Looking Back on Chris Amon

“He’s getting to be another Chris Amon…” How many times have we heard that comment made over the years about Formula One drivers who, although undeniably talented, seem never quite able to grasp that elusive, first Grand Prix victory. In fact, such comments do less than justice to the popular New Zealander who, although only turned 40 last summer, has been out of the Grand Prix arena for almost eight years and actually made his Grand Prix debut at the age of 19 back in 1963! No other driver over the past two decades who didn’t manage to win a Grand Prix can be said to have matched the skill and acknowledged accomplishment of Chris Amon who, for years, hovered on the brink of success in the most demanding category of single-seater motor racing. Some helpings of cruel, consistently bad luck dogged Chris’s progress for much of his career, and, equally, he made some rash decisions when it came to selecting his teams. But most of his contemporaries agree that the mild-mannered Kiwi was certainly one of their most feared and respected rivals in the late 1960s and early ‘70s and his career, reviewed here, was certainly rich in action and variety.

At first glance one might think that this is simply a story of disappointment and failure, but in motor racing terms that isn’t true. Although Chris Amon never grasped the Grand Prix success he wanted so dearly, he won many other races – even a couple of non-Championship Formula One contests. He won Le Mans, several long distance sports car races and had handled machines from Lola, Ferrari, Cooper, March, Tyrrell, Matra, BRM, Ensign and Tecno – not to mention one from his own team – in Grand Prix action before retiring to his New Zealand sheep farm long before the age at which Fangio achieved the first of his five World Championship titles!

Born on July 20th, the only son of a wealthy sheep rearer, Ngaio Amon, Christopher Arthur Amon was crashing round the family’s 1,500 acre estate near Bulls, in the North Island of New Zealand not far from the Levin circuit so it wasn’t surprising that most of the Amon race machinery was tried there. When Chris left school, he badgered his father into having an Austin A40 special and with this machine he cut his competitive teeth in minor races and hillclimbs.

The A40 soon outlived it’s somewhat limited potential and, since the tight Levin circuit was dubbed a “Cooper track” Chris quickly got his hands on an aging 1,500 Cooper, only to find that he couldn’t keep up with a local rival driver driving an old front-engined Maserati 250F. Deciding he was probably better to join them than beat them, he got his hands on ex-Owen Organisation 250F (driven by luminaries such as Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn earlier in its career) and quickly came to revel in its easy-to-drive, oversteering style.

After honing his techniques on this outdated machine he progressed via the ex-Bruce McLaren 1959 US GP-winning leaf-sprung Cooper-Climax to a later coil-sprung similar car which he bought as a wreck from Australia and rebuilt himself. This gave him a reasonably competitive mount for the 1962/’63 winter international season “Down Under” and although he won the national category race preceding the New Zealand Grand Prix, his progress was bugged by all manner of mechanical misfortunes. He competed in Australian races that winter for the newly-formed Scuderia Veloce, but apart from an impressive drive in the rain at Lakeside where he ran with the leading bunch, he had little to show for his efforts. Just as he was making his mind up to return to farming for good, Reg Parnell came across and had a quiet few words in Chris’s ear.

Things moved quickly from then onwards and, in a matter of weeks, Chris was on a plane bound for London. He stepped off into a bitterly cold late winter day and went straight off to Goodwood where he began practicing for his first Formula One race at the wheel of a Parnell team ex-Bowmaker Lola-Climax V8.

After promising initial outings in the Goodwood Easter Monday International and the Aintree 200, Amon embarked on the World Championship Grand-Prix programme with the Parnell outfit. “Those old Lolas were not too bad,” he recalled, “but the big disadvantage we had over the works teams using Climax engines was that they had fuel-injection, while our cars were still on carburettors. But I had quite a good season learning the ropes with them and the idea was that Reg should buy ex-Team Lotus 25s for the following season, update them to ’64 spec, and power them “with brand new Climax V8s.”

