The worst car I ever drove - Self-inflicted injury

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Chris Amon – Amon Ford AF101

If walking out on Ferrari only to watch their cars run rings round you isn’t enough, then building your own disastrous F1 car is rubbing salt in the wound. Shaun Campbell sympathises with Chris Amon

Make a list of the cars Chris Amon raced to earn his living in the 1960s and 1970s and two things strike you. First that there’s an awful lot of them, ranging from the Maserati 250F to the Ford GT40 and the Matra MS120. Second, that there are some real oddballs in there. Who now remembers much of the Tecno F1 project, which spawned two undistinguished cars in 1973? Or the BRP Indianapolis car, with which Amon attempted to qualify at the Brickyard in 1967?

It’s a list rich with possibilities for the worst car accolade, something that the 53-year-old New Zealand sheep farmer acknowledges can tell you a great deal about his career. Right team, wrong year. Good chassis, lousy engine. Amon only ever got it half right. Of course, he drove some good cars and he leaves you the impression that he’d be happier talking about those, but it’s the stinkers we’re after and there are several candidates.

“I went out to Indy in 1970 with McLaren. The cars were quite spooky and I couldn’t get to grips with them at all. With the possible exception of Denny (Hulme), who wasn’t that good at feeding back information, we didn’t really know what we were doing. Bruce (McLaren) had come out just for practice and he was struggling, too. Then Denny had a fire in the cockpit and burned his hands. Teddy Mayer got Bobby Unser into the car to do a few laps to see if he could tell us if it was vaguely right. Well, he went out and straight away ran 3-4mph faster than me. He got out and started talking very casually with Teddy about how it needed this and that changed. But I could see that his hands were shaking so much he couldn’t light his cigarette.”

It takes a brave, or at least a scrupulously honest, man to nominate the car that bears his own name, but Amon harbours no illusion about his 1974 Formula One venture, the Amon-Ford AF101. “It was a disaster,” he says. “It was a high-tech venture, but we did it in a backyard. Had we built something basic we would probably have done a lot better, but I was always striving for some kind of Utopia, because I thought I knew technically what I wanted.

“It was very advanced — fuel tanks in the middle with the driver propped forward a bit, titanium torsion bars. I prided myself on my ability to develop a car, but it was so difficult with this one because it just kept falling apart. The first time I ran it, at Goodwood, a wheel fell off: The same thing happened at Silverstone, along with a few other bits and pieces. I only had to get in and something would fall off. Being the part-owner, I kept saying, ‘Make this stronger, change this, change that and the thing ended up so bloody heavy that it wouldn’t have been competitive anyway. It was a disaster because we didn’t have the resources to make it work.

“I understand the car is now in a museum somewhere in Germany,” says Amon, adding after a long pause a heartfelt, “Long may it stay there.”

The Amon AF101 was a truly unsuccessful race car, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the worst. Curiously, that questionable honour could equally go to a machine in which Amon enjoyed some of his most significant F1 results, including a win in the Daily Express Trophy at Silverstone, and two Grands Prix second places. The March 701 is the only car in our conversation that raises the pitch of his voice a tad, so that those tales of his “purple wobblies” in the pitlane over a recalcitrant car suddenly ring truer.

“That was a dead basic, bloody ordinary car,” he says… and he still sounds exasperated by it. “I drove it very briefly at Silverstone the day March released it, and then we went down to South Africa for six weeks of development. By day two we went as fast as we were ever going to. The thing just had no development potential.

“It didn’t have very good traction, it slid all over the road, and whatever you put on in terms of springs and roll bars, it just kept on doing that. On a smooth, fast circuit it wasn’t too bad, but somewhere like Brands Hatch it was an absolute disaster. I could never even vaguely make it work there.”

Amon’s reasons for joining March, a company that had only been formed a few months before the 1970 season began, can be summed up in three letters: DFV. After three years of acute exposure to the facilities of Ferrari’s V12, he was convinced he needed a Ford Cosworth V8 to win races. Testing of Ferrari’s new flat-12 engine, in late 1969, had convinced him. “First time out I knew it was way, way quicker in a straight line, but it broke a crankshaft after four laps. The next crankshaft lasted five laps. That was the point when I said enough is enough. I really, really wanted a DFV. Huge mistake.”

The original plan had been for March to run a one-car team for Amon, but it soon gave way to something much more ambitious. In fact, when the Grand Prix season opened at Kyalami on March 7th, there were no fewer than five 701s on the grid, their drivers including Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti and Jo Siffert. And the cars of Stewart and Amon occupied the front two places. It was a stunning way for a new name to enter Formula One, but it didn’t last…

“I’d worked with Robin Herd at McLaren and when we started talking about this 1 thought he’d do a good job. I don’t want to criticise him in any way, but when March came in with all this hype and sold cars to Ken Tyrrell, and then SIP, and then a second works car for Jo Siffert, and then another one for Ronnie Peterson, he had only three of four months to design, build and deliver six or seven of them. Basically, it was a production F1 car, very different from what we would have done if we were only running one or two cars.”

If the car wasn’t up to much, there was room at the top at the beginning of the season. Lotus were going through a painful transition from the venerable 49 to the unsorted 72, Ferrari were well behind on the development of the 312B, and Tyrrell had lost their Matra chassis. Ken Tyrrell’s long-term answer to replacing the Matra void was to build his own car, but the only option in the short-term was to go to March. That put reigning champion Jackie Stewart on the newcomers’ driving strength.

“There’s no doubt about it, it was flattered by its driver,” says Amon. “We got some good results at the beginning of the season, hut generally I think Ken and Jackie did a better job with the car than we did. They were running on Dunlops and we had Firestones, and sometimes that made a difference. But then engines became a bit of a problem. It was okay at the beginning of the season, but Cosworth always had a couple of development engines kicking around and Lotus and Tyrrell had first call. Suddenly, by mid-season, I knew my DP/ wasn’t working as well as theirs. And by then March weren’t paying their bills and were probably getting pushed to the back of the queue.”

By mid-season the Marches were being pushed down the grids, too, as Jochen Rindt’s Lotus 72 and Jacky lckx’s Ferrari came good. Late that year Amon finished third in the Canadian Grand Prix, beaten by the Ferraris of Ickx and Clay Regazzoni. Having his nose rubbed in the dirt by the car he had walked out on 12 months before was an experience he now describes as “bloody annoying.”

Nothing, though, equalled the frustration Amon felt at the end of the 1970 Belgian GP at Spa, the last on the old hill-length circuit. He finished second that day, 1.1 seconds behind the BRM P153 of Pedro Rodriguez, having set the fastest lap at an average speed of just over 152mph.

“That was the only time the BRM did that well all year,” says Amon. “Usually it wasn’t that fast, generally it blew up anyway. But on that day it was different. Rodriguez started sixth on the grid, I think, and he just blew past Rindt and Stewart and me in the first couple of laps. The tow I was getting from him round the back of the circuit was incredible, it was putting me right up on the rev limiter all the way round. I stayed with him the whole way, but there was no chance of getting past unless he made a mistake. And he didn’t”.

It’s what the March might have been, rather than what it was, that prompts Amon’s nomination. There’s no bitterness or rancour, just a wry chuckle and a reflective “wonderful thing is hindsight”. And then another spontaneous burst of exasperation. “But is was a bloody dead basic thing!”

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