Lunch with... Chris Amon
He didn’t achieve the results that his enormous talent merited, but no matter: F1’s ‘unluckiest driver’ is just glad to have lived to tell the tale
By Simon Taylor
Today’s media like to give our heroes convenient labels. Stirling Moss is “the greatest driver never to win the World Championship” – a glib line which says nothing about The Boy’s unrivalled versatility, or his racer’s heart. In the same unthinking way, Chris Amon is too often dismissed as “the greatest driver never to win a Grand Prix” or “the unluckiest driver in F1 history”. When we meet over an absorbing four-hour lunch in his native New Zealand, I ask Chris how he feels about his entire career being generalised in that way.
He smiles ruefully. “I have a standard answer to that. People tell me I am the unluckiest F1 driver of my era, but actually I’m the lucky one. I’m luckier than Jimmy and Jochen, and Bruce, and Piers. Luckier than my team-mates Bandini, Scarfiotti, Siffert and Cevert. And there were others, guys who were my friends, people I raced with every weekend. I had several big accidents that could have killed me; I broke ribs, but I was never badly hurt. Clark never drew blood until Hockenheim. Rindt rarely hurt himself, either. But unfortunately you only need one accident.”
The labels his fellow drivers stuck on Chris were all about his speed. Jackie Stewart calls him one of the best he ever raced against, maybe one of the most naturally talented drivers of all time. Chris was blindingly fast on the really demanding road circuits: driving the bulky and unloved March 701, he still holds the F1 lap record for the old 8.7-mile Spa, at an average speed of over 152mph. He was also an extraordinarily astute and sensitive test driver, able to detect the effect of the tiniest chassis and tyre changes. And he raced to an old-fashioned set of values: he just didn’t seem to know how to behave badly towards other drivers, on or off the track.
Yet his judgements about whom to drive for, and when, were disastrous. He always seemed to join a team when its fortunes were turning down, only to see them rise after he left. He was 19 when he first raced in F1, and by 23 he was No 1 at Ferrari. But somehow success always slipped out of reach, to be replaced by disappointment and frustration. At 33, after four twilight seasons with minor teams that would have broken the spirit of a lesser man, he went back to New Zealand, lived happily and quietly with his English wife Tish, worked hard on his farm, raised three children, and never looked back at the world that had consumed him for 15 years.
Today he looks slim, fit and relaxed. He no longer smokes, and lunch is just soup and a salad. Having driven north from his home on Lake Taupo to meet me in Auckland, and facing a three-hour drive back, he drinks only water. He is good-humoured, modest and self-deprecating. His hair is grey now, his face lined by his outdoor life, but the shy, wide grin I remember from 40 years ago remains.
As an only child on the isolated family sheep farm at Bulls, south of Wanganui, he read everything he could find about the racing that was happening in far-distant Europe. “I’ve always had an awareness of history. At one time I could tell you who’d won every post-war GP. When I was seven or eight, a shepherd who worked for my dad propped me up with cushions on an old Ford V8 ute we had on the farm and let me drive. I soon found out how to slide it around, so I learned car control early.”
At 16 he scraped together the funds to buy an ancient midget dirt-track car. “It was absolutely lethal, shed wheels, used to break driveshafts which ran close to your important bits. I only did one race, and fortunately it just lasted one lap. After that I had an early single-cam F2 Cooper – those things cost next to nothing out here – and then we heard Tony Shelley had an old Maserati 250F in his yard at Wellington. After the Cooper it had so much power and so little traction, and it was all very different, with the throttle pedal in the middle. Peter Collins, Mike Hawthorn and Jack Brabham had raced it. I got in and thought, my heroes have sat here. Tony let us have it for £500 plus the Cooper.
