Changing the curse of history

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The bad-luck stories that litter Chris Amon’s career obscure the fact that he registered several major wins. Mark Hughes helps him to put the record straight

Chris Amon, the man recalled as the greatest driver never to win a grand prix. That actually sells him short. Between 1968 and ’72, only Jackie Stewart put in as many virtuoso performances, days like Spain ’68 or France ’72, where one driver was just plain better than all the others. Given just a modicum of luck he’d have been a world champion, let alone a race-winner.

But among all the hard-luck stories, it’s too easy to forget just what a successful career the man had. He won Le Mans and Daytona, emerged on top in wheel-to-wheel races with Jim Clark in the Tasman series, and beat Jochen Rindt there fair and square in 1969. He also won two F1 races, non-championship events, but very competitive affairs, nevertheless.

1966 Le Mans 24 Hours

Win for Ford, future with Ferrari

“My association with Ford went back to 1964 when I co-drove a Cobra Daytona with Jochen Neerspach. We got caught attempting to change an alternator in the middle of the night and were disqualified! But I later joined Bruce McLaren, and he was heavily involved with Ford and that strengthened my link with them.

“At Daytona [in 1966], Bruce and I didn’t think that the cars were going to last, and so we drove a very conservative race – and finished fifth. Before Le Mans, Bruce said, ‘Well, we won’t make that mistake again.’

“We were the only GT40 on Firestones, the rest were on Goodyears. Bruce and I were contracted to Firestone as they were pretty much financing McLaren.

“Bruce did the first stint and, within the first hour-and-a-half, two tyres threw treads. After the second or third one, Bruce handed over to me while he went away to sort out the politics, because it was pretty obvious we needed to be on Goodyears if we were to have a chance. That’s what happened in the end, but we had lost a lot of time by then. Bruce said, ‘Let’s just go for it!’ And we pushed like hell through the night.

“We took the lead some time in the morning and only then did we allow ourselves to back off a little. It was a most enjoyable race. The only sad memory I have of it was the staged finish. We didn’t benefit from it as we had a comfortable lead by the time the Ford edict went out, but Ken Miles, who shared the other car with Denny Hulme, was very bitter about it, and sadly he was killed just a few weeks later.

“If you look at pictures of the finish, you’ll see that Bruce was clearly ahead. He said at the time that Ken backed off just before the line, but I’m not sure that’s what happened at all. But that was Bruce’s story — and he was sticking to it!

“It did a lot for me, that result. It was largely on the strength of it that I got the call from Ferrari. Because they initially signed me as a sportscar driver, not really Formula One.”

1967 Daytona 24 Hours

F1 prize for sportscar speed

“This was my very first drive for Ferrari. I tested there in December 1966, in the P4, with Lorenzo Bandini, Mike Parkes and Ludovico Scarfiotti. It was pretty clear there was an intense in-team rivalry because, basically, what happened in sportscars was going to determine who got the F1 seat. I remember feeling it was pretty important to be quick.

“It was a huge satisfaction to be winning against the Fords in the team that had been the opposition when I was with Ford. Also, by being quickest in the test, then winning the race, I had established my credentials for getting into the F1 car.

“The P4 was a wonderful car. Like most Ferraris of that time, it was a bit down on power, but its nimbleness more than made up for that through the infield section at Daytona. Also, it just felt bullet-proof, whereas I always felt the Ford was a bit mechanically fragile. The Ford was a better Le Mans car simply on account of its straight-line speed. We’d been seeing 225mph on the Mulsanne in 1966. The next year, in the P4, we were 25-30mph short of that”

1967 Monza 1000km

Banking on success

“It was a pretty straightforward race. I remember it most for the battering we took on the banking. It was extraordinary. The Ferrari filled me with confidence in that you knew bits weren’t going to drop off it, and you really needed that round there.

“That was the last race Lorenzo and I drove together. He was a very, very nice guy. I went there with the expectation that he’d be difficult as we were competing for the same thing, but he was actually very supportive of me. We drove to Monaco [the race in which Bandini was killed] together that year from Modena. I’ve been accused of being chaotic in my approach, but he was worse. There were a hundred and one things he had to do before we got under way — stop off here, wait there. It was about two in the morning by the time we arrived in Monaco.”

1968 Tasman Seties

Putting the pressure on Clark

“I talked ‘old man’ Ferrari into doing the Tasman. I had always been a bit of a historian and I remembered the days of Hawthorn and Collins in the Dinos. At the factory complex they had this sort of shed where they kept loads of old engines and gearboxes. I used to wander about in there, and I saw these Dino V6s from the late ’50s. I said to Mauro Forghieri that if he put one of those 2.5 V6s into the F2 Ferrari, it would go well in the Tasman series. He agreed, and I went to see Enzo and he did not take much persuading at all. They made a three-valve head for it, and later a four-valve.

 “It was a far more competitive car than we’d had in F1. The engine was far better-suited to 2.5 than the Cosworth DFV in Jimmy Clark’s car, although his Lotus had better brakes than us. It was a big thing for me to able to run with Jimmy. In the last couple of grands prix in ’67 – certainly at Mexico – I’d almost been there. I was running with Graham [Hill], not far behind Jim. But here I had the chance of going right with him. It was very interesting and educational.

