Chris Amon – A brief history
A Brief History of a Great Driver
By Michael Clark
The talent was evident when he was barely out of school. Driving a Maserati 250F at the age of 18 in his first New Zealand Grand Prix in pouring rain gave him a taste for oversteer that would never leave him. The chance came to race in Europe a year later, and two days after arriving he a saw his first F1 race – and he was in it! Soon after he became one of the few teenagers to start an F1 World Championship Grand Prix. His initial success was away from F1 – endurance sports cars and Can-Amtype big-bangers: he always excelled when horsepower exceeded grip.
In 1966 his relationship with Bruce McLaren meant Ford paired them for Le Mans and their ‘all-black’ GT40 headed home a Ford 1-2-3, fellow Kiwi Denny Hulme sharing the second-placed car. There was little going for Amon in F1 that year but he and McLaren mounted a strong two- car team in the inaugural Can-Am championship. Ferrari, no less, had noticed, and things got off to a perfect start when Amon won the 1967 Daytona 24-hours. In his first Grand Prix for Ferrari, Amon was third on a day when compatriot Hulme won but team-mate Lorenzo Bandini crashed and later died. The Kiwi was promoted to team leader, a position he held for three years – arguably the happiest and most frustrating of his career. In 1968, if points had been awarded for grid positions, Amon would have been crowned World Champion with a race to spare. As it was, despite the numerous laps led and pole positions, all he had to show was a second place on the day of his 25th birthday in the British Grand Prix.
Chris started 1969 by winning the Tasman Championship in a Ferrari 246T but by mid-year he was watching the Ford Cosworth V8-powered cars of Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt – the two drivers he considered his closest rivals – dominate as his V12 Ferrari languished. He left Ferrari, a decision he regretted almost immediately. In 1970 he again led races in the March 701-1 but still his maiden F1 win hadn’t come. He spent the next two years with the French Matra team, but it was frustratingly similar to Ferrari – wonderful chassis, fantastic noise, no power. He led the 1972 French Grand Prix by a massive margin – surely this was his day – until a tyre went flat. He was 29 but had virtually given up hope of ever winning an F1 race. He even tried building his own car, the Amon AF1-01, in 1974, and in 1975 astonished the F1 fraternity by agreeing to drive an Ensign … and he made it talk. He put the car on the second row of grid for the 1976 British Grand Prix – unheard of for the tiny team. There was no doubt the skill was still there, but it turned out to be his penultimate GP and within a month he’d driven his final F1 race. It had been a career of ‘what might have been’. He became known as the unluckiest F1 driver ever, a tag he is now comfortable with. As Chris himself says: ‘I raced in one of the most dangerous eras in motor racing history where many of my friends and rivals were killed – and I’m still here … I’m the lucky one!’
The farm boy from Bulls, at the age of 34 returned to the farm in 1977, married Tish and started a family. In the quarter of a century in between leaving for boarding school as an eight-year old he’d achieved the unusual feat of getting his pilot’s licence before his driver’s licence, driven in F1 as a teenager, got signed by Enzo Ferrari, and came ever-so-close to re-writing F1 history. In his career Chris drove an enormous range of machinery. Michael Clark has produced a book for the Festival and has managed to get Chris to talk about every car he drove in anger – there are 81 in total! Some will be present at Hampton Downs over the Festival weekends, including:
- the actual Ferrari Dino Chris won his first New Zealand Grand Prix with, in 1968
- the 1970 March 701 that hung on a wall at the famous Donington Collection for nearly 40 years
- the unique Amon AF101 – the pale-blue machine built for Chris in 1974
- a V12 BRM P201, also from 1974
- a Talon MR1A F5000
- a 1964 Shelby Cobra
- arguably his all-time favourite – Maserati’s seminal 250F
- the actual car that started it all in 1960 – the A40 Special, the first Amon racing car.
Source: NZFMR 2011, Tribut to Chris Amon -Page 9