“It was very tired, but a really clever guy called Bruce Wilson, who had a little country garage near us, stripped and rebuilt it. In those days everything had to be made because you couldn’t get the bits out here. And he did it for nothing. Without him I would never have got anywhere. I did a year and a half in the Maserati, and it never missed a beat. For the first two or three races I was pretty much a passenger, but the New Zealand Grand Prix, which Moss, Surtees and Brabham came out for, was on the Ardmore airfield, with plenty of space. Suddenly something clicked.” In heavy rain Chris drove brilliantly among more modern machinery and far more experienced drivers. “I remember Stirling lapping me. I was coping with a huge slide, and he gave me one of his little waves, thinking I’d moved over for him.” Watching all this was Reg Parnell, in New Zealand to run the Yeoman Credit Coopers. He decided to follow the Kiwi teenager’s progress.
For the next year’s Tasman races Chris bought a later Cooper, and regularly qualified ahead of several of the visitors. Parnell was there again, running the Bowmaker Lolas, and he took Chris aside. “He told me I’d better get a passport. Months later he called me and said he wanted me in London for Easter – four days later! Apart from a few races in Australia I’d never been out of New Zealand. I’d never even seen a jet plane. I got to Heathrow on Good Friday. Reg’s secretary, Gillian Harris, took me to the Parnel l workshop in Hounslow for a seat fitting in an F1 Lola. I spent the night in a hotel, and next morning Reg took me to Goodwood for official practice for the Easter Monday F1 race. I couldn’t believe how little power those 1.5-litre F1 cars had. No torque either. I had to change my driving style completely. But I was fifth in the race. It was the first F1 race I’d seen, and I was in it.”
His first World Championship race was at Spa, no less. On a damp track he held a remarkable sixth place before an oil leak put him out. He quickly settled into the little Parnell team: “I used to go to the workshop every day, just to potter around, because the mechanics wouldn’t let me touch anything important. There was a caff in Hounslow near the workshop where you could have a three-course lunch, real English stodge, for one-and-six.”
Chris was seventh at Reims and Silverstone, then crashed at the Nürburgring when his steering broke. He was unhurt, but more serious was his accident at Monza five weeks later. “I’d never been there, obviously, and this was the last time they tried to use the combined banking and road circuit for the Italian GP. In practice so many cars broke on the rough surface that they decided to run on the road circuit alone. I went off at Lesmo, cartwheeled into the trees and was thrown out. I had broken ribs and concussion, and I was in hospital for several weeks.
“Reg was a no-nonsense guy, almost like a father to me. F1 was very friendly then. I was just the young newcomer, but everyone made me feel welcome: none of the back-biting there must be today. You could talk to anyone, from the World Champion down. Being steeped in motor racing history, I found myself surrounded by people I’d grown up almost worshipping. I wondered what on earth I was doing there.
“For 1964 Reg had big plans: monocoque Lotus 25s for Mike Hailwood and me, and the latest Climax V8s. Then he got appendicitis, wouldn’t go to the doctor – he was stubborn – and by the time they got him to hospital it was
too late. He was only 52. His son Tim had to pick up everything. He did his best, but the heart went out of the team. We did 1964 with Lotus 25s, which were good – night and day compared to the Lolas – but we ended up with customer BRM engines, which weren’t so good. Although Mike was pretty much paying for his drive, Tim was struggling for budget. We’d buy second-hand gearbox spares from Lotus, so when you got a rebuilt gearbox it was already tired.
“I’d been living in a bedsit in Surbiton, but now I moved into the famous flat in Ditton Road, Kingston, with Mike Hailwood and Peter Revson. The stories about that place have become exaggerated down the years, but some extraordinary things did go on. My friend Bruce Harré, who’d come over from New Zealand to work at McLaren, stayed there too, and off and on so did Tony Maggs and Howden Ganley.
“There were three bedrooms, so we moved around depending on who was doing what and to whom with lady visitors. There was a crashed Cooper chassis propped up in the hall, which somebody was always going to ship back to New Zealand. It was there for months. The poor unfortunate who lived downstairs was a sitting tenant, not paying much rent, and the landlady had wanted to get rid of him for years. The police were always coming round because of complaints about the noise. They’d come in, turn the music down, have a couple of beers and then leave us to it. In the end the man downstairs moved out, so the landlady got her wish.
