Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

Predictably just about all the obituaries began with the easy cliché line: ‘Chris Amon, widely regarded as the greatest driver never to win a Grand Prix…’ It belongs with, ‘Stirling Moss, the greatest driver never to win the world championship…’

Speak to Stirling, and he will say that now he actually quite likes the label: “I never won the title, but let’s face it, boy, there were some pretty average people who did…” And Chris, too, became more at ease as the years passed: “No, I didn’t win a Grand Prix, and people said I was the unluckiest driver in history, but most of the time I loved what I was doing – and I survived in an era when so many didn’t…”

I first met Amon on April 15 1971, and this I know because it was the Thursday before the Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuich Park. This was my first day as a racing journalist, and I knew no one.

At Oulton Park a few weeks earlier, though, I had approached Rob Walker for advice about Barcelona – where to apply for a pass, and so on – and when I got there I sought him out to thank him.

“Well, if you’re going to be doing this regularly,” Rob said, “you’d better meet everybody…” For the next hour he took me around the paddock, languidly introducing me to all my heroes. At the time it seemed surreal.

“Now, where are Matra?” Rob said at one point. “You must meet Chris Amon – a brilliant driver, and also the nicest chap you’ll ever come across in motor racing…” So we were introduced, and Chris charmingly welcomed me to my new life. There seemed nothing perfunctory about it: rather, he was genuinely friendly and continued to be throughout that summer – and ever after.

Although he loved a party, Amon was fundamentally shy and in the career he chose I thought his manners worked against him. There was no hard edge to Chris, and history shows that in this business it’s something you need. Only once that I can remember – in the Argentine Grand Prix of 1971 – did he put a touch of ruthlessness into his work, and he won. Of course, given the way the cards invariably fell for him, that year it was a non-championship race.

For years already I had been a fervent Amon fan, revelling in his ‘oversteery’ way of driving, first in McLaren sports cars, then – when his F1 career really began to take off – in Ferraris and now Matras. I thought him an artist in a racing car – ultra-quick, but natural, flowing and unforced. Not for nothing did Ferrari’s Mauro Forghieri tell me he considered Chris the equal of Jimmy Clark.

Who knows why friendships develop? To start with, Amon and I shared a deep interest in racing history: this, after all, was one who – at 17, wearing a short-sleeved shirt – had raced a Maserati 250F in New Zealand, and always said that this, the car that shaped his driving style, remained highest in his affections. We also had a similar sense of humour, and were always able to make each other laugh, but beyond that I think Chris appreciated that in the uncertain world of F1 I was on his side. As Jenks always said, “Never trust an unbiased journalist…”

That winter, and after, I was often at Amon’s house in Littlewick Green, be it for Sunday lunch or maybe simply to watch a rugby match on TV. Mark Webber has described himself as ‘an open fires sort of bloke’, and that was very much Chris. He and I shared an enthusiasm for cricket and animals and – let it be said – pubs, and as time went by he increasingly asked for my opinions on this and that. I still recall a ’phone call late in 1973: “Nige, Ferrari has asked me to go back – what d’you think?”

Over the years I witnessed so many great Amon moments, not least at Monza in 1971 when he was walking off with the Italian Grand Prix. I remember the groan in the press box when suddenly Peterson’s March came by in the lead, and the screaming Matra was falling back, Chris shielding his eyes with one hand. “I’d been losing tear-offs, so this time I stuck them on more firmly, and obviously I made a good job of it – when I went to pull the tear-off, the whole bloody visor flew away…”

And of course there was Clermont-Ferrand in ’72, widely considered Amon’s day of days in a racing car. At this pure ‘driver’s circuit’, from pole he led away, leaving Stewart and the rest behind. Then another groan – this time from the entire French crowd – as JYS came by in front and Chris headed for the pits, left front tyre punctured.

