Motor racing legend Chris Amon dies

By Dale Budge

New Zealand lost one of its finest motor racing drivers with the death of Chris Amon today.

He passed away this morning in Rotorua Hospital after a battle with cancer. He was 73.

Along with Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme, Amon formed a three-pronged New Zealand challenge on the tracks of Europe and America who proved Kiwis could indeed fly.

Amon was, on paper, the least successful of the trio who graced the Formula One championship in the sixties and early seventies.

McLaren was highly regarded as a fine driver and engineer - the team he founded is a perennial Formula One favourite - and Hulme won the 1967 Formula One drivers championship.

New Zealand motorsport legend, Chris Amon in 2010. Photo / David Rowland
New Zealand motorsport legend, Chris Amon in 2010. Photo / David Rowland

But fellow drivers and team owners recognised that Amon possessed greater natural talent than McLaren or Hulme for driving at speed and had an unerring feel for setting up a car to go really fast.

"He is one of the most skilful and natural drivers ever to grace Formula One,'' three-times F1 world champion Sir Jackie Stewart said.

Christopher Arthur Amon, MBE, son of wealthy sheep farmer Ngaio Amon, was born in Bulls on July 20, 1943. He was taught to drive by a shepherd on the farm at the age of six.

At 19, he went to Europe to launch his international career at the urging of English driver Reg Parnell who had raced him in New Zealand in 1962.

Within five years after stints with Parnell's team and McLaren in F1 and sports car racing in the United States, Amon signed with Ferrari in 1967.

The three seasons with the Italian team was a time when Amon was a prince to the Tifosi (Ferrari fans).

But the stint which was plagued by unreliable engines.

Chris Amon, right, waves to the crowd from his 7-litres Ford automobile after he and compatriot Bruce McLaren won the 24-hours endurance for sports cars, at Le Mans. Photo / AP
Chris Amon, right, waves to the crowd from his 7-litres Ford automobile after he and compatriot Bruce McLaren won the 24-hours endurance for sports cars, at Le Mans. Photo / AP

On Amon's legendary lack of good fortune during his Formula One career, American driver Mario Andretti, a Formula 1 champion and Indy 500 winner once joked: "If Chris Amon was an undertaker, no one would die.''

Frustrated, Amon quit to join March in 1970 - and missed out on Ferrari's new flat-12 cyclinder engine which was to become one of the best engines of the 70s.

Amon says he never got the car he needed from Ferrari because they were too diversified.

"They were trying to do Formula One, Formula Two, sports cars, CanAm cars, and even the Tasman series out here.

"A lot of people say I was very unlucky and I suppose in terms of results, I was,'' Amon said.

"But one thing I do always say to people is that I am very lucky to be here.''

In a reference to the deaths of his peers such as Jim Clark, Lorenzo Bandini and McLaren, he said: "It was such a dangerous era and I don't look back with any sense of frustration.

"I am eternally thankful that I survived.''

Amon never won a championship F1 grand prix, but did win eight non-championship GPs.

"It was very frustrating sometimes - we were so close and yet so far on so many occasions right through my career really.

"But I did have a reasonable amount of success in sports cars and that sort of balanced it up a bit.''

His other major wins included the Silverstone International Trophy, the 1000km Monza, the Daytona 24 Hours, the Tasman Series.

The highlight of Amon's success in sports car racing came with the 1966 win at the Le Mans 24-hour race in a Ford GT40 Mark II with McLaren as his partner. This year was the 50th anniversary of that success.

Hulme was second in another Ford with Briton Ken Miles.

Amon started 96 F1 races, achieving five poles, led 183 laps in seven races, reached the podium 11 times and scored a total of 83 championship points.

After stints with teams such as March, Matra, Tecno, Tyrrell, BRM, Ensign, and Walter Wolf Racing, Amon retired, returning home to run the family farm. His last F1 race was the Canadian grand prix in 1976.

Amon was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.

An extraordinarily gifted driver

D'Arcy Waldegrave, the host of Radio Sport's The Sauce, says he left a lasting legacy on world motorsport.

"He was a terrific human being, a lovely guy, an extraordinarily gifted driver, who of course used to race for Ferrari among a number of other marques."

- Newstalk ZB

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