“I had my 21st birthday party the day after the 1964 British GP, and just about the entire F1 grid came. BP were making a film about Mike Hailwood and wanted to show him relaxing, so they said they’d foot the bill if we let a film crew in. But the crew got so plastered they were incapable of doing any filming. BP had to pay for another party and and do it all again.
“Ulf Norinder asked me to share his Ferrari GTO in the Reims 12 Hours. Just before the race he sent me a telegram, saying he had to go to a wedding – his own! – and would I find another co-driver. So I called this promising young F3 racer, J Stewart. We duly found the Ferrari in the Reims paddock with a rather disgruntled mechanic. Luckily Bruce Harré had come with me for the ride. In practice it did a piston: there was no spare engine, of course, no spares even, and Ulf’s mechanic started to pack up. He was reckoning without Harré, who said, ‘Hang on, let’s pull the engine out and rebuild it.’ The New Zealander approach, you see.
“Bruce tore it apart – he’d never seen the inside of a Ferrari engine – and it hadn’t done a great deal of damage, just the piston, a couple of valves, a few other things. Bruce went over to the factory Ferrari guys, who were there with Surtees and Bandini and co. They rummaged around in their truck and came up with some bits, and he rebuilt it in the paddock. By now the mechanic had gone off in a huff. During the race we needed some new brake pads, but they were in the boot of the mechanic’s car and no-one could find him. Later on we were having a tyre change and could only find one rear tyre. It was a while before we twigged that we’d been racing with the other one in the back of the Ferrari. But the engine Bruce rebuilt never missed a beat, and we finished.
“For 1965 Bruce McLaren hired me. He was running the first McLaren sports cars and doing a lot of tyre testing for Firestone, which pretty much financed his operation. As he got busier I took over most of the tyre testing. I did thousands of miles at Goodwood, Silverstone, Snetterton, Brands, even Zandvoort. It was great experience, and with the Group 7 McLarens I was dealing with proper horsepower. In an average day I’d do at least 300 miles. You have to be flat out all day, because if you’re not on the limit you don’t learn anything. I found I was quite sensitive to a car’s behaviour on different tyres and settings, and could feed it all back to the tyre guys.”
At Le Mans Chris shared a 7-litre Ford MkII with Phil Hill. “We had a big speed advantage over the Ferraris, but our gearboxes were weak, and all the Fords retired. After that they got Pete Weisman involved and ended up with a really strong transmission.” In an F2 Lola he won the Solitude Grand Prix, and six days later he won the Martini Trophy in a McLaren from the back of the grid, standing in for Bruce who’d been burned by a petrol fire in practice. Two days after that, back with the daily grind of tyre testing at Brands, the McLaren’s rear suspension broke and it turned sharp right into the bank. “I was flat in fourth on the back of the long circuit. It was like an aircraft accident, bits spread for 200 yards, with me still in the seat. I was a bit knocked about, so they decided to take me to hospital. The ambulance wouldn’t start and they had to give it a tow.” Three days later, nursing his bruises, he was off to the Nürburgring to drive a Parnell Lotus-BRM in the German GP.
Chris ran as team-mate to Bruce McLaren in Group 7 races in the UK in 1966 and in the inaugural Can-Am Series, but the big event that year was Le Mans, where they scored a famous win for Ford. “All the works Fords were on Goodyears except ours: we were contracted to Firestone. In the wet and dry conditions the intermediate Firestones were terrible, and kept chunking. By Saturday evening we’d had two extra pitstops and were three laps behind the leaders, and Bruce said, ‘I’m going to sort this out.’ He went to the Firestone people and said, ‘We’re either going to withdraw the car, or we’re going to put Goodyears on it.’ So Firestone said, ‘Put the Goodyears on.’ They called me in, changed the tyres, and Bruce shouted to me, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose. Just go like hell.’