Two-second stops were not the norm 40 years ago – in fact it took the Matra mechanics almost a minute to get him on his way – but there followed the most mesmeric drive I have ever seen: back Amon came, from eighth to third, repeatedly shattering the lap record, passing Cevert and Peterson in a single lap, taking more than a minute out of Stewart’s lead. ‘Amon – Seigneur!’ ran the front page headline of L’Équipe the next day, and their story concluded thus: ‘Bravo Stewart, but thank you, Mr Amon…’

In 1972 a publisher proposed that I write a book with him, and that winter we taped about 40 hours of conversation. Unfortunately, after the publisher did an overnight flit to foreign lands, the book never came to be and anyone else would have been apoplectic. Chris shrugged: “Don’t worry – actually, it’s been therapeutic to talk it all through…”

In the days since his death, I’ve been listening again to some of the tapes, and concluded that perhaps the best way to pay tribute to Amon is to offer a flavour of how the book might have been. Of all the teams he drove for, Ferrari was the one he loved best by far.

***

Back in the sixties, as John Surtees has said, to Ferrari nothing came before Le Mans. “You’d test the Formula 1 car, but then you wouldn’t see it again for ages…”

In 1966 Amon, sharing a Ford with Bruce McLaren, won the Vingt-Quatre Heures, and Chris never doubted it was primarily this that led to the offer from Ferrari at the end of the year.

“I enjoyed sports cars, but obviously my priority was Formula 1, and when I first went to see Enzo Ferrari what worried me was that the contract didn’t specifically include it. When I tried to make that point, he brushed it aside: ‘Don’t worry – just sign…’ There was no retainer that first year, just a percentage of the prize money, but I didn’t care…”

Ferrari had been stung by the Ford defeat at Le Mans, and his priority for 1967 was avenging it. The first race on the calendar was the Daytona 24 Hours, and in December ’66 two of the glorious new 330P4s were flown out there for testing.

“At that time,” Amon said, “[Eugenio] Dragoni was still in charge – I was very much the new boy, and treated as such! All four drivers were there – and I was fourth out in the car. They were all friendly, but whereas Bandini was warm from the start, I felt Parkes and Scarfiotti were wary of me.

“Anyway, they all trundled round, but none of them had been to Daytona before, whereas I’d done thousands of miles there. When they finally let me get in the car, I immediately went four or five seconds a lap quicker, which I think rather shook them...”

Amon then took part in more tests, at Monza. “I drove the P4, but they also had a couple of F1 cars there – which I wasn’t invited to try. By the third day I was starting to fret, but they suddenly said ‘get in’, and on my second lap, coming out of Ascari, the left rear wheel flew off! The upright had broken, and it turned out this had been Parkes’s car at the Italian Grand Prix, and the upright had been cracked when he clouted the fence at Lesmo.

“Not a great start – but it was the only structural failure I ever had with Ferrari, and that was worth a lot. So long as I was in a car I trusted, I never worried too much about the track – it was up to me to keep out of the trees…”

Amon’s anxiety about what he would get to drive at Ferrari stemmed from the fact that, in his time-honoured style, the Old Man had contracted several drivers (with the sports car races in mind), and would assign them a Formula 1 car as the mood took him. 

 “Not a nice situation,” said Chris, “but it became clear Bandini was always going to get a car, and the Old Man wanted to use me more than Scarfiotti or Parkes – he never thought of ‘Lulu’ as a Grand Prix driver, and didn’t really want Mike to race at all, because he was so valuable as an engineer.”

Back at Daytona for the race in February, they trounced the six-car Ford team on home ground, Amon/Bandini winning, with Parkes/Scarfiotti second and the older NART 412P of Rodriguez/Guichet third. Across the line they swept together, and for Chris it was a sweet moment. “For one thing, it was my first race for Ferrari; for another, on the Le Mans podium Henry Ford II had promised Bruce and me a Mustang each, but they never materialised. I think that pissed Bruce off more than it did me, and although he was still in a Ford at Daytona I didn’t get the impression he was too upset when Ferrari rubbed it in…”

The P4’s next race was the Monza 1000Kms, and Amon and Bandini won that, too. By now they had become good friends. “So many people with his looks are like strutting peacocks,” said Chris, “but Lorenzo wasn’t like that at all – one of the nicest people I ever met...”

