We often describe Chris Amon as the best F1 driver never to win a grand prix, but there was a year that the world championship should have been his. Here’s the story
‘History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,’ as Mark Twain (probably never) said.
Regardless of its authorship, the nifty phrase rings true. Lately in Formula 1 Fernando Alonso’s long goodbye has got plenty of attention, as have attempts to un-knot his complex legacy. Assessments of his driving skills vying with those of his statistical achievements – poor career choices contributing to numbers that don’t begin to do him justice.
But while Alonso’s case feels unusual, it does have a historic rhyme in the late Chris Amon. Indeed even Alonso’s career numbers are towering against those of the New Zealander – somehow Amon managed to never so much as win a single world championship F1 grand prix.
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Adding to the rhyme, Amon, like Alonso, is often said to have met his misfortune halfway. He walked out on Ferrari at the wrong moment, sending his career into a negative spiral that it could not escape before he eventually resolved to walk away from F1.
As for how good Amon was, legendary Ferrari designer Mauro Forghieri drew an emphatic parallel to a past world champion. ‘It’s a fact that we never gave him a car worthy of him. As far as I’m concerned he was as good as [Jim] Clark.’
Furthermore, there was a year in which the world championship title could, and perhaps should, have been Amon’s. Adding more to the rhyme, it came exactly 50 years before Alonso reached the end of his F1 tether – the 1968 season.
Amon’s Ferrari started from the front row eight times from 11 rounds he competed in. It seemed he was well-placed everywhere. But his qualifying pace translated into only three points finishes and a distant 10th in the standings.
It didn’t start promisingly either. Brabham-Repco claimed both titles in 1967 yet there was diminishing doubt that the Lotus 49 with its ground-breaking Ford Cosworth DFV, introduced mid-season, was the class of the field.
This was bad news for Ferrari, whose V12 unit was left behind by the Repco, while the Cosworth was in a different postcode compared to its rivals. Further compounding their troubles, the Scuderia was obtuse in response, disbelieving that it was behind in the grunt stakes.
The Italian engine theoretically gave similar horsepower to the Cosworth but only in a much narrower rev range. Worse for Ferrari and Amon, for 1968 Ford decided to make the Cosworth available for sale to other F1 teams.
‘I kept telling Mauro Forghieri that we were slow in a straight line,’ Amon commented about 1967, ‘and it was a long time before he believed me. That’s the trouble with 12-cylinder engines: they make this lovely, loud, powerful noise! But that doesn’t mean they’re shoving much out...’
Fortunately, the Ferrari 312 did have one advantage. ‘I think, without a doubt, that it was the best chassis of that season,’ Amon added. ‘Funny, really, when you think that Ferraris usually have lots of power and lousy chassis.’
The season opened with the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami and Clark took the pole and win in his Lotus. Amon, out-powered at this power circuit, finished fourth.
Yet in the four-and-a-half intervening months before round two Ferrari and Amon looked competitive in the Tasman Series in Australia and New Zealand and then in various non-championship F1 races. And the landscape, tragically, had changed irrevocably almost overnight – as the standard-bearer Clark was killed in a Formula 2 race.
That second round took place at Jarama in Spain, a circuit designed as if it were intended for go-karts, which suited the fine-handling Ferrari down to the ground. Sure enough, Amon took his first ever pole position and built a lead of close to half a minute. Then at two-thirds’ distance his fuel pump failed. ‘It was a sickening feeling when the car stopped,’ Amon recalled ruefully, ‘no warning, just gone.’
In the next round another potential win was dashed. Monaco would have suited the car similarly but Ferrari refused to enter – possibly related to Lorenzo Bandini’s harrowing fatal accident there 12 months earlier. Ken Tyrrell offered Amon a Matra to drive instead, as incumbent Jackie Stewart had hurt his wrist, but Ferrari wouldn’t release him.