“It rained off and on during the night, but we both drove flat out, and by Sunday morning we were in the lead, about a minute ahead of the Ken Miles/Denny Hulme car. Ford hung out the EZ sign which Bruce took some notice of, but Ken didn’t slow down one iota and took back the advantage we had. Then something weird happened: at the next pitstop, when we weren’t due a tyre change, the Goodyear guy, without even looking at the tyres, ordered the mechanics to change one of the fronts, which delayed us. I guess he didn’t want Firestone-contracted drivers winning. So Ken was back in the lead. Bruce was getting aggravated now. It rained some more, and it was unbelievably slippery. Bruce got past Ken again, and then Ford told us they wanted to stage a dead-heat. The two cars crossed the line more or less side-by-side, but the French decided we were the winners, because we’d been 20 yards behind Ken in the starting line-up. Afterwards Ken was very bitter, he was literally in tears. I talked to Denny about it years later and he never had the same concerns Ken had, but the tragedy was Ken was killed a few weeks later, testing the Ford J-car at Riverside.
That October he was summoned to Maranello. “I was absolutely in awe of Enzo Ferrari. I asked about F1, and he said, ‘Do you want to drive for me or not? I know you have F1 ambitions, but I’m not going to put it in your contract.’ I signed anyway. The whole thing took about 10 minutes. There wasn’t much talk about money, just a standard retainer. Then we went to the Cavallino for lunch. I was on my best behaviour, drinking water, and Ferrari said, ‘When Mike Hawthorn signed for me, we came here for lunch and he drank half a bottle of my best malt whisky.’
“Bruce was disappointed that I left him for Ferrari. He’d been my mentor in a way, and saw me as part of his future F1 team. We never quite had the same rapport again – until I went to Indy with him in 1970. We spent the month of May together, which was pretty much the last month of his life, and we got back to the same old relationship. I’ve always been glad about that.
“There were four Ferrari drivers under contract for 1967: Lorenzo Bandini, Lodovico Scarfiotti, Mike Parkes and me. We all went to Daytona for a week in December to test the new P4 sports car. I realised I had to get on the pace pretty quick if I wanted an F1 seat. Lorenzo was very fast, so the other seat was between the three of us. Fortunately my times were about the same as Bandini’s.
“Lorenzo had a reputation for being difficult, but I always found him delightful. We did two races together in the P4 – the Daytona 24 Hours in February and the Monza 1000Kms in April – and we won them both. Monaco was my first race with the 312. Lorenzo and I had been practising at Indianapolis, and we flew back to Italy and then drove to Monaco together. In the race he was chasing Hulme for the lead and he crashed near the end, turned over and went on fire. It had been a long, hot race and I think he was exhausted. I was very tired, too: by then I was shivering, which meant I had run out of body fluids and was completely dehydrated. Next day I had to fly back to Indy – I was driving one of the old BRP cars for George Bryant – and when I got there I heard Lorenzo had died.
“Then Parkes had a huge accident at Spa and smashed his legs. That was the end of his F1 career, and it did for poor old Scarfiotti, too. He lost interest and left Ferrari. Ironically he was killed the following year in a hillclimb.” Ferrari carried on as a one-car team and, with the entire Scuderia riding on his shoulders, Chris managed four podiums and fourth in the championship.
“The 312 wasn’t a bad chassis, but even before the DFV arrived in June the engines were hopeless. They didn’t have enough power, couldn’t even keep up with the Repcos. But I loved being at Ferrari, loved living in Italy. Modena is a motor racing city. I got myself an apartment, went each morning to the Hotel Real Fini for orange juice and coffee, and then I’d get the barber there to shave me. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but he used to shave Nuvolari, and over my three years in Modena he told me so many stories. Then I’d go to the factory, and usually there was something they’d want me to try, so I’d go to the Modena Autodromo and do some laps. I was in a car almost every day.
“Often I’d have lunch with the Old Man. It wasn’t an invitation, it was a command performance. His old chauffeur, Peppino, had been his riding mechanic in the 1920s. Peppino’s job was to keep his car clean – usually the big Ferrari four-seater, like a 330GT – and have it waiting, warmed up, ready for lunch. The Old Man’d get behind the wheel, I’d get in the front passenger seat, and Peppino would squeeze in the back with the Old Man’s poodle. In the summer we’d drive up into the hills, where it was cooler. We’d have lunch, me and the Old Man at one table, Peppino at another with the dog, feeding it fruit salad. I’d be sipping water and the Old Man would down a bottle of wine, then a couple of his malt whiskies. The drive down the hill would be terrifying, horn blasting, goats and peasants scattering. I used to think, ‘If I go now at least I’ll go out in style.’