This made Monaco all the more difficult for Amon to bear. In his first F1 race for Ferrari he finished third, but Bandini, chasing Hulme for the lead in the late laps, crashed at the chicane, suffering burns from which he would die three days later. Back then they didn’t stop a race for any reason, and several times Amon had to drive past his team-mate’s car as it burned. “I knew it was Lorenzo, because I could see a gold wheel, but it never occurred to me he could still be in it. There didn’t seem to be much activity around the car, so I assumed he’d got out all right. It wasn’t until after the race that I discovered he hadn’t...”

At Zandvoort Amon finished third, lapping both Parkes and Scarfiotti, and he was also third in the Belgian GP, but at Spa – the ‘old’ Spa, of course – there was more trauma for Ferrari, for Parkes crashed disastrously on the opening lap.

“It was on Stewart’s oil,” said Amon. “The BRMs always dropped oil at the beginning of a race. I was right behind Mike, and had a bad moment on it, too. He spun backwards across the road, hit the bank, and rolled along it. It was like a toy car somersaulting over and over – just the most horrific bloody shunt you could imagine.

“Later they hung out a board telling me Mike was OK, but I didn’t see it, and drove the whole race assuming he was dead. Coming so soon after Bandini’s accident, that had a profound effect on me. It destroyed Scarfiotti – he never raced an F1 Ferrari again.”

Although the commentator announced that the accident ‘wasn’t serious’, that was far from the truth. Thrown from his car, Parkes suffered dreadful leg injuries, and although he recovered well there would be no more Formula 1. Thus Amon, initially the junior driver in the Ferrari squad, found himself, at 23, its sole representative, and needing to grow up very quickly. In the French Grand Prix he retired with a broken throttle cable, but then finished third at Silverstone and the Nürburgring, each time after race-long battles with Brabham.

At a wet Mosport Amon was sixth, and at Monza seventh with an engine down on power, but at Watkins Glen he ran second to Clark before his engine blew a dozen laps from the end. Shortly afterwards Jimmy’s rear suspension folded up, so this was the first of numberless races Chris ‘would have won…’ In Mexico, the final race of ’67, he qualified second to Clark and ran there until running out of fuel with three laps to go.

For all his late-season misfortune, Amon finished fifth in the world championship, and looked to 1968 with optimism, not least because he would have a team-mate again, in the shape of precocious young Jacky Ickx. If, though, it would be his finest season, in terms of performance, it would also be his most disappointing.

***

Over the winter Amon competed in the Tasman Series, in which his Ferrari finished second to Clark’s Lotus, but before the series started – on New Year’s Day, no less – there was the opening round of the world championship, at Kyalami. The race, in which Amon finished fourth, is remembered as Clark’s final GP victory.

Like all his fellow drivers, Chris revered Jimmy – or ‘Jummy’, as he always was in that Kiwi drawl – and the accident at Hockenheim on April 7 affected him deeply. 

“In ’68 I also did Formula 2 for Ferrari, and enjoyed it, but I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for a slipstreamer at Hockenheim, and neither did Jimmy. Race day was wet and dismal, and I remember driving to the circuit, and thinking, ‘Christ, fancy having to race round here in this…’

“I was next to Jimmy on the grid, and just before the start I walked over, and said, ‘This isn’t going to be pleasant at all…’ He sort of shrugged.

“When Jimmy was in New Zealand, he always stayed at my parents’ beach house, and he was so much more relaxed out there – almost a different person. I was close to him, but that weekend it was impossible to communicate with him, and that’s always stuck in my mind. 

“For one thing, he didn’t want to be there – he’d been due to drive the Ford F3L at Brands, and it got changed at the last minute. I think, too, he was tired, as I was. We’d both spent the winter doing the Tasman, with a lot of racing and travelling, and then plunged straight into the European season. Immediately after Hockenheim Jimmy was due to go back to Scotland – he’d been living in tax exile in Paris for a year, but now the time was up, and he couldn’t wait to get home.

“Out in the forest you couldn’t see much for all the spray, but in the stadium section I could see his Lotus in front of me – about the same distance away every lap. We were both on Firestones, running around eighth or 10th, and I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, these tyres have got to be useless if Jimmy’s where he is…’

“Then I noticed some dirt at the side of the track, and on the next lap saw a stretcher coming over the fence. Through the stadium, though, the Lotus was still in the same position ahead of me, so I never thought Jimmy could have been involved in whatever it was. In fact, on the lap he crashed Graham – in the other Lotus – had had a pitstop, and he rejoined in front of me, exactly where Jimmy had been.

