Chris Amon: The one that got away

Alan Henry

In memory of an F1 great and fellow countryman of our team's founder, Bruce McLaren, today we republish a blog from renowned motorsport journalist, the late Alan Henry.  First published in February 2014, here Alan remembers the life and times of Chris Amon. 

Christopher Arthur Amon is probably the most spectacular example of ‘the driver that got away’ in McLaren’s 51-year history. 

Okay, I haven’t forgotten that he shared the winning 7.0-litre Ford GT40 with the company’s founder Bruce McLaren at Le Mans in 1966, but generally this (other) genial Kiwi unwittingly made it a high priority to be in the wrong place at the wrong time throughout his racing career. 

I was always a huge fan of Amon’s, although the fact that he contested no fewer than 96 grands prix threw into painful relief the fact that he never won even one of them. 

One could only dream of what Chris might have achieved in a front-line works McLaren M23, for example. Do I think that, if he’d been securely strapped into the cockpit of an M23 instead of James Hunt, he would have won the 1976 championship as Hunt did? Of course I do; James was extremely quick and scarily determined, but I’d rate Chris as the more complete and rounded driver of the two. 

But don’t take my word for it. Instead, switch your attention to the observations of Mauro Forghieri, Ferrari’s legendary technical director throughout the 1960s. Mauro took a similarly positive view of Chris, once telling me in no uncertain terms that he was the only driver he’d ever seen who matched the legendary Jim Clark in terms of natural genius. 

Chris had moved to Ferrari at the start of 1967, but that seemingly inspired transfer was soon shown to be a disaster, characterised by a series of broken engines, seized gearboxes and enough associated technical mayhem to give any aspiring Formula 1 ace a nervous breakdown; not the ideal racing recipe for a driver who liked his sherbert and smoked more than 40 stogies a day. 

Frustrated, Chris duly left Ferrari at the end of 1969 – just as things were starting to look up at Maranello, boosted as the red cars’ performance was by the advent of a magnificent series of 12-cylinder engines that powered the likes of Jacky Ickx, Clay Regazzoni, Niki Lauda, Clay Regazzoni, Carlos Reutemann, Gilles Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter to dozens of grand prix victories over the next decade. 

In 1976, in which year as I say I fancy he’d have done every bit as good a job in a McLaren as James did, had he been given the opportunity, he drove instead for Wolf-Williams and Ensign, lowly teams both at the time, and scored a grand total of just two world championship points all year, courtesy of a fifth place in the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama in the Ensign. 

That may not sound great – but in fact it was mighty impressive because the Ensign was no-one’s idea of a quick car. 

Perhaps his most brilliant lap that year came in Sweden, and Anderstorp, where he hurled the Ensign around those long and complex curves to a stunning third place on the grid. He didn’t finish the race – as ever he was unlucky – but he’d shown that his natural pace was clearly still there. 

I could wax lyrical for hours about Chris’s ability, and undoubtedly he deserved to win a hatful of grands prix. But let me leave you with just one astonishing stat. McLaren’s first ever grand prix victory came at Spa in 1968, Bruce McLaren driving hard and well to win ahead of Pedro Rodriguez (BRM) and Jacky Ickx (Ferrari). 

Chris, in the other Ferrari, had retired after eight laps with a broken radiator, as unlucky as ever. Where had he qualified? On the pole, of course, on one of the most daunting racetracks in the history of our sport, with a lap time four seconds quicker than anyone else’s. 

Yes, four seconds. 

I think Mauro Forghieri was right about Chris Amon.