“I really wanted to win Le Mans in 1967, for Lorenzo. I was sharing a P4 with Nino Vaccarella, the Sicilian schoolmaster, a good guy, very competent. It was going to be hard because Ford had the MkIV and we were 20mph short at least. But we thought if we went flat out we would still finish, whereas Ford might have to control their speed for reliability.
“Just before midnight I was passing the pits when I felt the right rear tyre go flat. The worst place – a whole lap to get back to the pits. I slowed right down, but you think you’re crawling and you’re probably still doing 100mph. On the Mulsanne there were sparks coming out the back, and I thought, I’m going to have to change this tyre. The Ferraris carried a spare wheel and a tool kit with jack, hammer and torch, so halfway down the straight I pulled onto the verge. I was crawling about at the back with cars coming past at two hundred and something miles an hour. I got the back open, found the torch – and the battery was dud. So I just had the passing headlights to see by. I got the hammer and waited for some lights and then took a swipe at the knock-off hubcap – and the head came off the hammer and disappeared. So I thought I’d get the thing jacked up and try to get the wheel off with one of the spanners. Then I found they’d forgotten to put the jack in...
“So I had to drive it back. I tried to stick to about 50mph, but the tyre flapping around broke a fuel line, and suddenly the whole thing was on fire. I jumped out and rolled into a ditch. The P4 carried on for a bit and then nosed into the ditch further down the road, burning merrily. Marshals and gendarmes rushed up, and they were wondering where the driver was. I walked up and tapped one of them on the shoulder….”
Throughout the 1968 Tasman series, in an F2 Dino with 2.4-litre V6 engine, Chris had a stirring battle with Jim Clark’s 2.5-litre Lotus 49. “There was very little between us in a straight line. The Ferrari maybe handled better, but the Lotus had better brakes. I won the New Zealand GP, and at Levin Jimmy went off chasing me. At Teretonga I spun and Jimmy crashed, but at Sandown we were evenly matched. He could always outbrake me into the last corner, but I found I could nose ahead before the finish line. But on the last lap he must have taken the thing about 2000rpm higher, and we crossed the line with my front wheels level with his rears. It was his last victory.
“We saw a different side to Jimmy in New Zealand. He stayed at my parents’ beach house, and was able to let his hair down. People have said he wasn’t enjoying his racing any more, but that wasn’t the impression I got. He’d sorted his tax problems, he was able to go back to Scotland. He was over the Sally Stokes thing, and seemed to be enjoying himself on that front. His death at Hockenheim dented everyone’s confidence. He was so good, everybody thought he was bullet-proof. I wasn’t alone in thinking, if it can happen to Jimmy it can happen to me.
“Jimmy was brilliant at getting out in front and staying there. Maybe he wasn’t so keen on being under pressure – but few people could put him under pressure. Remember Dan Gurney pushing him into a mistake at Bottom Bend during the Race of Champions in 1965? I always felt Stewart was Jimmy’s equal, but Jackie had to work harder at it. The top drivers in my era were Jimmy, Jackie and Jochen Rindt. And Jack Brabham: he was a hard old bastard, and he drove some cracking races. He got a bit diverted when he was setting up his own company, but in his last race, Mexico 1970, he came past me and Denny absolutely going for it, on the grass, up the kerbs like always: he was 44 years old then.
“For 1968 I nearly had Jackie as my team-mate. I tried hard to get him to Ferrari; I thought it would be good for both of us. He was keen, but in the end he went with Ken Tyrrell. The other guy I tried to get was Parnelli Jones: he was one of the greatest talents I ever saw. It probably wouldn’t have been his scene, but I’d watched him in the Can-Am and he just flew. A great all-rounder. But they signed Jacky Ickx.