“After the race I said to Forghieri, ‘Well, the tyres weren’t much good – Clark wasn’t getting anywhere, either…’ I sort of sensed that no one wanted to look me in the face, and then Mauro said, ‘Oh, Clark didn’t finish – I think he’s had an accident…’

“Then I saw a journalist friend, obviously terribly upset. He told me what had happened, and then I thought back to the dirt on the road. It was flat out at that point, and it was fairly obvious that if you went off there was no way of getting out of it – beyond the track it was just trees…

“Then we had to do the second heat. I don’t think anybody wanted to do it, and personally I thought they should have cancelled it, but they were worried that would cause crowd problems – they never made any announcement about Jimmy. I was never so happy to get away from a race track.

“I remember waking up on the Monday to a beautiful sunny day. We were going off for a holiday in Pontresina, but of course I was intending to go to Scotland for the funeral – until the guy bringing my ’plane over to Zurich got snowed in, and I couldn’t go, which very much upset me.

“Fatal accidents weren’t exactly uncommon, but Jimmy was the one guy it was never going to happen to, and when it did inevitably there was the thought: ‘If it can happen to him, what chance do the rest of us have?’ I think we all felt we’d lost our leader. It took a long time for it to sink in – if he walked through the door even now you wouldn’t be too surprised…” 

***

A month later the clans gathered at Jarama for the second round of the championship, and Amon remembered it as a jittery weekend. “We were all a bit unsettled. For one thing, a Grand Prix without Clark just didn’t seem right, and also Mike Spence was killed at Indianapolis earlier that week – on the seventh of the month, like Jimmy.”

Chris, though, took an easy pole position – his first in Formula 1 – and was comfortably in the lead until his fuel pump expired in the late laps. “I thought, ‘Oh well, we’ll win one soon...’”

Monaco was next, but no Ferraris were entered, the Old Man saying this was out of respect to Bandini, who had died there the previous year. 

“Stewart also had to miss it, because he’d damaged a wrist in an F2 race, so when Tyrrell heard Ferrari wasn’t going he asked me to drive Jackie’s Matra-Cosworth. I was all for it, but Ferrari said no, so Ken put Johnny Servoz-Gavin in the car – and he stuck it on the front row!

“I went to Monaco, anyway, and spent an enjoyable weekend on a yacht with ‘Charlie Luke’ [Charles Lucas] & co, but I was so pissed off not to be driving. In the Ferrari – or the Matra, come to that – I’d have happily taken anyone on around there.”

A fortnight later came the Belgian Grand Prix at Amon’s beloved Spa, where his car was fitted for the first time with a primitive rear wing. “It didn’t make a huge difference to the grip, but it certainly made the car feel more stable – I was on pole by almost four seconds…

“There’s no way I shouldn’t have won that race. I got a good start, and led by 150 yards at the end of the first lap, with Surtees behind me. I thought I was going to quietly disappear, but at Burnenville on the second lap I came up on Jo Bonnier, who was tooling along at about 10mph, with a wheel hanging off. I had to back right off, which allowed Surtees to get a tow on the long climb towards the end of the lap. He came by me, and there was nothing I could do about it.

“The problem I had now was that the Honda easily had the legs of the Ferrari on power, and every time I pulled out of the tow I fell back. All I could do was keep the pressure on, but on lap eight the Honda flicked up a stone, which pierced my oil cooler.

“Of all places, this happened at the Masta Kink – immediately I got oil on my rear tyres, and what happened next was one of the most horrific experiences I ever had. I came out of the kink sideways – at close to 180mph, I suppose – and I’ve no idea how I got the thing back. After that, all I could do was park it. I was furious that day! If it hadn’t been for Bonnier, I don’t think anyone would have seen me...”

Zandvoort brought another pole position, but race day was wet. “In practice only Rindt’s Brabham was anywhere near me, and if it had been dry I think I could have won,” said Amon, who eventually finished sixth, “but the Firestone wets were hopeless, particularly compared with the Dunlops on the Matras.”

