. When I first saw the car there this morning again, after 40-something years or whatever it is, I was trying to think, did we start the season with the wing? I’m pleased you reminded me — that was the first time we ran the wing, was it? Thinking back, somewhere in the back of my mind was the fact that I felt that the wing helped us gain a bit of an upper hand over the Capris. Having said that, at the beginning of the season, we were really struggling to be on the same pace as the Capris. When I think about it, there were two things that happened during the season that helped us get ahead of them — one was the wing, and the second was when we went from a 3.3- to a 3.5-litre engine; I can’t remember what race we got the bigger engine.”
During the actual race, the Amon/stuck CSL finished first, with an average race speed of 158.5kph, and, in the process, put an end to the Capri’s winning ways.
The victory at the ’Ring was Amon’s first race win since the Argentine Grand Prix in 1971, so it felt good to be back on the winner’s podium.
“I think [that] by the time we got to the Nürburgring, I was really starting to enjoy the touring-car thing, and, whatever you’re driving at the ’Ring, it’s always a challenge and it’s always satisfying to do well there. So, yes, it was a big moment,” he said.
By the time the BMW works team arrived at Spa for the 24-hour race there in July, Amon had become very comfortable at the wheel of the CSL, and his driving skills were plainly evident — during the Spa race, he recorded the fastest lap, with a time of 3min 49.4s at an average speed of 221.586kph. To put that into perspective, at the old Spa circuit, Chris set the fastest time ever in the 1970 March — 3min 27.4s.
Stuck had put the CSL on to pole, with a time of 3min 49.9s, then, during practice,
Amon punted an Alfa at high speed, resulting in the need for last-minute repairs before the race, but they were forced to retire after dropping a valve on lap 90. Alpina withdrew its cars following a multiple car pile-up in which one of its drivers, Hans-peter Joisten, was killed. The Quester / Toine Hezemans works CSL won.
Although Amon couldn’t recall when the 3.5-litre engine had first been fitted to the CSL, the history books show that it made its first appearance in round six at Zandvoort. However, the larger engine didn’t immediately give the BMWS an advantage, and excessive tyre wear led to the team cutting holes in the spoilers to aid tyre cooling. The Stuck/amon pairing started from pole, but, despite a spectacular driving stint from Amon, the CSL’S gearbox gave way, leaving the Hezemans/quester BMW to take the race win.
Amon’s last drive in the CSL came at Circuit Paul Ricard — he missed the final round of the series (the Tourist Trophy at Silverstone), because he was racing an ElfTyrell at Watkins Glen, where, once again, Stuck qualified the CSL on pole. Losing gears again, Amon and Stuck finished in third place. Although caught in fifth gear, they managed to circulate within 10 seconds of their normal lap time. Hezemans and Quester took their third straight win, Toine Hezemans gaining the 1973 driver title and BMW the 1973 ETCC.
Grinding the equipment
With his single season in the BMW CSL behind him, Chris recalled that both he and Stuck had been pretty hard on the car — for Stuck, it just appeared to be his driving style, while Amon had driven equally hard to match his partner’s pace.
As Chris remembered — “Actually, just on that, we didn’t have a great finishing record that year. The other team car was driven by Dieter Quester, the Austrian, and Toine Hezemans, the Dutchman — they were better at finishing races than we were, but we were driving a bit harder, grinding the equipment down a bit.”
Amon then returned to his more usual F1 stamping ground — but did he consider staying on at BMW for another season?
“I would’ve very much liked to have stayed with the BMW team, but my focus, as the season went on, was to build my own F1 car, and I wanted to be fully committed to that. In hindsight, it was a bloody disaster, but we won’t go into that. So, I never really considered trying to stay with BMW, because I really wanted to focus on the F1 issue.”
As far as BMW is concerned, the Amon/ Stuck CSL is a prized possession — reputedly worth around $1.5M — due to the simple fact it was the first winged CSL to win a race. For Kiwi motor sport fans, though, it’s all about the car’s connection to one of New Zealand’s best-ever racing drivers.