Motorsport: On the Hot Seat - Chris Amon

By Dale Budge

Chris Amon before the start of the British Grand Prix 18th July 1970. Photo / Getty Images
Chris Amon before the start of the British Grand Prix 18th July 1970. Photo / Getty Images

It was extremely fitting that Fernando Alonso was able to pilot his McLaren to a season-best fifth place at the weekend's Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Some 50 years earlier a McLaren first started a Formula 1 Grand Prix - the 1966 Monaco race was the start of a sporting legacy. One of the most famous brands in world sport, to this day, carries the name of an iconic New Zealander - Bruce McLaren. Aucklander McLaren started his Formula 1 team in the early 1960s and, even after his tragic death in 1970, it has withstood the test of time. The second oldest team (behind Ferrari) in Formula 1 history has collected 182 race wins, 12 drivers' championships and eight manufacturer championships along the way.

McLaren's friend and countryman Chris Amon drove for the team in those early days. He recalls fondly the work that went into establishing the team and laying the platforms for one of New Zealand's great sporting stories.

It is fitting that he be the first guest to feature on's Hot Seat.

Amon, now 72, is a legend himself. The last remaining figure of New Zealand's golden era of motor racing from the 1960s is widely considered to be the greatest driver never to win a Formula 1 race.

Brought up on a farm near the small North Island town of Bulls, Amon says he has always had a connection to cars.

"One of the factors that counted towards it was that I grew up on the farm and learnt to drive at a very young age - six or seven or eight," he explains to the New Zealand Herald. "I would be sliding my father's old ute around the paddocks. I had a fascination with driving very early on.

"I didn't really contemplate going motor racing but in those days you could pick up old cars that were lying under old tree lines and things on farms for next to nothing so I became a bit of a mechanical tinkerer as well.

"By the time I was maybe 10 or 11 I suddenly started seeing the odd motor racing magazine. That kindled my interest, reading the odd report. I guess as time went by - I thought I liked driving and it would be nice to compete in the odd event. I didn't really think about circuit racing as such. I looked more at the odd hill climb event.

"My ambitions developed and by the time I left school I joined a car club and started to do the odd event such as a sprint or a hill climb. Things really went from there."

Amon left New Zealand on a whim and wasn't expecting to be away for long but things fell into place and his talent became obvious, opening doors along the way. He carved out an extremely successful career in the sport's most elite class almost by chance.

"I would like to say I had a well-planned career but it was very much a case of deciding to do just one thing once and then thinking it would be nice to do something else so I started thinking about doing a circuit race. I kept thinking if I did one I would be satisfied. Then I thought it would be nice to do a couple of the North Island circuit races and then I thought it would be nice to do the full series around New Zealand. Then it was off to do a couple of races in Australia. I got the opportunity to go to Europe and I thought it would be marvellous to do a season up there but 15 years later I finally came back to New Zealand.

"One of the huge advantages we had in those days over the guys now is that people like myself at the age of 16 or 17 was able to get on the grid with established Formula 1 drivers who came over here to escape the European winter. I was very much making up numbers but I was able to sit on the same grid as Stirling Moss or Jack Brabham and guys like that. It gave me a chance to show off what talent I had.

"The season I did here in New Zealand with the 250F Maserati - the 1962 season - I was spotted I think initially by one of the team managers Reg Parnell, who was impressed with the way I was driving. When he came back the following year I was actually able to nibble away and run with some of the established drivers."

Amon was hired to drive with Parnell's Formula 1 team, making his debut on the streets of Monaco in 1963. These were the glory years of Formula 1, with some of the most famous names in the sport at the height of their powers. Amon's career started with the bad luck that would follow throughout his time in the sport, his more fancied teammate's car developed a misfire and he was forced to relinquish his seat for the more experienced teammate as was the common trend in those days.

"I think one of the problems I had was I went from here straight into Formula 1 in Europe and suddenly I was racing against all these guys I had been reading about for years, who were my heroes," Amon explains. "I was a little bit overwhelmed because I questioned whether I should have been competing against these guys. It took me a little while to get used to the fact I was in amongst it all.

"It was a very different scene to what it is now. We didn't have the same commercial pressure that there is today. In terms of the lifestyle it probably isn't too different to what it is now. The physical training is different. If you look at the current drivers they are straight up and down because they have power-steering. They are all superbly fit and do a lot of running, biking and gym work whereas in our day we didn't have power-steering and the cars were very hot. We had to be fit but our fitness was very different - we had much more physical upper body development than these guys do because turning the steering wheel requires about 10 times what goes into it today."