“At Rouen it was decided I would start on intermediates and Jacky on full wets. The first spots of rain fell when we were on the grid, and once it became torrential Jacky won with ease, whereas I finished way down. Four weeks later at the Nürburgring it was raining before the start, Jacky and I were on the front row, and Franco Gozzi said to me, ‘You hold up Hill and Stewart so Jacky can get away.’ Bugger that, I thought. I got a better start and never saw him for the whole race – until my diff broke and I went off two laps from the end.”
With better reliability, Chris could have been 1968 champion. Eight times he started from the front row, three times from pole: at Spa he qualified 3.7 seconds faster than second man Stewart. In Spain, and again in Canada, he was leading comfortably when the car failed. Always silly things went wrong. At the ’Ring he was almost coming out of the cockpit over the bumps, so for the first time Ferrari fitted a full harness to keep him in the car. Just as well, because at Monza four weeks later he was in second place when a hydraulic union on the moving rear wing came undone, spraying fluid onto the rear tyres. “I had a very big accident, hit the guardrail at Lesmo and it bent back and launched me. I did four end-overs through the trees and landed in a car park. I had no idea where I was, but I crawled out, and there was John Surtees peering at me. He was following, and lost the lot too.”
For the 1969 Tasman races Chris won the New Zealand and Australian GPs, and the series, in the Dino. But it was not a portent for F1. “By then Ferrari was in chaos. Italy was riddled with industrial problems, and the Ferrari factory was on strike half the time – not the racing department, but it affected everybody. For much of the F1 season they entered only one car. By mid-year I’d retired in every race except one, usually with engine failure. At Barcelona I was leading Stewart by half a lap when, again, the engine let go. Mauro Forghieri was working on a flat 12, but every time I tested it, it broke.
“I’d signed for Ferrari for another year, but Robin Herd, whom I’d known at McLaren, told me about the March operation he and Max Mosley were putting together. I met them, and Mosley sold me very hard: it would be a one-car effort centred around me, and they had all the money lined up. Of course it wasn’t true. But Ferrari’s problems were ongoing, and I honestly believed I couldn’t get anywhere in F1 without a DFV. So I told Ferrari I’d changed my mind. It was the biggest mistake of my life, but frustration does that to people. I said to the Old Man, ‘You know how things have been, and I can’t go on putting all my effort into this.’ ‘All right’, he said, ‘but I’ll win a Grand Prix before you do.’ He was right.
“Robin Herd could’ve come up with a much better car than the March 701, but they had to have something simple because there were six or seven racing that year. This was the team that was going to be centred around me. The car wasn’t bad at the start – Stewart and I tied for pole at Kyalami, and I won at Silverstone in April. But there was no development, so it never got any better. It wasn’t bad on smooth circuits, but on bumpy ones like Brands it was awful.
“At Spa I was leading from Jackie and Jochen, and I could see them getting smaller in my mirrors. Then suddenly there was this bloody BRM looming up. Pedro Rodriguez – he’d been eighth on the grid, a good couple of seconds slower than me and Jackie in qualifying. I thought, where the hell did he come from? He just blew by. I stuck with him, and I worked out that the only way I could pass him was by taking the Masta kink flat, and getting him down the hill. It had never been flat up to then, but on the last lap I hung back, and then I went for it. I did get it flat between the buildings – I was that close to the wall – and I drafted past him down to Stavelot. That was when I set the lap record. But on the long drag up the hill he just steamed past again. Aubrey Woods, after he left BRM, told me they built a 3.5-litre engine. He wouldn’t say when they used it, but I’m pretty sure I know.
“My deal with March was that Mosley would pay me £100,000 in four quarterly instalments. I got the first £25,000, but he still owes me £75,000. Big money then, not small money now. We had a legal meeting, and he gave me this stuff about how I had to stand back so the March lads could keep their jobs. I guess I was too soft.
“It was a difficult year. In May I was back at Indy with Bruce, but I couldn’t get to grips with the McLaren. Denny was badly burned when a fuel line came off at full chat and the whole thing went up. That car was spooky – at one stage we put Bobby Unser in it for a few laps, and when he came in he was shaking. But it was good working with Bruce again. A couple of weeks later I was driving back from the March factory in Northampton when it came on the radio that Bruce had keen killed testing at Goodwood. I had to stop the car and walk about a bit, trying to get my head round it. Piers Courage was killed a couple of weekends later, at Zandvoort.
