Chris Amon: A legend has left us

Chris Amon, a true great of motorsport whose talent remains the stuff of legend, has died.


CHRIS Amon, who died today aged 73, was the last New Zealander to compete regularly in Formula One, in a 13-year career that ended in 1976.

Back when he started, F1 was almost an amateur game, without the millions of followers or the obscenely big budget.

It seems remarkable to consider now, for instance, that the entire Ferrari team consisted of fewer staff than it now employs simply to build a single engine. Indeed, back then, Ferrari was barely professional in any sense of the word.

Christopher Arthur Amon's story is stuff of Boys' Own legend. Having cut his teeth on a variety of elderly racing cars, including a Maserati 250F now a prized possession of the Southward car museum, he was talent-scouted by visiting English team owner Reg Parnell and went to Europe in 1963, still a teen.

He made his Grand Prix debut at Spa, Belgium, in June of 1963 at the wheel of a Parnell Racing Lola, the youngest ever F1 driver. It was an in-and-out career up until the start of 1967 when he was signed by Ferrari, Enzo’s interest undoubtedly raised after Amon and Bruce McLaren, driving for Ford, ended the Prancing Horse’s domination of the 24-Hours of Le Mans.

There was one season that the drivers' world championship should have been his. This year was 1968.

The world championship was made up of 12 rounds that year, and eight times Amon qualified on the front row. He led, or was well-placed, virtually everywhere it seemed. But it translated into only three finishes in the points, one of which was on the podium, totalling but 10 points at the season's end. This left him a distant tenth in the drivers' standings.

He stayed with the Italian team for three years, in that time giving them the Daytona 24 hour race and 1000km of Monza sports car races, the New Zealand Grand Prix twice, and the Tasman Championship in 1969, all in a Formula 2 Ferrari, the petite Dino V6.

However, frustrated by team politics and the F1 cars' second-rate performance, switched to the fledgling March team in 1970. It was an error; Ferrari's new engine for the following season was a winner.

March, meanwhile, despite having the famous Ford Cosworth DFV that had dominated until then, over-promised and under-delivered.

It was a fiasco. Amon always believed team figurehead Max Mosley, who went on to head the international motorsport body, the FIA, pulled a "con job" in talking him out of another season with Ferrari, making promises that were never kept.

It is a matter of bleak record that Amon's chances of making good in the sport diminished from that time. Today, we remember Bruce McLaren for the F1 team that proudly carries his name; Denny Hulme for taking the world championship in 1967.

And Amon? The man who could have, should have ... but somehow didn't.

Regardless, statistics that show Amon to be winless in F1 do not tell a fair story. Of the three Kiwis, many now say, he was the most naturally gifted.

Parnell certainly saw in young Christopher the qualities of a champion. So too do contemporaries including three-time titleholder Jackie Stewart, who rates Amon as "one of the most skilful and natural drivers" ever to grace the sport.

"Chris was one of the best I ever knew or saw in action. You hear talk of Fangio and Moss and many other greats over the years," the Scot said. "But because Chris didn't win on the Grand Prix circuit, his name may not sit so naturally alongside those of other headliners, but my goodness he was talented."

Ferrari, more easily given to criticism than praise, saw flaws in the New Zealander's character, but had also to concede in the years he drove the red cars, he never achieved the success he deserved.

Victories did come in other classes. The ’66 Le Mans win is remembered by how it came about – but it should also stand for what it also is, a landmark in Ford’s motorsport history. He also almost nabbed BMW's first touring car title and was a Tasman Series champion here.

He also figured in some of the great F1 battles of the period. There were 108 Grand Prix contested. No less than eleven podium placings, five pole positions, three fastest laps. But not one world championship win.

Why that is so is a conundrum. He led races, one by almost a lap, but cruel and sometimes quite bizarre misfortune always ensured he never got to see the flag first.

Already former sportscar team-mate Mario Andretti wry observation that, had Amon gone into the undertaking business, people would have stopped dying is already being over-used.

But the unluckiest man in F1? The tag was always cruel, and no longer has credibility anyway. Others in the modern era have done worse. Consider Andrea de Cesaris, an Italian who contested 208 GPs between 1979 and 1994 with two second places the highest marks of his scorecard.

Cruelly, though, the harder Amon tried in F1, the more elusive his goal became. Many of his later drives are best forgotten; as indeed they often are.

After the teen and twentysomethings triumphs, the quantity of his finishes certainly diminished, but right up until the day he finally cried enough, the quality was still evident, and there is good reason why many rate him as our most talented driver.

