Chris Amon 1968
There are lies, damn lies and Chris Amon’s grand prix statistics of 1968: Four poles, three races led – and just 10 points. He should have been feted, instead he was fated
Had he lived, Jimmy Clark would have been the 1968 world champion. Even the most ardent Graham Hill supporters would admit that. But when one considers the next most deserving candidate, who could it be? Actual champ Hill, legend-in-the-making Jackie Stewart or super-rookie Jacky Ickx?
Well actually, you need to look down to 10th place on that year’s championship table to discover the stand-out driver of the year. Astonishingly, Chris Amon led more laps than anyone bar Stewart and Hill, yet not once was he in front on the last lap.
“Towards the end of 1967, we got a four-valve-per-cylinder head which had closed the horsepower gap to the DFV,” recalls Amon 35 years later. “However, the engine had such poor oil scavenging that the horsepower that appeared on the test bed was never really available once it was in the car.”
That cost Chris dear at Kyalami on New Year’s Day for round one of the 1968 series. Even before fuel evaporation forced him to make a pitstop, Ferrari had been blown away by the DFVs. “I never really understood why,” says Amon, “because it wasn’t altitude; we had run so well at Mexico the year before.
Then we went to Brands for the Race of Champions and struggled [fourth place], and we weren’t quite on the pace in the International Trophy at Silverstone [third].”
By the time the championship resumed at Jarama, five months after the first round, things had changed in F1. Clark, the greatest driver of them all, had gone. So, too, had Mike Spence, in a shunt at Indianapolis. The traditional Lotus green and yellow had been replaced by Gold Leaf red-and-gold livery. And the Ferraris were competitive. Amon led by over 20sec until, on lap 50, a fuel pump fused, reducing rpm by 2000. Seven laps later the other packed up, too. Hill’s first win of the year had been handed to him on a plate.
At Monaco, Graham won fair and square — but in the absence of Ferrari. “It was a pity,” states Amon, “because I think the 312 would have been superb there. But Enzo withdrew out of respect to Lorenzo Bandini who had been killed there a year earlier, and I didn’t have a problem with that at all.”
As one of the most equable fellows to have graced F1, Amon probably also accepted in good part his retirement at Spa. It is his fans, past and present, who want to pepper the air with expletives when they recount this race for which their hero had pole by 3.7sec.
On lap two, leading comfortably, Amon reached Stavelot to findlo Bonnier’s McLaren, hobbled with a broken wheel-stud, pottering pitward in the middle of the road. “I had to back right off,” says Chris, “which meant I lost all momentum for the following straight” The powerful Honda of John Surtees, which had been tailing him, roared past, and so the Ferrari was in prime position to swallow a stone through its radiator on lap nine. Nine more points gone in a puff of steam.
Zandvoort was a tyre issue, though. From pole (again), Chris found that, in the drizzle, his Firestones had the traction of an eel on black ice, and he would finish sixth, five laps down on Dunlop-shod winner, Stewart.
In the ‘proper’ wet of Rouen two weeks later, Firestone’s wet compound worked well and Ickx was a runaway winner. His teammate, however, went for treaded ‘dries’ and was blighted with a misfire; again he finished five laps down, this time out of the points.
Amon was heroic at Brands Hatch. He alone kept the superior Lotus 49s of Hill,Jackie Oliver and Jo Siffert in sight, but it was Siffert’s Rob Walker-entered car that took the lead when the Gold Leaf cars broke down and won, with Amon’s Ferrari 4.4sec down.
No such luck at Nurburgring, where a failed duff in the torrential conditions was enough to send him skating off at North Turn while battling for second with Hill.
Then came two more wins that got away. “On fast circuits that didn’t require acceleration but top-end revs, our V12 was pretty good,” explains Amon, “and we could trim out our wings for the straights. At Monza, however, I was slipstreaming with Bruce and Surtees, and had hit the button to bring the wing down on the exit of Curva Grande when we hit some oil and the car swapped ends. I don’t remember much of it, but I saw an 8mm film of the accident and it was pretty spectacular. I somersaulted down a ditch.”
Spectacular in an altogether different way was the manner of his progress in Canada. Despite losing the clutch from the moment the flag dropped, he went straight into a lead which he still held — by a minute — when, with 18 laps to go, his gearbox seized.
“Yeah, I guess feelings like, ‘Will it ever happen?’ started creeping in after that race. I retired from the last rounds of the championship [he should have had second in both], but I knew the flat-12 was coming in 1970. And my motivation for ’69 was winning the Tasman series. That gave me a real boost to beat Jochen, for example.” And Graham Hill. DM