“About then I had lunch with Jochen in London, and he told me he wanted to stop. He was frightened of the Lotus fragility. A month later he’d won a couple more Grands Prix, he was going to win the title, and he told me he’d decided to do one more year. Then he was killed at Monza. Looking back, I don’t know how I coped with all that. I think there was a lot of stuff being pushed into the back of my mind.
“Matra made me an offer for 1971. Their V12 hadn’t set the world on fire, but it was a breath of fresh air being able to leave March. I stayed with them for two years, and I won the Argentine GP, although that was a non-championship race. Did sports car races, too. At Monza I got pole ahead of Ickx’s Ferrari, which pleased me. I was leading with nine laps to go and I tried to remove a tear-off from my visor, and the whole bloody visor flew off. While I was coping with 200mph without any eye protection the slipstreaming group came by, and I finished sixth.
“In 1972 we’d had so many retirements that Matra literally ran out of F1 engines, and went to their home GP at Clermont with a sports car engine in my car. But I put it on pole, and led until half-distance. Then I got a puncture. It took nearly a minute to change it – lots of wheel nuts then – and I rejoined eighth. I wasn’t happy.”
In one of his finest drives, breaking the lap record repeatedly around the swooping five-mile Charade circuit, Chris clambered back to third, and was catching Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72 at four seconds a lap when the flag came out. The French crowd roared their appreciation, and officials insisted that Amon took a lap of honour with winner Stewart. But Chris was downcast.
“Clermont was a turning point. I suppose that was the last time I drove my heart out. Frustration had been building up over several years, and although it wasn’t a conscious thing, that was when I said to myself: it’s never going to happen. The Matra boss, Jean-Luc Lagardère, asked if I thought they should continue with F1. I said, ‘If you stick with that engine, you’re always going to struggle.’ It was the end of my Matra drive.”
So many stories. Tecno in 1973: two designers building two different cars at the same time. Tecno boss Luciano Pederzani raging at team manager David Yorke over dinner, and felling him with a single punch. The offer to return to Ferrari, blocked by Tecno sponsor Martini. Chris’ disastrous attempt to run his own team with the Amon AF101 in ’74. The offer to join Brabham, which Chris refused, because he felt he’d be letting down the Amon crew. Then the season with Mo Nunn’s Ensign team.
“The Ensign wasn’t bad, but there was no money. It was all hand to mouth, with two-year-old engines borrowed from Bernie. At Zolder I was fifth when a back wheel fell off and I was wrapped up in catch fencing like a parcel. At
Anderstorp I was fourth when the front suspension broke and put me in the barriers, hard. At the Nürburgring Niki Lauda had his accident, and I was shocked by how long it took for help to get to him. I knew the Ensign was fragile, I knew I was planning to stop at the end of the season, and I didn’t want to end up on my head. So before the restart I said to Mo, ‘I can’t trust the car, and I don’t want to drive it here.’ That was the end of our relationship. Frank Williams asked me to drive in Canada; I went out on cold tyres in practice, spun it, and got T-boned by Harald Ertl. Then I went home.”
In 2003 Chris sold the family farm and retired to Kinloch, but both his sons are farmers not far from Bulls. For 25 years he has been a consultant to Toyota, and helped develop the suspension of the locally-built Camrys and Coronas. Apart from one visit to the Goodwood Festival in 1997, when he was overwhelmed by the welcome he got, he’s stayed away from racing. He hasn’t been to Maranello for more than 35 years: “They invited me to the 60th anniversary celebrations last year, but the invitation arrived three days before the event. So I emailed de Montezemolo and said, ‘If I’m around for the 75th, can you give me a bit more warning?’”
Another wide grin, another self-deprecating chuckle, and it’s time for Chris to drive home. He’s right: far from being F1’s unluckiest driver, he is truly one of the lucky ones. He was part of a golden age of racing, he has some marvellous and poignant memories, and he’s still here.