Then to Spa, a very different circuit – then an eight-mile triangular daunting test of speed. And for Amon the story was the same. He qualified on pole by four seconds and in the race, he quickly got the rest out of his slipstream. However, second time around he encountered a limping McLaren of Jo Bonnier at the fearsome Masta Kink and had to back out, allowing John Surtees’s Honda to slipstream past. The Honda, much quicker in a straight line, wasn’t to be cleared easily. Amon wasn't given a chance to retaliate, as a few laps later Surtees flicked up a stone which holed the Ferrari’s radiator. Again, nothing.
Ferrari was also the first team to fully kit out its F1 car with wings that weekend – taking its cue from the Chaparral in sportscar racing. Amon wished they hadn't.
‘Everybody said “we’ve got to have wings because he was four seconds quicker”,’ Amon said. ‘But I did exactly the same time within a tenth or two with and without the wing – because what you gained in the corners you lost down the straights!
‘In hindsight it was a mistake because at that point wingless we had the best chassis out there. Then when Lotus put those huge suspension-mounted wings on we lost a lot of the chassis advantage that we had. [Enzo] Ferrari would never put suspension-mounted wings on because he said they were too dangerous – ultimately he was absolutely proved right.’
Amon’s foul luck that year conspired in another way – the weather. Three of the following four rounds – in the Netherlands, France and Germany – and therefore a quarter of the 12-race season were hit by rain. Amon got but one point from them.
‘I never liked that car in the rain – I never liked racing in the rain anyway,’ he admitted.
The other round of that quartet was the British round at Brands Hatch. And on his 25th birthday it looked like Amon’s terrible luck might end, as the two pace-setting works Lotus 49s of Graham Hill and Jackie Oliver dropped out early with mechanical problems. It left Amon in a scrap for first with another Lotus 49, that entered by privateer Rob Walker and driven by Jo Siffert. Siffert prevailed after a lengthy power versus handling fight, helped by Amon's rear tyres going off forcing him to settle for a near-at-hand second.
Even in victory, Walker admitted that ‘the only thing that made me a little bit sad was that we won at Chris’s expense.’
At Monza, Amon again started on the front row and in the race’s early laps was in the thick of the leaders’ slipstreaming battle. Until at the Lesmo turns his car somersaulted off the track into the nearby trees – leaving all who witnessed it convinced this would be the latest in motorsport’s long line of fatalities that season. Unbelievably Amon simply wandered out of the trees a few minutes later almost completely unharmed. The car had landed on its wheels with barely a dent, and Amon simply clambered out. For once, Amon’s trademark bad luck had been turned on its head, particularly as Ferrari had fitted seatbelts for the first time only a few weeks before.
The accident was caused by an unknown fluid dousing his rear tyres – Amon believed it leaked from a new automated hydraulic system to flatten out the rear wing on the straights.
The next race, in Canada at St Jovite, was Amon’s season in miniature. Once again he led comfortably, eventually by over a minute. But from early on Amon’s clutch had failed and with only 18 of the 90 laps remaining his transmission would take no more.
His final two races of the season were subdued by his standards. In the USA, at Watkins Glen, Amon started on row two, spun early on and eventually retired with a broken water pipe. In the final round, in Mexico, Amon again started on the front row but again retired, this time due to overheating.
‘If I had finished all the races I was leading, I would have won the championship,’ Amon concluded. Indeed Spain, Belgium and Canada wins alone would have bumped him up to 37 points with title-winner Graham Hill coming down to 44, and that’s before we get into the other mass of points dropped.
Amon’s luck never did turn. Midway through the following year, he started to test Ferrari's new flat-12 engine. In these early runs the unit couldn’t do more than a handful of laps without unstitching itself. His now frayed sense of loyalty snapped entirely and he walked, sitting out the rest of 1969 before landing at March.
Had he stayed until 1970, Amon would have been hard-pressed to avoid racking up race wins. Ferrari dominated the latter half of that year after curing the flat-12's initally dreadful reliability, winning four of the last five races with Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni. His career then entered its negative cycle, jumping from team to team in F1 until an exasperated Amon returned to New Zealand in 1976.
In the final rhyme with Alonso, he discovered that in F1 there is no guarantee that creams rises to the top.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images