Unfortunately Reg Parnell died from peritonitis early in January 1964 and the team lost much of its impetus, Chris also losing a valued and respected mentor who’d helped him develop his racing approach throughout that previous season. Reg’s son Tim, later to become BRM team manger, continued running the team, but “with the best will in the World he couldn’t do the same job as his father. We would up racing the old Lotus 25s powered by sub-standard BRM V8s which were well down on power when compared to the works engines, but that was simply a fact of life that you had to accept…”

Even in those relatively recent days, Amon recalls that drivers were not anywhere near as safety conscious as they quickly became in the late 1960s, remembering that he used to drive the Parnell Lola in “a short-sleeved tee shirt, overall trousers and some old boxing shoes… there were no seat belts either, of course, and I feel that one of the reasons that we weren’t so worried about fire in those days was that there was still a reasonably good chance of being thrown out. I mean, I’d ended up lying across the bonnet of my 250F when I shunted a telegraph pole in New Zealand and ended up hanging out of the cockpit of the Lola with three broken ribs when I crashed at Monza in 1963…”

Amon recalls the 1½-litre breed of Formula One cars were “far more difficult to drive near the limit than the three-litre machines which superseded them. And there was an enormous performance differential between the best and the not-so-good machines. I mean, my carburettor Lola couldn’t even get a tow from Hill’s BRM or Clark’s Lotus on the Masta straight at Spa. We weren’t in the same league…”

Nonetheless Amon had a handful of good drives in the Parnell Lotus-BRM during 1965, finishing a good fifth at Zandvoort and was having “a big dice with Bandini’s flat-12 Ferrari at Watkins Glen when the starter motor came into mesh as I went over the brow after the pits and I had a monumental spin – and they spun a long way on their narrow rims in those days!”

For 1965 Tim Parnell was offered competitive BRM V8 engines on the condition that he ran Richard Attwood in the team, so Amon parted company with the Derby entrant although he briefly came back into the team for a couple of races after Attwood injured himself at Spa. Amon’s 1966 season was originally intended to see him partner his fellow New Zealander Bruce McLaren in a second Ford V8-engined Robin Herd designed “mallite” monocoque McLaren M2B, but that never came to anything, and his association with McLaren Racing was confined to outings in the team’s Group 7 car. Amon experienced a lot of success, and learnt a great deal through plenty of Firestone tyre testing, with the McLaren sports cars and this sustained him throughout 1966. On a very positive note, he shared a works seven-litre Ford MK2 with Bruce McLaren at Le Mans where they scored a memorable and impressive victory. Finally an oblique invitation arrived, via Shell’s Keith Ballisat, to go and meet Enzo Ferrari with a view to signing a contract for 1967.

“I flew to Maranello to see Ferrari between the Laguna Seca and Riverside Can-Am races at the end of 1966 and agreed to drive for him the following year,” recalls Chris, “but I don’t think my relations with Bruce were ever quite the same again afterwards as I think I figured in his team’s long-term plans.”

Amon’s Ferrari Formula One debut was scheduled for the 1967 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, but he was involved in an accident whilst driving to the circuit at the wheel of his Sunbeam Tiger prior to practice. He tried the three-litre V12 Ferrari briefly, but soon withdrew from the proceedings because he knew full-well that he wouldn’t be able to put on a decent performance and he was a little worried because he knew Ferrari had Bandini, Scarfiotti and Mike Parkes on the books as well and he was reluctant to ruin his first Formula One opportunity almost before it had started.

On the Ferrari sports car front, Chris opened his new association in optimistic fashion by winning the Daytona 24-hours and Monza 1000km classics, sharing the four-litre 330P4 sports car with Lorenzo Bandini, the somewhat volatile Italian driver who’d assumed Ferrari team leadership after John Surtees had quit mid-way through the previous season. Amon admitted that he approached his relationship with Bandini amidst a certain degree of trepidation, worried how he would respond to the presence of a novice newcomer in “his” team. Chris need not have worried: “he was utterly charming and helpful, particularly when it came to giving me assistance setting up the cars…one of the nicest guys I ever met in motor racing.” Sadly, Chris’s relationship with the Italian was to be a short one: Bandini died in a terrible, fiery accident during the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix when his F1 Ferrari 312 V12 crashed at the chicane in vain pursuit of Denny Hulme’s winning Brabham-Repco V8. It was Chris’s Formula 1 race debut for Maranello and he was obliged to drive past the smouldering wreckage for lap after lap, a harrowing experience from which he emerged in third place, despite a pit stop.

At the following race, the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, Chris sat and watched as his team-mate Mike Parkes rolled, and was flung out of his Ferrari after sliding wildly on oil from Stewart’s BRM H16 on the opening lap. Parkes survived with badly broken legs, but his Grand Prix career was over, and this sequence of disasters so unnerved Amon’s remaining Ferrari team-mate Ludovico Scarfiotti, that he briefly retired from Formula 1, and by the time Chris got to the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort he was carrying the reputation of the Prancing Horse alone on his shoulders.

