Eric Thompson goes a lap or two with one of our greatest drivers

It's not often you get the chance to be taken on a flying lap of a race circuit with a former Ferrari Formula One driver.

I leapt at the opportunity at Manfeild during the New Zealand Grand Prix weekend with Chris Amon at the wheel.

Amon may be in his 60s, but the bloke can still chuck a car around with aplomb. Amon, who drove for Ferrari, Cooper, Ford, March and BRM, still has the effortless finesse and smoothness that was his hallmark when he was racing.

Amon was widely regarded as one of the best F1 drivers to never win a Grand Prix despite setting pole many a time and leading a few races. He did, however, win many prestigious races in other categories including the Le Mans 24-hours and the Daytona 24Hour.


Those memories made climbing into the 3.5-litre V6 Lexus IS350 he was hounding around the track more of a pleasure.

While waiting in pit lane for Amon I was introduced to the other passenger - Anna Leese, one of New Zealand's foremost opera singers and recently a finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World contest where more than 600 contestants from 68 countries try their luck.

Leese, now living in Italy, was back home to see her family as a guest of Toyota. While she's a big rugby supporter, motorsport hadn't popped up on her radar. So she was a little apprehensive before the ride.

"I had no idea a normal car could go so quick," said Leese afterwards. "I think I left my stomach in the car somewhere, but I knew I was in safe hands.

"I suppose it's instinctive for him but I wouldn't want to do it. It made me realise what a terrible passenger I am."

As he put the car through its paces, Amon chatted. "Don't ask me how many years it's been since I last raced in the New Zealand Grand Prix [he won in 1968 and 1969 in a Ferrari 246T]."

He mentioned how the electronic gizmos helped keep the Lexus well balanced - but I don't think the manufacturer had anticipated it being used as a race car.

"With all the traction controls and other stuff turned on, it shows just how good the modern car is and you can still have a lot of fun."

In his era, race drivers had to pump brakes, change gears, watch dials and much more. These days, especially with road cars, just about everything is taken care of.

"We didn't really think about what we were actually doing in the car. It was all sort of on autopilot. If you had to remember everything all the time you'd forget a few things.

"When you're doing it all the time it becomes second nature, but now I have to think about it.

"One thing you never forget really is where to put the car going into a corner, hitting the apex and carrying speed and getting the exit right."

That's okay for him but the rest of us mere mortals didn't race against the world's best drivers and beat them at the elite level of motorsport so we never learnt the finer points of how to tip a car into a corner at 180km/h, hit the apex just right and power out of the corner using every inch of available tarmac.

It was an unbelievable experience to watch a gifted driver at work and know he's still got what it takes.