Unlucky Star?

No-one doubted his skills; but was it ill-luck or bad judgement which kept him from a win? 20 years after his last race, Chris Amon speaks candidly to Mark Hughes

The French Grand Prix 1972 was a neat paradigm of Chris Amon's F1 career, encapsulating both his sublime talent and appalling luck. Clermont-Ferrand was the venue: a sinewy, hilly circuit, five miles of fast bends and blind apices cut through sheer cliff face. In qualifying Amon was in stunning form, debuting the new MS120D Matra on pole for the team's home race by almost a second. Stewart and Fittipaldi, the two drivers fighting out the world title that year, were respectively 1.6sec and 4.7sec slower.

This time, surely, Amon was finally going to win a Grand Prix? Although only 28 years old, it was nine years since he'd made his debut as the then youngest-ever Grand Prix driver, and for much of that time he'd been recognised as one of the absolute best. Jochen Rindt used to say he feared only two drivers — Stewart and Amon. Yet his three seasons at Ferrari had yielded only an agonising series of near misses, ignominious retirements wrested from the jaws of majestic triumph time without number. But today, as Amon jumped into an immediate lead and effortlessly pulled away from Hulme, Stewart and Ickx with that beautiful flowing car control of his, he had a feeling: "Just every now and again you get a little feeling that perhaps there's nobody out there who can do it quite as well as you today. That was one of those days."

Indeed it was. Approaching half distance, Stewart had got past Hulme for second but there was absolutely nothing he could do about the flying Matra. Time for Amon's malevolent jinx to intervene yet again. At the end of the 18th lap Stewart's Tyrrell flashed by in the lead as Amon limped his car to the pits, left front tyre punctured from one of the many loose stones littering the track. But even the pit stop, from which he rejoined down in eighth place, did not interrupt his flow: "I desperately wanted to win. On top of all the previous frustrations, there was the impetus to perform well as the French car in the French Grand Prix; I wanted to do my best for them. And it was such a wonderful circuit." That, and probably the sheer anger of being so robbed, saw him perform a quite stupendous recovery drive, fighting through to third, making the passing of such as Peterson and Cevert look like mere blips in his progress, had the race lasted another lap he would almost certainly have passed Fittipaldi for second. He shattered the lap record by 7secs. It was a performance that lit up the entire crowd and post-race saw him receive a rapturous, hero's reception.

"From that day on," Chris now maintains, "I started to lose interest. It was probably a turning point in my career. Subconsciously I thought, if it's not going to work this day, it's never going to work'," He pauses, as if considering whether he should be revealing this, then adds: "Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's what happened. I never again felt that I really dug down deep, I was never quite 100 per cent after that."

Such startling words add to the enigma of Chris Amon. There was bad luck, sure. But there are those who say there was more to it than just ill-fortune. Jackie Stewart — his nemesis in many ways, a man of arguably no greater driving talent than Amon but who became the most successful driver there had ever been during a time in which Amon failed to notch up one lousy win — habitually cites Amon as a shining example of how to squander a talent through disorganisation and bad decisions. Talking to Amon now, 19 years retired back to his native New Zealand, provides further insight than just those polarised views.

When considering the Amon story, there are two factors whose influence simply cannot be overstated: the absurdly young age at which he made it into F1, and the fact that his native country lies at the opposite side of the planet to where most of the F1 activity takes place. "I did my first race at 16. Then I used to do hilIclimbs with a converted midget racer. It was quite quick up a hill if the wheels and things stayed on, which they frequently didn't." It was a debut born of a farming father comfortably enough off to indulge his son's whim: "The old man was really a horse man, never very keen on cars. Against his better judgement, really, he helped finance me. But the point is, we weren't really talking a lot of money back then." By 1961, at age 17, Amon was racing a Maserati 250F which had cost Dad all of £800. "It wasn't that difficult either to get your fuel and tyres for free. Then after the 250F season I got a call from David Mackay who was selling a wrecked 2.5 F1 Cooper. I bought it, we rebuilt it and he ran it and got sponsorship. So from year two the days of having to pay stopped."

The trigger that shot the teenage prodigy to international prominence was a series of races that later developed into the Tasman Series — Europe's top racers and teams came across to Australia and New Zealand for a pleasant alternative to an off-season winter at home. It gave local talent like Amon an incredibly good opportunity to get noticed and by-pass the struggle of racing's lower ranks.

In '61 he caught the eye of F1 team owner Reg Parnell who reportedly commented that he'd never seen anyone drive a 250F like that since Fangio. Parnell returned at the end of '62 with an offer beyond the hope of any teenager: "He said would you be interested in coming out to Europe? Obviously, I was more than interested I got a call about 10 days before Easter Monday Goodwood (a non-championship F1 race) saying, 'get on a plane and get over here'.

So I got on this piston-engined thing out of Auckland and when I got to Fiji I saw my first Boeing 707!"

Thus did the 19-year-old country boy leave his native land. He would not be back, other than on brief winter visits, for 14 years, a rather different figure to that bright-eyed kid. He arrived in England on Good Friday, had a seat fitting that night, qualified on Saturday, raced to fifth place on Sunday. His mainstream F1 career had started a mere three years after first climbing into a race car. It had come incredibly easily: there was little step-by-step struggle to reach a seemingly impossible goal. It's difficult to avoid thinking that this had a negative bearing later on. Leaving friends and family at the other side of the globe at just 19 clearly took its toll too.