The three seasons which Chris Amon spent at Ferrari saw him hone a reputation as a fine, gifted driver but one who could never quite grasp a Grand Prix victory. Chris was quite adamant that Ferrari V12s never had as much power as the Cosworth DFV, a contention which resulted in his getting involved with some pretty energetic discussions within the Ferrari factory. “Through 1967 and ’68 the chassis was an absolute dream,” Chris would recall, “but we had major oil scavenging problems which contributed to the engine’s lack of steam. When I chased Siffert’s Rob Walker Lotus 49B round Brands Hatch during the 1968 British Grand Prix I was all over him on the twisty section, but he was blowing me off up the hill to Druids and out onto the Grand Prix circuit. The Ferrari V12 had a very narrow rev band and the DFV had a great deal more torque…”

One of the pleasures of Chris’s time at Ferrari was working with the gifted Mauro Forghieri, by then established as Maranello’s Formula One chief engineer. The two men had some pretty dramatic rows over the positioning of the aerofoils on the Ferrari 312 early in 1968, this being the first time such aerodynamic appendages had appeared on any Grand Prix machine. Amon drove his Ferrari in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps with one mounted above the rear axle line, and he reckoned that it was “fantastic”. However, Forghieri moved it forward to a position just behind the rollover bar, working on the basis that if it was mounted in the centre of the car, the downforce generated would be equally distributed across the chassis’ plan area. “The car was never quite as good as it felt on the first outing at Spa,” confessed Amon, but that didn’t prevent him from getting closer than ever to a Grand Prix victory in the Canadian race at Ste. Jovite that autumn: despite being obliged to change gear without the clutch from 12 laps into the contest, Amon was in a class of his own until 17 laps before the end of the long 90 lap battle. Then the over-strained crownwheel gave up the ghost and the race was added to Chris’s long list of failures…

In 1969 he came close to victory again with a Ferrari, losing out in the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona’s spectacular Montjuich Park circuit when the engine blew up after 56 laps when he was well in command. By this stage Chris was becoming almost irrationally preoccupied with a desire to take on his contemporary Jackie Stewart on even terms, and this ill-judged ambition was behind him leaving Ferrari at the end of the troubled 1969 season. Maranello was in a bad financial way at that time, Enzo Ferrari being drastically short of money as he sought to mount not only a Grand Prix challenge, but also Formula 2, sports car, hillclimb and Can-Am programmes, on a slender budget culled from traditional motor industry sources as well as the modest profits from the sale of the company’s delectable road cars. Fortunately, Gianni Angelli of Fiat came to Ferrari’s rescue to provide the solid business foundations on which the company is built today. But it was a rescue operation which came too late for Chris Amon. Although Mauro Forghieri’s fabulous, horizontally-opposed 12-cylinder Formula One engine was ready by the end of the summer, testing problems and major mechanical failures really did turn out to be the last straw for the New Zealander. “I could feel that it was tremendously strong and powerful during those early tests” he reflected, “But it kept flying apart…I thought, hell I can’t stand any more of this…”

With the supreme irony that was destined to be a hallmark of Chris’s career, he threw his lot in with the fledgling March Formula One effort in 1970…just as the Cosworth DFV ran into development problems and the new flat-12 Ferrari began winning races.

It wasn’t even as though the March was the best Cosworth chassis either, in fact far from it: that distinction belonged to the sensational new Lotus 72 which Jochen Rindt used to win the World Championship title, albeit posthumously. Amon didn’t hit it off on a personal level with March’s ambitious directors Max Mosley and Robin Herd and the fact that Stewart was having similar handling problems with his Dunlop-shod Tyrrell March didn’t help make life any better for Chris behind the wheel of the Firestone-shod works 701. Still, at least he did beat Stewart! In the non-Championship Silverstone International Trophy race, Chris won his first Formula One event convincingly…and then went on to take second place in the Belgian Grand Prix, mere feet behind Pedro Rodriguez’s BRM P153. That’s right, it was the only time the BRM led – and lasted!