There was more rain at Rouen, and here Ferrari opted to hedge its bets, starting Amon on intermediates, Ickx on full wets – which the conditions swiftly demanded. “Jacky won, while I slithered around on the inters, then had to make a stop when I got a puncture.

“Again, it was ‘the seventh of the month’. The weekend we were at Spa Scarfiotti had been killed in a hillclimb, and now it happened to Jo Schlesser when his engine seized, and he went off into a bank. His car pretty much exploded, and fuel – which ran all across the track – then ignited, so for several laps we were driving through flames. Just an awful bloody day…”

For all the tribulation and tragedy, Amon fundamentally loved life as a Ferrari driver, enjoyed living in Modena, testing something at the autodromo most days.

“It certainly wasn’t like driving for anyone else! I’d test all morning, then have lunch with the Old Man – and there was always wine with the pasta. One day I realised we’d each had a bottle of Lambrusco, and Ferrari said, ‘Good – you’ll go faster this afternoon!’ And I did, too, believe it or not…”

At Brands Hatch, on his 25th birthday, Amon was on the front row with the Lotuses. “Out of the slow corners we were blown off by the Cosworths, as usual – I managed to get ahead of Siffert for a few laps, but then he got me back. I was absolutely balls out the whole way, and in the last few laps ran out of rubber. The Ferrari people were annoyed, although they were more understanding when they saw the tyres.

“By now almost everyone was running wings, and Forghieri had decided that the best place for a wing was in the middle of the car: that wiped out a lot of the advantage we would have had. I’ll always believe that if we’d had a bigger wing – and at the back of the car – we might well have won at Brands. As it was, I was second.

“For the Nürburgring I had pretty high hopes because I’d tested there, and broken the eight-minute barrier for the first time. When we arrived on the Thursday, the weather was beautiful, but the following morning it was raining – I did my first lap relatively gently, and that was second on the grid! Ickx did his a bit more frantically, and got pole.

“Before the race I remember Forghieri and Franco Gozzi saying, ‘It’s wet – so get as good a start as you can, and hold the rest up so Ickx can get away…’ Because of Rouen, I guess they’d lost faith in my wet-weather driving! I didn’t say very much, but when the flag dropped I got on with it – and Ickx was never within half a mile of me. I was behind Hill the whole way, and never saw anything but spray and fog – there was no point in worrying about aquaplaning on puddles because I couldn’t see the bloody puddles!

“In the rain some days you’re switched on, and some you’re not – well, I am, anyway – and that day I was on it: I can remember holding some tremendous slides, and watching my hands doing it – they were all I could see! With a couple of laps to go, I pulled out to pass Graham coming by the pits, and the car got sideways; then, coming out of the north curve, it felt very strange, and into the next left-hander it just swapped ends – the diff had packed up.

“Everyone hailed Stewart’s win as the drive of the century, but – as at Zandvoort – the Dunlop wets were far superior to the Firestones. When Jackie came past me on the first lap, I couldn’t believe how much more grip he had. Whatever, that was another one gone, another one I felt, had it been dry, I could have won – if the diff had lasted, of course…

“For Monza we thought we’d got everything right. The engine was still down on power, but I was on the front row, with Surtees and McLaren. It was like so many circuits that year – on my own I could lap faster than anyone else, although whether or not I’d have ever have been able to break the tow is another question.

“At Monza we had these hydraulically operated wings, so you could flatten it on the straights by holding a button, then put it down again for the corners. This was Forghieri’s brainchild, and although we were still too slow in a straight line, it certainly helped.

“In the early laps I was running second behind Bruce when the system suddenly sprang a leak, putting hydraulic fluid on to the rear tyres. This was at the second Lesmo, and I spun, hit the barrier – and somersaulted over it, into the trees.

“Surtees also hit the fence, trying to miss me, and I remember him peering anxiously at me, asking if I was all right. In fact, I didn’t have a scratch – it sort of defied explanation, and I’ve been known to mention it when people go on about how unlucky I am!

