My Greatest Race: Chris Amon

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French Grand Prix, Clermont-Ferrand, 1972

Not even an engine from a sportscar could stop Amon claiming pole and fastest lap. Had it not been for a puncture, he would have walked it.

I have particularly fond memories of Clermont-Ferrand in 1972 – I thought I could walk on water that day. Clermont stands out as almost a perfect day – I had pole and led from Denny Hulme and Jackie Stewart. It was the race debut of the Matra 120D. One of problems of the Matra chassis was that, though it was basically a good chassis, they weren’t really strong enough. I’d found the previous season with the 120C that they started off really good in the first few races, only to get less and less responsive to changes. As they got older, there was more flexing and while the 120D was bloody good, it still suffered the same problem.

There was one other trouble with the Matra: we suffered from this big fuel load at the start. They could get off the line in front, and then you’d to struggle to keep the others at bay. This particular day I thought that once I’d got rid of some fuel I’d be able to pull away, and that’s exactly what happened.

I was only just in front fur the first few laps; you had to keep your tyres and brakes in order too while you were running these fuel loads because you could easily undo the whole thing in the first few laps. There wasn’t the luxury in those days of coming in and changing tyres – at least, not as part of a strategic plan!

The first few laps were a struggle, then I started to pull away and gained a huge lead; Denny had dropped back so Stewart was running second, and suddenly the thing got all twitchy coming back up the hill towards the pits and I realised I’d got a flat tyre.

We had this pitstop which took a minute and a half The wheel jammed, and they couldn’t get it-off. It seemed like an eternity, and when I rejoined I just went for it.

It was one of those days when everything came together. It was a wonderful circuit, though there was a lot of rubble on the track. If everything was working it gave you the opportunity to really express yourself. I think I came out of the pits maybe 10th or 12th – it must have been nearly half-way through the race that I suffered this puncture. I think I was about eight or nine seconds ahead of Jackie when it happened, and Emmo was running third by then, probably 20 or 30 seconds adrift of Jackie.

As the heavy fuel load lightened I drove the Matra quicker and quicker, until I broke the lap record. I know I passed both Ronnie Peterson and Francois Cevert on the same lap. They were going for fourth and fifth, and at the end of the race I was only four seconds behind Emerson, and Jackie’s Tyrrell was just over 30 seconds further up the road. I think I made up a minute or so on Jackie. Mind you, he would have backed off once I had disappeared into the pits.

Funnily enough, the engine we used in that race was actually a spare sportscar engine. They were essentially the same, but the F1 engines used titanium con-rods which suffered a problem from thermal expansion differences with steel, and we’d blown up so many of the F1-specification engines we’d virtually run out

At Le Mans the previous weekend, Jean-Pierre Beltoise and I were driving together. He drove it in qualifying and said “it doesn’t feel as smooth as it should; why don’t we change the engine?” Ducarouge said “we’re so short we need sportscar engines for F1; let’s leave it in.” I said to Beltoise “if we’re not going to finish let’s get this over with early” and the thing threw a rod on the first lap… When he eventually got back to the pits I said “well, that was pretty bloody early…” The engine I used at Clermont was the engine that would have gone into the sportscar at Le Mans.

The interesting thing was that the Matras suffered very badly from oil scavenging problems, so a lot of the horsepower on the bench never actually made it as far as the chassis. But the sportscars had three-ring pistons instead of two, and had less blow-by and less crankcase pressurisation than the F1 engines, so although it would appear to be down on power on the bench it probably gave more power in the chassis.

So I got pole position at Clermont and then set fastest lap using nothing more than a spare sportscar engine. Afterwards we went back to using the F1 engines – and broke some more!

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