Running with Parnell's privateer outfit, Amon had some reasonable results in '63, "although I always felt that I would have been much more competitive far earlier if F1 had still been for 2.5-litre cars. The 1.5 cars in F1 at the time felt very slow and required a very different technique to what I'd been driving at home." For '64, though, things took a downward turn when Parnell died suddenly. Reg's son Tim took over, but the plan to run their ex-works Lotus 25s with factory Climax engines fell through and some tired old BRM engines were used instead, It wasn't a package that gave Amon much to play with on the circuit, but in the company of team-mates Mike Hailwood and Peter Revson he had a whale of a time away from it. The team disbanded at the end of the year.

"It's funny how one thing leads to another, though," says Amon of his move to McLaren. "Because I was unemployed in F1 in '65, Bruce McLaren asked me to join his fledgling outfit, which led onto other things." It led onto winning Le Mans for Ford with fellow Kiwi McLaren in 1966, and it led to much success in the Can-Am sports car series, big overpowered monsters right up Amon's street. But perhaps more significantly, it led to 15,000 miles of testing for Firestone. "Tyre testing was McLaren's main source of income at that time and as Bruce got busier and busier elsewhere, so I got more and more time in the car."

His sports car successes for McLaren got him noticed by Ferrari, and his extensive test mileage saw that he was able to make spectacular use of Maranello's facilities when he went there in '67. Again, like the original F1 opportunity and the McLaren deal, the Ferrari offer came out of the blue with no chasing or hustling on Amon's part, activities that would have been quite alien for one of such casual, laid-back manner.

Once there, Amon quickly formed a rapport with engineer Mauro Forghieri, who came to consider Amon as not only the finest tester he would ever work with but a driver the equal of Jim Clark. Together they honed the '67 Ferrari into a competitive machine, lacking in power but with fine handling, good enough to take Amon to fourth in the World Championship. With the 48-valve engine it was even more competitive in '68, though still short of power. Nonetheless, Amon and the '68 Ferrari were the fastest combination around, on the front row eight times from 12 races. With just average luck, he would have been '68 world champion. Instead there was just a heartbreaking series of retirements which were no fault of his own, often after displaying complete mastery of the game. In Spain, for example, he wasn't just leading the field when retirement came, he was obliterating it. This is where the bad luck tag really took hold. "But some of that bad luck stuff is not necessarily luck," says Amon. "With Ferrari — and later with Matra too — you had just one car or two cars developing that componentry. Everyone else was running kit cars with DFV engines and Newland 'boxes, so they had 20 or so cars pushing the development along. So I think that influenced the luck side of it."

For the off-season he got Ferrari to contest the Tasman Series, which not only got him back home but saw him beat Rindt fair and square to take the Tasman championship. Not the world title, but as it turned out, it would have to do. The '69 Ferrari became ever less competitive as the year went on (though in the early season there were still glimpses of magic as he built up a 40sec lead in Spain before retirement) and the team's effort petered out even before the season was finished.

For Amon the Ferrari days were over. He left, agonisingly, just before they came good. It was an example of the sort of bad judgment Stewart refers to. What followed, says Amon, "was the most unpleasant and frustrating year of all," with the new March Racing outfit. Promised all sorts of things which weren't delivered, he endured a year that had "more politics by a factor of about 10 than in my whole time at Ferrari." The highlight was the all-time lap record of the old Spa at 152mph on his way to second place behind the untypically powerful and reliable BRM of Pedro Rodriguez.

Amon's post-Ferrari career — though distinguished by two non-championship F1 wins in 1970 and 1971 — seems characterised by jumping from one bad situation to another, to whatever ship happened to come along, with no clear strategy.

It was an approach that had always worked for him before. Now it had ceased to. The Matra days (1971-72) were a virtual repeat of Ferrari: nice chassis, no power, poor reliability. Two disastrous seasons, first with Tecno, then attempting to build his own car, followed, and by now retirement back to New Zealand was increasingly on his mind. Yet why during this period did he spurn an offer to return to Ferrari in favour of Tecno? Amon says it would have upset a sponsor. Then why did he go ahead with his own car rather than accept the offer of a Brabham drive in '74? Amon explains that it was out of loyalty to the designer of his car. Not the decisions of a typically career-minded racing driver.

Another fling with a low-budget team, Ensign, in 75 and '76 seemed destined to have a similar ending to the others, yet it was to give Amon the chance to remind the F1 world one last time of all that wasted talent. He took the little team to the heady heights of third on the grid in Sweden '76, but when the steering came adrift in the race, causing his second major accident in the car, it probably put a seal on things. He left the team after Niki Lauda's Nürburgring accident.

Then the man who'd said yes to Tecno and yes to Ensign turned down offers for 1977 to race with McLaren and Wolf, both absolute top drives at the time. "By then I wanted out, I was very much into coming back to New Zealand. One of the most difficult things for me was always just how far away it was I'm sure if I'd been born in Europe I would've carried on for several more years. I think in any sport. people don't lose their ability, they lose their motivation, and in my case that was probably brought on by the way of life, the travelling, the hotels. Suddenly you start yearning for a stable environment. You might be telling yourself that you still want to do it, but subconsciously you're winding down."

Those words hold the probable explanation for the low-rent drives he took once the commiserations died down from that day in France '72. For the teenage boy who'd been whisked on a whirlwind away from home, they were the career self-destruct buttons which finally gave him his return ticket back across the Pacific.

They were the decisions that have enabled him to say, from the comfort of his dairy farm in his homeland. "Yeah, I still look back on it all with a bit of frustration, but in a very soft way now, tinged with a lot of fondness. You know, people say I was unlucky: I'm actually lucky that I'm still here. As the years go by you tend to think more and more of the ones who are not here."

"I've got a lot to be thankful for."