“So many people were killed that year, and Derek Bell – who was walking back – saw the shunt, and was sure I was now one of them. When I caught up with him, and tapped him on the shoulder, he nearly fainted! I didn’t have so much as a bruise, and how fortunate I was: it was only at the ’Ring that Ferrari had started putting seat belts in the cars…”

The accident, massive as it was, left no lingering after-effects. Far from it, in fact: two weeks later, in Canada, Amon was utterly dominant – until the Ferrari failed again.

“It was the same bloody performance. St Jovite was a circuit I adored, and I shared fastest time with Rindt, then led from the start, and although Siffert gave me quite a hard time for a few laps, once we’d burned off some of the fuel load I was able to pull away. The clutch disappeared after about 10 laps, but that day was so easy you can’t believe it – I was a minute ahead when the gearbox broke with 18 laps to go, presumably because of all the clutchless changes…”

That left only Watkins Glen, where Chris was fourth on the grid, but retired with a broken water pipe, and Mexico City, where he qualified second, and went out with water pump failure. At the end of a season, in which he had qualified on the front row – including three pole positions – eight times in 11 races, Amon had finished but four times, only once on the podium. In the final point standings he was 10th.

In his magazine Sport Auto, though, Jabby Crombac entitled his season review ‘Amon – champion sans couronne’. “That was nice of Jabby,” Chris smiled, “but the fact is, he’s right – I was without a crown! If all had gone as it should, I think I’d have won the championship quite easily in ’68.”

His team-mate was of the same opinion. “When I was first at Ferrari,” said Ickx, “I was with Chris, and he was a hero to me.
We didn’t have the fastest car, but the team was a very happy one.

“Enzo Ferrari loved Chris, and I understood why. Such a lovely guy, friendly, always willing to give you information and help – and such a beautiful driver. It seemed so easy for him – he had poles, led races, but somehow never won one, always because the car let him down.

“I’d only been in the team for a few races when I won at Rouen, and although I was happy I also felt guilty, because it should have been Chris winning – he was much faster than me, and he should have been world champion that year…”

***

In 1969 there was more of the same: after Amon beat Rindt to the Tasman Championship, his F1 fortunes picked up where they had left off. At Barcelona he was leading Stewart by a minute when his engine seized, and at Monaco was running second to JYS – who later retired, for once – when the Ferrari’s differential failed. 

“People have talked about Clermont with the Matra, and certainly that was one of my better days, but actually I think I reached a personal peak round about the time of Barcelona in ’69 – I’d briefly given up smoking, and remember feeling particularly sharp at that race. Because of everything that happened after that, in terms of being quick I don’t think I ever consistently got back to that point…” At Zandvoort the car held together for once, but Chris’s four points for third were to be his lot for the year: at Clermont his engine seized, and at Silverstone the gearbox broke.

This, as it turned out, was Amon’s last Grand Prix in a Ferrari. “By now, as well as being unreliable, the car was uncompetitive, and the team essentially pulled out, to concentrate on the new car for 1970. I was in two minds about what to do. I was getting this siren song from Max Mosley, then setting up March with Robin Herd, who I knew from my McLaren days. They were proposing a one-car team, with a sophisticated car and a big retainer – ha!

“As soon as I started testing the 312B I knew that – even though I’d become obsessed with having a DFV – the new flat-12 was the answer, in terms of horsepower. But it kept breaking – and I’m talking about fundamental things, like cranks! One day I just thought, ‘I’ve had it…’

“My relationship with Ferrari was always good, and he was very upset when I left – I’d said I was going to drive for him in ’70, then changed my mind. When I told him about March, he said, ‘What do you know about these people? If you stay here, with our new car you will be world champion – if you leave, I’ll win a race before you do…’

“He was right, wasn’t he? The March 701 turned out to be ordinary at best – and by mid-season in ’70 the flat-12 Ferrari was the car to have! In all honesty I regretted leaving Ferrari almost immediately,
and I guess I have done ever since…”

As Niki Lauda said in his tribute, Chris Amon was “Unbelievably quick – one of the best ever…” Looking back now, and lamenting his loss, it doesn’t seem to matter very much that he never won a GP. And at a time like this, halos and tokens and track limits matter even less.