Chris Amon (b. 1943) - New Zealands Unluckiest Racer

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Chris Amon (b. 1943) - New Zealands Unluckiest Racer

Chris Amon
CHRIS AMON drove in his first international Formula One race in 1963 and tried for many seasons to notch his first elusive victory. Time and again he would prove to be the equal of his contemporaries, would set pole positions and lead Grands Prix.

And every single time luck, fate, call it what you will, intervened. Amon had driven for many top teams - Ferrari, McLaren, Matra, March, Tyrrell and Ensign - but somehow had an uncanny knack of leaving them when things were just about to turn right.

It is easy to judge in hindsight, and while we might pour over the statistics here at Unique Cars and Parts while we compile another driver review - it does seem evident that he took advice from hangers on and spurned the help of genuine, well informed friends. What is so difficult to fathom is that Amon was a driver who, on his day, had the natural skill and ability to lead a race with his equals - but the race results do not reflect the driving genius that he was.

Take the 1972 French Grand Prix for instance, held at Clermont-Ferrand, one of the world's most challenging circuits. There was no one to catch Amon in the screaming, blue Matra that day yet, with a handsome lead, he sustained a puncture. The wheel was changed and he stormed back through the field to snatch third place and repeatedly break the lap record. But the chance of that first win was lost again.

Christopher Arthur Amon was born the son of a well-off farming couple in the New Zealand town of Bulls on 20 July 1943. As a boy, he read every motoring magazine he could lay his hands on and was soon an enthusiastic spectator at the local Levin race track. When he was eleven he was motoring about the farm, skidding a 10 cwt Ford truck around the fields.

From Cooper-Climax to Maserati 250Fs

At the Wanganui boarding school, which he attended, he logged up thirty-one hours flying time by the age of fifteen. Motor racing was his one ambition and by the time he was sixteen, he had his own racing car, a tuned-up Austin A40 which, for some strange reason, had a Bugatti gearbox. In one of his first races at Levin, he led until the engine blew up. His father wanted him to go to agricultural college, but Chris wasn't keen and stayed at home to gain practical farming experience and carry on motor racing.

Spotted by Reg Parnell

Soon, he had acquired a 1500 cc, rear-engined, Formula Two Cooper-Climax, which brought some success, and this gave way to one of the fabulous Maserati 250Fs. Amon reckons that car taught him more about racing and race-driving than anything else before or since. Aged seventeen, he showed his natural ability by driving the Maserati in the style of Fangio, but it wasn't long before a 2½-litre Cooper replaced this car. It was while racing the Cooper in the 1963 Tasman Series that he was spotted by Reg Parnell. The famous team manager was convinced Amon was a champion in the making and he signed him up to drive in Europe that summer. Chris was still a teenager when he drove one of Parnell's Lola Formula One cars to a superb fifth place at the Goodwood Easter Monday meeting.

From there, he was flung right into Grand Prix racing. It was an eventful first year. He finished seventh in two Grands Prix, crashed and narrowly escaped death at the Nurburgring when the steering broke, and had his entry for Le Mans turned down as the organisers considered him too young. The following winter, sadly, Reg Parnell died and his son Tim took over the running of the outfit. Tim ran three cars altogether for Amon, Mike Hailwood and Peter Revson and the three drivers shared a riotous flat which was noteworthy more for its parties than its cleanliness. Amon did manage to pick up his first World Championship point with a fifth place at the 1964 Dutch Grand Prix and his practice times were invariably impressive. By the end of that year, Chris was thinking of packing up and returning to sheep farming in New Zealand.

Bruce McLaren Sees The Young Drivers Potential

However, fellow New Zealander Bruce McLaren thought that Chris had the ability to succeed if this ability could be properly harnessed, so he offered him a contract with the McLaren Organization. He buckled down to a programme of tyre testing for Firestone, with various new McLaren models, and he also had some races in the Elva McLaren Mk8 z-Iitre sports car. He drove a works Ford at Le Mans and led for the first hour. Unfortunately, Chris took part in only two Grands Prix in 1965 and retired his Lotus-BRM on both occasions. However, he learned a lot in that year. The plan for 1966 was for him to drive along- side Bruce McLaren in the new McLaren Formula One effort, but the team's idea of using linered down Indianapolis Ford V8 engines was a dismal failure and Chris found himself on the Grand Prix sidelines again although he finished eighth for Cooper in the French Grand Prix.