The golden era of Formula 1 was in full swing in the 60s and Amon found the social aspects to his liking. He was racing in a time where drivers were seen as super stars because of their dare devil nature. This was a time when accidents had serious consequences. Drivers often missed races as a result of injury and fatalities were a common thing.

"I think the simple answer is that we didn't know any different," Amon replies when asked about risking his life to drive cars. "I have got to say looking back on it some of the stuff was crazy. If you wanted to race that was how it was. It was like someone crossing the road and getting hit by a car - it was always going to happen to someone else. I guess it was there to a degree in the subconscious. I think when you are starting out you feel you are a bit more bulletproof. I think it is wonderful today that it is so much safer now."
Many astute judges nominate Amon as the greatest driver never to win a Formula 1 race.
"I actually find that quite frustrating," Amon admits. "There were a number of grand prix that I had led but had things going wrong. I did spend a good percentage of my career driving cars that were probably going to be less reliable than some of the other cars. I guess my chances for mechanical problem was greater. It was frustrating and as the years went by it became more frustrating.

"A lot of people have said to me or written to me about how unlucky I was. In terms of results I certainly was but my standard reply to that is that I may have been unlucky in results but in such an era I am lucky to be around still. I don't like the bad luck inference - so many of the so-called lucky ones aren't with us anymore."

Amon raced alongside all of the greats of the 1960s and 70s - Jackie Stewart, John Surtees, Mario Andretti, Nicki Lauda, Jack Brabham, Emerson Fittipaldi, Graham Hill - but he nominates one of those so-called lucky drivers as the best he ever saw.

"Jim Clark would be my number one choice. Stirling Moss unfortunately had his accident the year before I got into Formula 1. I think he would have been another one I would have put on that level. Certainly of the guys I raced against Jim Clark was the exception."

Having been there first-hand to see the accident that killed Clark and so many other elite drivers die behind the wheel, Amon announced his retirement in 1976 following the sickening accident that Lauda suffered at the German Grand Prix. He was quoted at the time saying: "I'd seen too many people fried in racing cars at that stage. When you've driven past Bandini, Schlesser, Courage and Williamson, another shunt like that was simply too much. It was a personal decision..."

Amon's passion for the sport saw him remain involved in one capacity or other even into the 2000s. He still enjoys the sport and his sharp mind is on show when speaking about Formula 1 of today.

"I'm not sure I am as passionate as I was but I certainly follow it all," Amon says. "I record all the practice sessions and qualifying and even races these days - I don't get up to watch them live anymore. I am certainly interested both from the competitor point of view but also the technical point of view too. That was something that always interested me when I was racing - the development side of things.

"There are a lot of directions that current Formula 1 has taken that I don't agree with. I think the aerodynamic side is ridiculous. I have always felt that Formula 1 should have some relevance to road car development. There are parts of it that have no road car relevance at all. I am probably referring mostly to the aerodynamic side of it there. If you look at these front wings that channel the air under the car and all over the place - they have got 30 bits to them - I think that is ridiculous stuff. The problem is the aerodynamics has become one of the few areas of development they are allowed to play with as the rules have become stricter. I think about 80 percent of the development that goes into a Formula 1 car now is aerodynamics.

"The additional negative to that is the more aerodynamics you have the less likely you are to be able to follow and pass the car in front of you. It alarms me that the regulations for next year allow for more aerodynamics. To counter that they come up with all these artificial means of passing like the DRS and all that sort of thing. It becomes a self-consuming thing."

Amon, McLaren and 1967 world champion Denny Hulme helped put New Zealand motorsport on the map in the 1960s and it has long been considered the golden era of the sport here. But with the international success of Kiwi drivers Scott Dixon (Indycars), Hayden Paddon (WRC), Mitch Evans (GP2), Earl Bamber (Sports Cars), Richie Stanaway (GP2 and Sports Cars), Brendon Hartley (Sports Cars), Shane van Gisbergen (V8s), Fabian Coulthard (V8s) and Scott McLaughlin (V8s), New Zealand appears on the cusp of an equally golden era much to Amon's pleasure.

"I think we have got some tremendous talent out there. Most of those guys, given an opportunity in Formula 1, I'm sure would equip themselves very well. The tragedy is they are not, by and large, going to get the chance and that is the real shame. Talent-wise we have never had so much talent as we do today."

- NZ Herald

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