“Obviously, he was fantastically quick and very smooth, but I did notice that if you kept him under pressure for a long time, he’d make the odd mistake. I got past him at Surfers Paradise because he ran a bit wide. He was very rarely put under pressure, of course. I don’t think that 1967 car of theirs was really very good; the 49 didn’t become good until they put big wings on it.

“I won the New Zealand Grand Prix and Levin. In Australia for the third race, we were running wheel to wheel, but our new four-valve unit overheated. In Tasmania, at Longford, Piers Courage’s McLaren won in the pouring rain on Dunlops.

“Sandown Park was the last race Jimmy ever won. I finished about a nose-cone behind him. We’d fought all the way through. Every lap I could get alongside him on the finish line, but I just didn’t have the brakes to get him on the inside line. Interestingly, for the whole race, he let me have that inside line. He was obviously confident I could not outbrake him.

“On the last lap I took the engine way past the rev limit we had been using, but he did the same thing – and so that was that”

1969 Tasman Series

Championship win over Rindt

“We started off with a bit of a  disadvantage because Lotus had a moveable wing and we had a fixed one. Jochen had a problem at Pukekhoe because his wing stuck down, and so we won that one. At Levin, he went upside down on a bank – that made it easier to win. The third and fourth races were at Wigram and Teretonga, and Lotus were clearly quicker there because of their wing. We decided we had to do something for Australia and developed our own moveable wing.

“It was ‘developed’ on the roof of a utility truck by my mechanics, Bruce Wilson and Roger Bailey. It was activated by a Triumph 2000 overdrive solenoid unit: when you let go of the button it stayed down; when you pushed the button it came up. It worked really well. Not only did it give us better straight-line speed, but it gave the rear tyres an easier time, because before, the wheels were going into camber all the way down the straights. This put a stop to that.

“We went to the first race in Oz and blitzed them, basically. At Warwick Farm, we had a real shoot-out in qualifying and Jochen ended up just on pole. The race was a non-event for me as Piers Courage and I came together.

“Then we went to Sandown again, where Jochen qualified about half-a-second quicker. I had a discussion with Bruce Wilson, who was rebuilding the engines, and he said, ‘I reckon we can rev it a lot more than we’re doing.’ We were running to about 8600rpm, but in F2, with the same valve gear, they were revving to about 10,000. So we went for a lower gear ratio and decided to rev it to 9600. I remember pulling out of Jochen’s slipstream early in the race and just driving by him on the way to winning. I also remember the look of sheer surprise on his face. You could see it quite clearly because of his open-face helmet.

“Jochen’s style was much more aggressive than Jimmy’s, but the end result was pretty similar in terms of lap time. I reckon I was somewhere in between in style.”

1970 International Trophy

Beating Stewart in identical cars

“We had a tyre disadvantage to Jackie in that we were on Firestone and he was on Dunlops that were definitely better, especially in the wet. But for Silverstone, Firestone had come up with an improved tyre. I was racing for Ferrari in the 1000Km at Monza, so I only did a day’s testing at Silverstone — but I qualified on the front row.

‘The race was in two heats. In the first one, Denny [Hulme] led from the off, but I went past him into Stowe on the first lap, and from then on it was dead easy; I just disappeared.

“The second race was wet and so Jackie had an advantage, but as it dried out, we were nose-to-tail. I did not need to pass him to take the overall victory so I just sat behind him.

“It was frustrating having Jackie in the same car. When I first signed, dear old Max [Mosley] and Robin [Herd] said it would be a one-car team and they’d be putting all their resource into it. Then they set up a virtual production line and the main competition was in one of them — and on better tyres. I remember it always took the Firestone two or three laps to get working, whereas the Dunlop would work from the off. That was really evident at Monaco, where Jackie just disappeared on the first couple of laps, but after that I was able to keep the gap constant.”

1971 Argentine Grand Prix

Low on grunt, high on grit

“This was the first time that I’d driven the MS120B and, after the March, it was obvious immediately that this was so much better. I liked it very much, but I quickly found it was sadly lacking in horsepower. The first clue came in the first heat. I was on pole but was easily beaten into the first comer.

Exactly the same thing happened in the second heat; I think I was sixth or seventh into the first corner. So then I just went for it and started passing cars all over the place. Buenos Aires was a lovely track; you could really throw the car around through some of those corners.

“I passed Seppi [Jo Siffert] for, I think, second, and we touched wheels. I passed Rolf Stommelen; we touched and he spun. I suppose a diplomatic way of putting it was that it was a racing incident. I wasn’t in the mood for compromise. Basically, both times I went down the inside and they turned in. Seppi came up to me afterwards and said something, and I’m sure John Surtees said something on Stommelen’s behalf, but I don’t remember it as a big deal.

“I remember coming away from there thinking, ‘Yes, it’s great we won — but we’re really going to struggle unless we come up with more horsepower.’ Unfortunately, that was the story for the next two years.”

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