Picked Up By Ferrari

On the sports car scene, everything was much brighter and the high point of the year was winning Le Mans in a big 7-litre Ford Mk 2 along with Bruce McLaren. He was fifth at Spa and Daytona and also had a fantastic dice with John Surtees in the Guards Trophy, Group Seven race, at Brands Hatch. Chris was back to a full-time Grand Prix career in 1967, when Firestone persuaded Ferrari to give him a trial which led to a regular drive. He started the season by finishing third in South Africa and he was similarly placed at Monaco, but the team tragically lost Lorenzo Bandini in an accident at this event, while two races later another team mate, Mike Parkes, crashed and has never raced in Formula One again. Amon found himself the Ferrari team leader and at the end of the season had amassed enough points to be placed fourth in the World Championship - the highest he has ever finished. There were disappointments too: he was robbed of second place in Mexico when the car ran out of fuel. On the sports car front, he and Bandini won Daytona and Monza in a Ferrari P4.

Chris Amon in the V12 Ferrari during the 1967 Monaco GP
Chris Amon in the V12 Ferrari during the 1967 Monaco GP,
the race in which Bandini was killed.

Chris Amon in the March 701 at Brands Hatch
Chris Amon in the March 701 at Brands Hatch.

Chris Amon driving the all-French Matra in 1972
Chris Amon driving the all-French Matra in 1972.
In 1968 high spots included him leading the Spanish Grand Prix, only to retire with fuel-pump trouble, and a superb second place at the British Grand Prix, but then there was little else of note until the Canadian Grand Prix, where he was leading by over a minute when the transmission failed. That winter, using one of Ferrari's Formula Two cars, specially fitted with a 2.6-litre V6 engine, Chris cleaned up the Tasman Series with a team he ran himself.

The V12 Ferrari On Terms With The Cosworth V8

For 1969, things looked much more promising, as Ferrari had developed more power from the V12 engine and looked as if they would be back on terms with Cosworth V8-engined cars. In the second Grand Prix of the year, at the tricky Montjuich circuit in Barcelona, Amon looked all set for victory after Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt crashed spectacularly at the same spot. He had a huge lead, but the engine blew up and victory slipped from his grasp yet again. Later in the year, the car became progressively less competitive and, apart from a third place at Zandvoort, there was nothing to show for his efforts and he asked to be released from his obligations.

Amon Joins March

Towards the end of 1969, he started negotiations with March Engineering, which was at the formative stage; director/designer Robin Herd was a firm friend from the old McLaren days. After Jochen Rindt severed his connection with the project in its very early days, Amon was offered the number one drive for the team and decided to leave Ferrari. He was somewhat upset when March sold a car to Ken Tyrrell for Jackie Stewart to race, but the season started well with a front-row grid position in South Africa. At the International Trophy meeting of that year, Amon had a fantastic dice with Stewart's similar car and beat him fair and square to record his first-ever Formula One victory. He started from the front row of the grid, alongside Stewart, at Monaco and led that race for some la ps, only to be forced to retire.

Amon Joins Matra

In the Belgian Grand Prix, he traded the lead with Pedro Rodriquez, around the ultra-fast Spa track, and was beaten by inches; he also finished second in the French Grand Prix. The March 701 was heavily criticised in some quarters and Amon, easily affected by other people's impressions, became disenchanted with the set-up. Even so, he ended the season with third place in Canada, fifth in the USA and fourth in Mexico. March desperately wanted to hang on to his services, despite his occasional moods and tantrums, but the French Matra team came up with a financial offer he simply could not refuse.

Amon celebrated joining them with an easy win in the 1971 non-championship Argentine Grand Prix. It seemed he had made the right decision at last, but the Matra had flattered to deceive and the best Championship result all season was third in Spain, although Chris looked certain to win the Italian Grand Prix. With only a few laps left, he lost his visor and was forced to drop back.