I never heard Amon complain about how he should have been a contender. By the mid-1980s, when we first met - me the young motor journalist, he the Toyota-hired talent working with brand engineers to improve its road cars for local condition (he, Bruce Buckland and Ash Rowe, plus others, did a brilliant job) - any bitterness had gone; the ghosts of the past long exorcised.

I sensed he was just glad to be alive, albeit a little battle-scarred. A bad back was the legacy of close calls and crashes, though ironically his most serious accident was in a road car he was a passenger in.

He always told me that he remained mildly astounded to have survived a period when the mortality rate of drivers wasn't that short of the life expectancy of soldiers in wartime.

"They always said I was unlucky, but I suppose, at the end of the day, I'm luckier than a lot of them. I'm still alive."

Amon never sought attention. On return home, he put all his efforts into farming the family property at Scott’s Ferry, seaward of Bulls, a promise kept to his parents.

A remote Rangitikei dairy farm would surely seem about as far as anyone can possibly get from the glamour of F1, and for a long while he kept a distance from any form of motorsport, yet Amon's fans, it seems, refused to forget him.

One incident, perhaps in the late 1990s'. While working in the fields, he was approached by a stranger. In halting English, the man asked if this was "Herr Amon". He then presented the ex-racer with the battered old books he'd been carrying. Hundreds of press clippings, photographs too. 

The books became treasured items. Save for a couple of racing suits and several helmets, one split by the force of a major crash in Belgium, Amon had very few mementoes. F1 was rarely on TV those days, and though every race made headlines, he'd never thought about keeping press clippings.

The German was one of the few to make it in person to Scott's Ferry, but many more found Amon through the internet, including Bill Ford.

You might have heard of him: Runs a car company set up by a forebear more than a century ago. Ford, at least overseas, knew how important Amon was to the making of one of their greatest motorsport moments.

For the past year the Ford family – and the Ford company – tried very hard to get him to Le Mans for the 50th anniversary of the '66 triumph. He would have loved to have gone, not just to do the ‘right thing’ by Ford but also because the car he and Bruce raced was also back at La Sarthe, perfectly restored to its race appearance.

In my last conversation with him, Amon expressed hope he could catch up with the car at the Pebble Beach Concours, in California in November. Again, it was a Ford invite. Low-key, whatever it took.

That would have been brilliant. The guy who achieved his pilot's licence while still attending Wanganui Collegiate and regularly jet-setted when motor-racing had not travelled overseas’ for years.

His last big motorsport-related trip was to attend the famous Goodwood Festival of Speed in England in 1997, to be reunited with a brutal Ferrari Can-Am car he raced with little success in North America. He was dumbfounded at the army of well-wishers that crowded around.

The same adulation occurred when he went to that year’s Australian F1 round as a guest of Toyota. It was the first time he'd been back to "the circus" since retirement. Amon had shunned such opportunities in the past, but since this invitation was from the head of Toyota, he thought he had better go.

Arriving in Melbourne on the Saturday afternoon, after qualifying, he anticipated spending a quiet weekend in the background. It was not to be. When word of his arrival got around the press room, media turned out in force.

"It was a bit embarrassing, really," Amon recalled. "The PR man for the Toyota F1 team told me, half-jokingly, that I'd attracted more interest than the team's two drivers."

Why the interest? His reply - ”buggered if I know really” - was typical Amon. 

Tenacious and brave to the point of occasional recklessness, Amon was also a "clean" racer. Sir Jackie Stewart says he didn't behave badly because he was so skilled.

Even after he stopped racing, Amon remained tied to motorsport in one way or another. Ironically, though he never put in so much as one competition lap at Manfeild, he spent countless hours there and had also been been instrumental in the Feilding track’s design – those banked corners were at his insistence. He was instrumental in the Toyota Racing Series, which competes for a trophy in his name. He was delighted that the NZGP, which he won twice, was contested at Manfeild and argued fiercely for keeping it there.

I always felt deeply honoured to have come to know Chris Amon. In boyhood, he was my racing hero (though I never saw him race). In adult life … well, I tried not to let that admiration show through too much, lest it embarrass him.

He always accepted my interviews and was gracious with his time. I was intensely proud to have done my bit by playing a small part in reuniting Chris with his Maserati 250F, now an extremely valuable artefact owned by the Southward Collection, for some demonstration laps at the 2010 NZGP; those few laps were a fantastic memory – even more special the standing ovation he received on reluctant return to the pits.

Chris Amon is survived by his wife, Tish, and three children – daughter Georgie, and twin sons Alex and James. MotoringNetwork extends its deepest condolences.