Motorsport: 'Bugger this, we'll go for it'

By Jack Barlow

Chris Amon reflects with Jack Barlow on one of Kiwi motorsport's finest 24 hours at a world-famous race..
A jubilant Chris Amon waves to the crowd after he and Bruce McLaren won the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. Photo / AP
A jubilant Chris Amon waves to the crowd after he and Bruce McLaren won the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. Photo / AP

Fifty years ago next Monday, a weary Bruce McLaren led a trio of grimy Ford GT40s across the Le Mans finish line and into the history books.

His come-from-behind victory in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of New Zealand motorsport's finest moments.

There were three New Zealanders on the podium that afternoon: McLaren and co-driver Chris Amon on the top step, and their close friend and 1967 Formula 1 world champion Denny Hulme on the second. Of the three, only Amon is alive, and his memory of the race remains clear.

"It's sort of hard to believe it was 50 years ago," he says, with a laugh. "That's the amazing thing."

The 1966 race wasn't the Kiwi trio's first time at Le Mans. Hulme had made an appearance in 1961, and McLaren and Amon had both raced GT40s for the larger-than-life Carroll Shelby in 1965, albeit with different partners.

Despite demonstrating good pace, neither lasted long - both cars suffered gearbox problems - but they'd discovered their revolutionary GT40s had the speed to beat the previously all-conquering Ferraris. Come 1966, they were paired together. They knew they'd have a good shot at winning if their car could hold together. Their main obstacle was their car's reliability.

"We did the Daytona 24 Hours in February, prior to Le Mans," Amon recalls. "We'd been having the odd issue in testing and I said to Bruce, 'I'm not convinced that if we drive these things hard they're going to finish the 24 hours'."

At Daytona, Amon suggested they stick to a conservative lap time, the idea being to go gently and then pounce when everyone else fell. Their plan came unstuck when all their competitors finished, leaving them a relatively lowly fifth.

"So when we went to Le Mans," Amon says, "both Bruce and I thought, 'Bugger this, instead of being conservative, we'll go for it.'"

Bruce McLaren (left) and Chris Amon on the Le Mans podium with Henry Ford II, builder of their winning car. Phoro / AP
Bruce McLaren (left) and Chris Amon on the Le Mans podium with Henry Ford II, builder of their winning car. Phoro / AP

At 4pm on June 18, 1966, the field roared off through drizzling French rain. Almost immediately, McLaren and Amon hit trouble. Because Firestone provided around 90 per cent of the fledgling McLaren F1 team's income, McLaren and Amon were obliged to forgo their usual Goodyear tyres and run Firestones - with calamitous results.

"I don't know if those tyres had ever been tested at the sorts of speeds we were getting at Le Mans, which were close on 220mph [354km/h]," Amon recalls.

Only a few laps in, McLaren was halfway down the ferociously fast Mulsanne Straight when one of the GT40's tyres threw a tread. He kept the car under control and brought it in to change tyres, but the problem persisted. It kept happening, and after the third blowout, McLaren knew he had to take a gamble.

"He basically said to the Firestone people, 'Look, we either pull the car out of the race or we put some Goodyears on it'," Amon recalls. "Bearing in mind that was the McLaren team's primary source of income, it was a big ask."

To everyone's relief, Firestone agreed, but after 90 minutes the duo had still made three pit stops. No one else had come in.

"We were I don't remember how far behind," Amon recalls, "and I remember Bruce saying, 'From here on in, let's just go for it. We have nothing to lose.'"

After some furious driving through the night, when they were kept on their toes by dodging slower cars, the differences in speed reaching up to 160km/h, they found themselves in the lead.

Fifty years on, Chris Amon has many fond memories of his Le Mans triumph: "It's something I've always treasured." Photo / Janna Dixon
Fifty years on, Chris Amon has many fond memories of his Le Mans triumph: "It's something I've always treasured." Photo / Janna Dixon

Then, just as they had things under control, came a famous mix-up. Seeing their cars running first, second and third, Ford decided to interfere and stage a finish, ordering the drivers to hold station.

"Basically, the last hour or two of the race, we were racing as though it was going to be a dead heat," Amon recalls. "At the end of the race, we were supposed to form up and cross the line in a formation finish, but it didn't end up like that.

"When the sign went out, Bruce slowed, but Ken Miles didn't."

Miles, Hulme's team-mate who was going for the Triple Crown after winning the preceding Daytona and Sebring 24-hour races, passed McLaren. Miffed, McLaren retook the lead and crossed the line just inches ahead of Miles, leading to several minutes of confusion as officials sorted out the final result.

Amon and McLaren had not only finished first but covered more distance, because they had started further back on the grid. Miles, who was killed in testing soon afterwards, was distraught. It's still a controversial topic among racing fans.

Amon, McLaren and Hulme made a happy trio on the podium.

It was a career high point for both McLaren and Amon. McLaren went on to achieve considerable success with his own team in both Can-Am racing and F1. In 1969, he drove his McLaren to third in the F1 championship, adding to his runner-up finish in 1960 and third place in 1962.

Amon won the Daytona 24 Hours and the 1000 Kilometres of Monza in 1967, going on to finish a career-high fourth in that year's F1 championship for Ferrari.

The Le Mans race remains one of Amon's most valued memories.

"It's one of those things that has always stayed with me," he says of Le Mans. "Not just for the fact that we won but that it was something Bruce and I did together, which was great. It's something I've always treasured."

- Herald on Sunday

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