For 1972, he decided to stay with Matra again, but the French fortunes hardly improved-even though the team was now only running a single car. The car was very unreliable and seemed to have a habit of developing trouble on the start line. There were high spots like Clermont 'Ferrand and Monza. In the Italian Grand Prix, he seemed poised for that elusive win again, only to have a brake fault halt his progress. During the season he picked up only eleven championship points. His new Formula Two engine business, which he had started with Aubrey Woods, lost a lot of money. Towards the end of the year, Matra indicated they would be concentrating on sports car racing in 1973 and would not run a Formula One car, so Amon decided to look around for another drive. BRM offered him a very lucrative contract, but he turned it down and decided to return to March.

Max Mosley Fires Amon

Somehow, during the winter when Amon was back home in New Zealand, the whole idea turned sour and March boss Max Mosley announced he had dismissed Amon from the team. A lot of press statements were issued, which hardly illuminated the problem apart from the fact that it was about money. One thing was certain, both Amon and March were the losers. It almost looked as if Amon was going to be left out of a Formula One seat altogether, but then the little Italian Tecno firm, whose Formula prospects were not particularly bright, for in their first year of Grand Prix racing, Tecno had shown very little promise and had failed to pick up a single Championship point with drivers Derek Bell and Nanni Galli. However, for 1973, there was a choice of two new chassis and a more reliable engine. Amon also had several very lucrative drives lined-up in a BMW saloon.

Jackie Stewart And Chris Amon Withdraw In Respect To The Death Of Tyrrell team mate Francois Cevert

The new Tecno Grand Prix project was not ready until the Spanish Grand Prix and even then things didn't go right. Neither car was successful and after the Italian Grand Prix, which Tecno missed, Martini, together with Amon, ceased their association with the team, allowing Chris to drive for Tyrrell in the Canadian and American Grands Prix. In Canada, Amon was on the sixth row of the grid in Tyrrell 005. After a pit-stop to change tyres, a pace car coming onto the circuit in front of the wrong car after an accident, and a faulty throttle cable, he could manage no better than tenth place. Practice for the US Grand Prix saw the death of Tyrrell team mate Francois Cevert, so Chris and Jackie Stewart decided to withdraw from the race as a mark of respect.

Building His Own Car

In 1974 Amon went the way of Brabham and McLaren to build his own Formula One car. Almost predictably the project was a disaster, both financially and mechanically. 1975 saw Amon abandoning his own car and joining Mo Nunn's Ensign team for the last three races of the championship series. After twelfth places in Austria and Italy he severely injured his foot in a road accident, just a week before the US Grand Prix. Eventually Amon fought back to fitness and in mid-1976 he rejoined forces with Ensign. In spite of shoe-string finance, Amon made the brilliantly simple N 176 fly, confirming all the old talent.

In Spain he finished fourth and in Belgium was as quick as any of the Ford runners until a huge accident destroyed the car - but not Chris's enthusiasm. Two weeks later the team was back in business at Monaco where Amonfinished thirteenth. The position was an unlucky portent for the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp where another enormous accident again wrecked the car while Chris was well placed. His injuries, though relatively minor, were enough to keep him out of action for several Grands Prix. With almost 100 Grands Prix under his belt Amon still seeks that elusive win. When it comes, and it surely must, it will be immensely popular with competitors and enthusiasts alike - and it will be all the sweeter for the waiting.

Retirement From F1, And An Attempt At CanAm

Amon turned down an offer of a fulltime F1 drive for 1977, but did attempt a return to CanAm racing in 1977 with a Wolf-Dallara WD1. However, after only one race he quit, saying "I'm just not enjoying this anymore". His place was taken by the young and then unknown Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, whom Amon would later that year recommend to Enzo Ferrari. In the meantime, Amon returned once again to New Zealand, this time to retire from F1 motor racing for good.

After his retirement from F1, Amon dedicated himself to running the family farm in New Zealand's Manawatu District for many years. Nowadays he is retired and lives in the lakeside town of Taupo in New Zealand's North Island. In the early 1980s he became more well-known in New Zealand from test-driving vehicles on the TV motoring series Motor Show and later consulted for Toyota New Zealand, tuning the 1984 Toyota Corolla and subsequent cars for sale there. He also appeared in TV commercials for the company, where much was made of the acclaim he won from Enzo Ferrari. More recently, Chris Amon was involved in the design of the upgraded Taupo Motorsport Park circuit, used for the New Zealand round of the 2006-07 A1 Grand Prix season in January 2007.
The 1976 Ensign at Anderstorp, Sweden
The 1976 Ensign at Anderstorp, Sweden.
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