Motorsport: Kiwi Legend looks back at Le Mans

By Eric Thompson

Chris Amon talks to Eric Thompson of the glory days

Chris Amon (above and below) won at Le Mans in 1966. Picture / NZPA
Chris Amon (above and below) won at Le Mans in 1966. Picture / NZPA

Young gun Brendon Hartley's just starting out at Le Mans -- but Kiwi racing legend Chris Amon knows the circuit like the back of his hand after 11 times competing there, including one win.

As you read this, Hartley will be contemplating how he's going to negotiate the challenging Circuit de la Sarthe for 24 hours during the 82nd running of the legendary race.

He and his co-pilots, former Red Bull Racing Formula 1 driver Mark Webber and 2010 Le Mans 24 Hour winner Timo Bernard, will be in control of the number 20 Porsche 919 Hybrid LMP1 on the German manufacturer's return to the great race.

Drivers in the oldest endurance race in the world will cover over 5000km at a pace that defies belief. Physical fitness, concentration, race craft and a healthy dose of luck are all required to get to the end, but to win the race is something else.

Only two Kiwis know the feeling of standing on the top spot after 24 hours of thundering around the roads of the French town of Le Mans. Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren crossed the line ahead of the pack in 1966 in a seven-litre Ford GT40 to claim New Zealand's first and only win.

The ex-Ferrari Formula 1 driver raced at Le Mans 11 times and has a 100 per cent winning record -- when he finished. Driven spoke to Amon about his memories and thoughts from his time at the circuit.

"The 24 Hours was one of those races you never really looked forward to but once you got there the atmosphere was great. It has an aura all of its own," said Amon. "It's a marvellous event and after F1 it's my favourite sort of racing [endurance].

"A lot of things have changed since my days of racing at Le Mans. Back then 50 per cent of the field were real contenders. However, it's going to be interesting this weekend as the things are bloody quick with nearly 1000 horsepower."

The circuit had one of the longest straights of any track in the world at a tad over 6km. In 1990 the FIA declared any straight over 2km was too dangerous, so two chicanes were introduced on to the Mulsanne Straight. Back in the day Amon and company had to negotiate the entire 6km with the throttle to the floor.

"I can remember my first time at Le Mans in 1963 as a reserve driver for the Roots Group in Sunbeam Alpines. The major topic of conversation at debrief time between the drivers was if the ashtray was big enough.

"I don't think anyone really wanted to smoke, but with only a top speed of 200km/h it took more than two minutes to go down the straight. The problem with that was, you then had other stuff blasting past you going 130km/h faster.

"The speed differentials were a problem then and still are today. You have to rely on the slower car knowing there's something a lot quicker coming up fast. Especially if it's raining it gets a bit scary.

24 Hours of LeMans, LeMans, France, 1966. Chris Amon/Bruce McLaren Shelby American race winning Ford Mark II. GT40
24 Hours of LeMans, LeMans, France, 1966. Chris Amon/Bruce McLaren Shelby American race winning Ford Mark II. GT40


"When we won in 1966 it rained for about 45 per cent of the race and at night we were doing about 370km/h with closing speeds of 160km/h on some of the slower cars -- in the wet. It made for some interesting moments," said Amon.

Despite finishing only one race Amon has a lot of fond memories of Le Mans. He described it as a bit of a love/hate relationship, but one he relished all the same. Amon was 22 years old when he won with McLaren, two years younger than Hartley is now. The difference, however, is that Amon was three years into his F1 career and his fourth time at Le Mans. But there is a certain symmetry -- Hartley first raced at Le Mans when he was 22 and spent some time in Formula 1 as an official reserve driver.

"I used to think, 'Oh Christ, Le Mans is coming up again,' and not really be looking forward to it. But once I got there I changed my tune. It's like the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix with so much tradition and atmosphere," said Amon.

"It's a pretty special place and I wish Brendon Hartley all the best."

Eric Thompson will be reporting live on Hartley and the races from Le Mans, courtesy of Porsche NZ.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 02 Oct 2014 15:25:34 Processing Time: 640ms