Nigel Roebuck's Legends

Ferrari's P4 was both beautiful and effective and Chris Amon said it made its Ford Mk11 rival feel like a truck

P4. Two syllables to send shivers down your spine — or mine, anyway. In a debate about the best-looking sports-racing car of all time, my choice would lie between the 1956 Maserati 300S and... of course, Ferrari's 1967 masterpiece.

To my eyes, the 330P4 is perfection, and I can still remember seeing it for the first time in the news pages of Autosport, following its first test, at Daytona in December 1966. The P3 had been not unattractive, but this was a different thing altogether.

It had the same effect on Chris Amon, who joined Ferrari at just that time. "It was a great car, the P4," he said, "and a lovely thing to drive. Daytona was my first test with Ferrari, and (Eugenio) Dragoni was still in charge. I was the new boy, and I got the impression I was to be treated as such! There were four drivers there — Lorenzo (Bandini), 'Lulu' (Scarfiotti), Mike (Parkes) and me — and I was fourth out. The other drivers were friendly, but whereas Bandini was warm from the start, I got the impression Parkes and Scarfiotti were worried about me.

"Anyway, they all trundled around for a while, but none of them had been to Daytona before, whereas I'd done thousands of miles there. They finally let me get in the car, and I immediately went four or five seconds a lap quicker, which I think rather shattered them...

"We were preparing for the 24 Hours, of course, and using the road circuit, which uses part of the banking and then dives off into the infield. Lorenzo kept talking about the full oval, and just before the end of the test, instead of braking for the infield section, he kept his boot in, went between the cones, and headed off to Turn One! Can't remember what speed he did, but it was way quicker than the NASCAR guys were running at the time..."

Amon, self-deprecating as ever, said he got a reality check when the team returned to Europe. "We did some running at Monza — mostly on the short circuit, as there was ice at the Lesmos — and try as I might, I couldn't go quite as fast as Bandini."

In February the team was back at Daytona, and there stunned the American audience by annihilating the factory Fords. Amon/Bandini beat Parkes and Scarfiotti by three laps, with the NART P3/4 of Pedro Rodriguez and Jean Guichet third. Henry Ford II was not amused.

I don't suppose I helped the situation," grinned Amon. "I'd won Le Mans for Ford the year before, and when someone at the press conference asked me to compare the MkII with the P4, I said it was the difference between a thoroughbred and a truck! Didn't go down well, apparently, but too bad. When Bruce (McLaren) and I had won Le Mans, we'd been promised a Mustang each, but they never materialised..."

Ferrari skipped Sebring, but in late April Amon and Bandini were victorious again, this time in the Monza 1000km, with Parkes and Scarfiotti again second. "By then," said Chris, "it was becoming very much Lorenzo and me against Mike and Lulu, largely because of the F1 situation. Lorenzo was pushing very hard for me to be his team-mate, and of course the other two didn't like it. Couldn't blame them, either. It really wasn't a very pleasant situation, but that was the Old Man's way."

Two weeks later Amon duly made his Ferrari F1 debut at Monaco, and finished third, but all in the team were devastated by an appalling accident to Bandini, who suffered burns from which he died three days later.

"He was a wonderful bloke," said Amon, "and it was some time before I got over his death. At the Le Mans test weekend he'd been quickest, and we really were keen to win that race. Just before it, I got a letter from his widow Margherita saying, 'Please try to win Le Mans for Lorenzo...' Unfortunately, it was not to be.

"Maybe, if we'd had both the cars running towards the end of the race, we might have had a shot at beating the Fords, but once (Nino) Vaccarella and I had dropped out, that was it, really. And the Fords simply steam-rollered everyone on power. I remember sitting with Parkes in the caravan on the Sunday morning. He'd noticed how the winning average went up by about the same amount every year and he had his slide rule out. He reckoned it was going to take an average of about 128mph — well, at that point, the leading Ford was averaging nearly 140! 'They can't do it, they can't do it,' he kept saying, and it was about the only time he was ever wrong. Didn't help, of course, that Scarfiotti was ill, being sick constantly, and losing all the time that Mike was making up..."

Amon himself had been put out by a puncture — but there was a little more to it than that. At the Esses he realised he had a tyre going down and pulled off, thinking to change the wheel. "As I raised Ferrari's wonderful hammer, the head flew off! There was nothing for it but to set off— very slowly — down Mulsanne. I could hear the tyre flapping around, but what I didn't realise was that the upright was scraping on the road. There were sparks from the magnesium — and the whole lot went up. At that point I abandoned ship, and hid behind some hay bales — I thought it was going to blow itself to pieces. It quickly became an inferno, and when the marshals finally put it out, they looked in the cockpit, and found no driver! When I appeared, they nearly fell over; I guess they thought I had been consumed by the flames..."

So to Brands Hatch for the BOAC 500, the final race of the World Sports Car Championship. Ford's interest had been only in the two American races, plus Le Mans, but neither had Ferrari taken part in the whole campaign. Thus Porsche was in a position to beat them to the manufacturers' championship, and Ferrari brought in Jackie Stewart to partner Amon.

"The Chaparral was quicker than we were, but we finished second and that was enough for the championship," Amon says. "Actually, the car was awful at Brands — we had a damping problem, which was very disappointing because I'd expected the car to work pretty well there. That was the last time it raced."

Not, though, the last time Amon was to drive it. By 1975 the P4 which had won at Daytona and Monza had been bought by a wealthy Englishman who wished to see it driven in anger once more. Amon was only too happy to oblige, and spent a blissful day in June, hammering it round Oulton Park. After he had given the P4's owner some idea of his car's abilities, I was invited to climb aboard for half a dozen unforgettable laps.

It has ever been said of Chris Amon that he was the unluckiest driver in the sport's history, that never was so great a talent so ill rewarded, and I would take no issue with that. His throttle control amounted to artistry. He could steer a car as readily with his foot as with his hands, and Old Hall Corner was a particular favourite. Crammed into a passenger seat never intended for actual use, I watched each lap as he eased the car into the turn, then went to work with the throttle, his hands barely moving, beyond applying just the right touch of opposite lock. Every time round the left-rear wheel would kiss the grass at the exit, power hard on now, and Amon would glance across at me, as if to say, "How was that? Was that OK?"

Afterwards he looked at the car affectionately. "Wonderful," he said. "Like being back with an old girlfriend for a few hours..."