The 1972 season saw Chris forge a partnership with the French Matra team to handle their powerful V12 cars, but again things never quite worked out as they should. He opened his association by scoring a morale-boosting victory in the non-Championship Argentine Grand Prix at Buenos Aires, but from that point onwards it was pretty well the mixture as before. But Amon admits that he’d almost learned to live with disappointment by this stage in his career: “I think I’d got over the sense of disappointment at not winning by the time I left Ferrari. It used to burn me up and make me so mad when I started, but I think I’d got it all under control by 1969. I had just as much disappointment with Matra, of course…”

The biggest jewel in Chris’s crown during his two seasons with the French manufacturer came in Matra’s home Grand Prix at Clermont-Ferrand where Chris completely dominated the race from the start, only for a puncture to force him into the pits for a tyre change. Undaunted, he came flying back into contention to set a new lap record for the demanding Charade circuit and wind up a stupendous third behind Stewart’s Tyrrell and Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72. Of that race Chris recalls, “the frustrating thing about Matra was that they didn’t seem to be prepared to do much development work with the car during 1972. In fact, when we ran so well at Clermont we were using one of the spare long-distance engines from the Le Mans car! The latest F1 engine with its two ring pistons were giving a lot of problems, so we fell back on this stand-by engine with three-ring pistons which didn’t give us a problem with crankcase pressurisation. Nor did we have any methanol or other special fuel in the car – it was filled up with Shell fuel from the pump in the paddock. That’s significantly more than I suspect about some other F1 teams over the years!”

Chris’s bad luck was matched, away from the circuit, by his business sense. He’d made a great deal of money during his two seasons with Matra, which included a sports car contract, but he was to lose it all investing in a racing engine firm which he started in 1972 in conjunction with former BRM engineer Aubrey Woods. In 1973 he found himself accepting a drive in the flat-12 Tecno Formula One car, scoring the marque’s only Championship point with a sixth place at Zolder, but he left, disgusted by the car’s lousy performance, before the end of the season. The following year he made an ambitious foray into the world of Grand Prix car construction with a creation carrying his own name: it was quickly, mercifully abandoned, but at least should be remembered for having one or two advanced design features, notably the single, central fuel cell, pre-dating the Lotus 79 by some four years in this (but no other) respect!

At the end of 1974 he had a couple of disheartening outings at the wheel of a BRM P201, although, in the writer’s opinion, his drive to ninth place at Watkins Glen with this uncompetitive V12 was quite magnificent, probably as good as anything he’d produced at any time during his career. After that it began to look as though Chris had come to the end of the road, but a chance conversation between the writer of this article and Ensign boss Morris Nunn in the summer of 1975 saw Chris pick up the threads of his career again with the little British team.

With a new Dave Baldwin-designed chassis, Amon opened the 1976 season in an optimistic note with a fifth place, splitting the works Brabham-Alfas, in the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, but after mechanical failures pitched him into spectacular accidents at both Zolder and Anderstorp, he began to have second thoughts about his own approach to the sport. The final straw came when he was in the queue of cars bottled up behind Niki Lauda’s crashed, blazing Ferrari on the second lap of the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring. Much to Mo Nunn’s indignation, he declined to take the restart and never raced a Grand Prix car again.

“I’d seen too many people fried in racing cars by that stage,” he explained without a trace of apology. “When you’ve driven past Bandini, Schlesser, Courage and Williamson, another shunt like that was simply too much. It was a personal decision – and the right one, for me…” Happily, of course, Niki Lauda survived that near-tragedy, but it was the end of the road for Chris Amon.

He briefly practiced a Wolf-Williams in the 1976 Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport Park, but ended up being T-boned in an unfortunate accident and was badly bruised and very fortunate not to be seriously injured.

Within another year he had disappeared back to New Zealand at the age of 34 years where he concentrates on sheep farming to this day, contented and relaxed with Trish, his daughter and twin sons. Despite regular promises to those of his old friends he’s still in touch with, he hasn’t been tempted to return to Europe, even for a fleeting visit. His racing career seems like ancient history to some of his readers, but Chris Amon is only approaching middle age, a testimony his youthful novice status when he first stepped into that Lola-Climax at Goodwood back in 1963. How good was he? Some say Chris Amon was over-rated, but many others, including myself, tend towards Mauro Forghieri’s view that “although Chris had no belief in his own ability, I feel that he was the one driver who could equal Jimmy Clark…” Certainly, he matched him race-for-face in the 1968 Tasman Series when Chris drove a Dino 246 and the Scot has his 2.5 litre DFW-engined Lotus 49T - and a year later, Amon saw off Jochen Rindt quite convincingly in a similarly-matched confrontation. Possibly the greatest compliment, though, came Chris’s way last summer. On his 40th birthday he received a long, cordial letter from Maranello, written in the distinctive purple ink used by only one man at that Italian motor racing fortress. It was from Enzo Ferrari himself. Thirteen years after Chris Amon had left Maranello’s ranks, the Commendatore still recalled him with affection…