New Zealander Chris Amon has died at the age of 73, following a battle with cancer.
New Zealand-born F1 driver Chris Amon – perhaps best known for his victory of the 1966 Le Mans 24 in a Ford GT40 – has passed away aged 73, following a battle with cancer.
A family statement read: ‘Chris battled cancer in recent years but retained not only a close interest in Formula One - and his very wide range of favourite topics - but also his wonderful sense of humour, complete with infectious chuckle.’
Chris was born as the only child of sheep-farmer Ngaio Amon in 1943, and started driving competitively in an Austin A40 Special, bought by his father. Proving his natural talent and winning form on local hillclimbs, Chris rapidly progressed to a Maserati 250F via a 1½-litre Cooper. Race win followed race win, and national recognition followed once he found a drive in the Cooper-Climax T51, which Bruce McLaren had raced to his first grand prix victory.
That was 1962, and the New Zealand summer series. Chris’s first races were hampered by mechanical difficulties, but once his team, Scuderia Veloce, installed him into its sister T51, he started scoring – and finishing – races well. It was in a rainsodden event at Lakeside, Australia, that he was spotted as a future international talent by Reg Parnell, who was closely watching the race. Parnell invited him to join his F1 team for 1963. It was a big move but a trail had been blazed by Bruce McLaren back in 1959 as part of the New Zealand International Grand Prix organisation’s ‘Driver in Europe’ scheme. Once in the team, Chris was immediately on the pace, and impressed in the Goodwood International Trophy and Aintree 200 pre-season grands prix.
For 1963, Chris’s one-year-old Parnell-run Lola Mk4A was far from being a front-running car, and the season amounted to a fistful of retirements and three broken ribs. It was a pattern that would continue throughout his first few years in F1: mechanical failure, or non-points finishes.
It looked as though Chris’s F1 career had turned the corner in 1966, when the opportunity to drive for the Cooper F1 team arrived, following Richie Ginther’s departure for Honda. But as with Parnell, Cooper was a team on its downward phase and, after one race, he was dropped in favour of John Surtees, who had left Ferrari.
Yet F1 wasn’t Chris’s only forte, and ’66 would deliver a much-deserved victory. Partnering Bruce McLaren in a 7.0-litre Ford GT40 Mk2, he spearheaded a formation finish at Le Mans. The Le Mans victory caught Enzo Ferrari’s attention. Chris received an invitation to meet il commendatore at Maranello, and was offered a team drive for 1967 alongside Lorenzo Bandini, Mike Parkes and Ludovico Scarfiotti.
Chris’s first year with Ferrari didn’t lack drama. On his way to Brands Hatch for the Race of Champions, he crashed his road car and was forced to withdraw after first practice. Then tragedy struck, as Lorenzo Bandini crashed fatally at the Monaco Grand Prix, Mike Parkes broke both legs at the Belgian Grand Prix and, as a consequence, Scarfiotti went into temporary retirement.
That series of crashes left Chris to head the team – alone – achieving three third places and finishing fourth in the F1 Drivers’ Championship. But he also scored well in 1967 sports car racing, winning the Daytona 24 Hours and Monza 1000km, before ending the year with Jackie Stewart by taking second at Brands Hatch.
Chris came second to Jim Clark in the ’68 Tasman series before migrating to Europe. This was the year aerodynamics began to play a role in the sport, even if it wasn’t without issues.
It was the same story in 1969 – success in the Tasman Series; relative failure in F1. The V12 was proving increasingly unreliable compared with the Cosworth DFV, so, despite six starts from top-six positions, his best finish was third at the Dutch GP. In sports cars he partnered Pedro Rodriguez to fourth in the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, and second at the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Chris concluded – incorrectly as it turned out – that his greatest chance of F1 success would be with a British team. His final race for Ferrari was at the 1970 Monza 1000km, where he finished runner-up. It truly was a story of unfulfilled promise.
Chris remained in F1 until 1976, heading for March Engineering in 1970 (and scoring a breakthrough second place in Belgium), then Matra in 1971-72, with whom he scored a gaggle of points as well as pole in Italy.
From there he went to the shortlived Tecno team in 1973, and in 1975 and ’76, his final two seasons in F1, Chris moved to Ensign. He’d started the Chris Amon Racing Team in ’74, but with so little success that he drove the last two races of the season for BRM.
With that, Chris returned to New Zealand to run the family farm in the Manawatu District. He continued to do some work for Toyota as a consultant, appear on motoring television programmes as well as follow Formula 1 with particular interest.