Chris Amon - Fernando Alonso's echo from the past
As your author is taken to note roughly every 47 seconds, nothing is new in F1. Not entirely anyway.
No matter what, however outrageous – indeed however quintessential it seems of the modern sport’s ills – it’s unlikely to be without historical precedent.
Take the curious case of Fernando Alonso, and that he has displayed over time an uncanny ability to dodge cars that may do justice to his grand talent, that now is manifested in a doleful coup de grace of him struggling with a straggling McLaren Honda. Surely that is the sort of thing seen only in the contemporary age? Wherein plumb opportunities are limited and poor machinery simply cannot be overcome however well-developed the driving skills?
A number of times recently I have heard it asked who if anyone is the parallel figure to Alonso from F1 past. And every time the answer has been the same. Chris Amon
Well, again, no. Not entirely. There is another. A number of times recently I have heard it asked who if anyone is the parallel figure to Alonso from F1 past of having extreme driving skill but one matched by an inability to be in the right seat in any given season. And every time the answer has been the same.
“Whereas, though, a man like Juan Manuel Fangio had an uncanny ability to choose the right team at the right moment,” wrote Nigel Roebuck to this end recently, “history shows that, sadly for him, Fernando has an almost Chris Amon-like tendency to do the opposite. After leaving Ferrari in 1969, Chris suffered pangs of regret ever after, not least whenever the new flat-12 engine powered Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni past him.” And as intimated Roebuck is far from alone in drawing this analogy.
Yep, Chris Amon. You might have heard of him. You might not. Statistics don’t do much for him. Rarely either is he mentioned among the very greats of F1 history; more, if he’s mentioned at all, it’s as one from the next level down.
Most commonly he is cited as the best F1 driver never to win a world championship Grand Prix. But even that sells Amon well short. The New Zealander had talent and speed to throw away, and many rated Amon as high as they come. Legendary Ferrari designer Mauro Forghieri once stated of Amon indeed that “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 Clark”. Jochen Rindt meanwhile ranked only Amon and Jackie Stewart as his true rivals. The efficacy of Amon’s test work also was something of sheer wonder.
Whereas, though, a man like Juan Manuel Fangio had an uncanny ability to choose the right team at the right moment, history shows that, sadly for him, Fernando has an almost Chris Amon-like tendency to do the opposite. After leaving Ferrari in 1969, Chris suffered pangs of regret ever after - Nigel Roebuck
So why the glaring lack of F1 success? Well, there were a few reasons – probably the main one was that as outlined, and just like Alonso, he had a knack of making awful ill-timed team moves. Just like Alonso his fork in the road was leaving Maranello too, exasperated at repeated failures there. But just like Alonso it was at the wrong moment, as in his case it was, in mid-1969, at the very point that the Italian team was with FIAT’s new involvement about to spend money like never before. Just like Alonso it put his F1 career into a negative spiral. In Amon’s case it never was to recover.
Just like Alonso the Kiwi was a complex character too, prone to occasional volcanic fits of temper. But perhaps here the parallels end. Amon was for the most part highly genial, and the outrage reflected perhaps a classic case of one who let things get bottled up for too long.
Also if Alonso’s vices that engineered him out of good opportunities relate to him caring too much, Amon’s perhaps owed something to caring not enough. The New Zealander, in Roebuck’s words, “ran a good part of the way to meet his ill luck”. Far from the ultra-professional athlete, Amon’s bon viveur lifestyle off track was the stuff of legend, as was his disorganisation and tendency to procrastinate. While he displayed a lack of selfishness that did not serve him at all well in warped F1.
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 Clark - Mauro Forghieri
(As an aside, another way in which the pair differed was that Amon unlike Alonso had no enthusiasm for the Indianapolis 500, admitting indeed that the Brickyard spooked him. Odd for a man who routinely attacked the Nordschleife and the like without batting an eyelid. Bruce McLaren used to quip that perhaps someone for Amon’s sake should paint trees on the Indy walls…).
But perhaps this, and his complexity, went further. “I can’t put my finger on quite what it is,” said Jackie Stewart of Amon, “but I know that it’s there and that it’s almost wilful how he compromises his chances with his choices out of the car.”
Yet Amon’s extraordinary tendency for misfortune can’t all be explained, nor all attributed to him. And another way in which his ‘best driver never to win a championship Grand Prix’ tag sells him short is that there was one year at Ferrari, 1968, when the title could have been his. Eight times from the 11 rounds he competed in he started from the front row (and in the one he didn't compete – the Commendatore Enzo Ferrari not entering his cars for Monaco amid mystery – he likely would have been among the favourites to win). He led, or was well-placed, everywhere it seemed. But it translated into only three finishes in the points, one of which was on the podium, totalling but ten points at the season's end.
If Alonso’s vices that engineered him out of good opportunities relate to him caring too much, Amon’s perhaps owed something to caring not enough
Twice he led by a mile when technical gremlins struck. Twice more he was among the leaders when the same happened. Three times on top of these race-day rain scuppered him (fairly or unfairly, Amon was not thought a good wet-weather pilot). Without these it could or should have been more than enough to add up to the title, yet with them it left him a distant tenth in the standings.
Even in 1969 as Ferrari unravelled there were opportunities. Not least in Spain when he again led by a country mile only for his engine to conk out. And there was potential redemption too as mid that year Amon started to test the team’s new flat-12 engine. It eventually was to dominate the sport, and indeed come late 1970 Amon scarcely could have avoided winning races with it. But in these early goes the unit couldn’t do more than a handful of laps without unstitching itself in a big way. And this snapped Amon’s now frayed sense of loyalty. Not even the pleading of Enzo could convince him otherwise.
And as they parted Enzo promised in a parting shot that “I will win a Grand Prix, Chris, before you do”. The Commendatore was right.
Amon decided that the jewel of the Cosworth DFV engine was the thing to have. Sound reasoning in of itself, but sadly for him it was the fledgling March team that he chose to get access to one. The squad debuted in 1970 amid much fanfare and bombast, but proved rather a husk (think Beatrice or BAR as more recent parallels).
Even so Amon might have broken his duck that campaign, not least in the final ever F1 race at stunning as-nature-intended Spa. No one expected the leading BRM of Pedro Rodriguez to hold together as Amon shadowed it in second place. But that day of course it did hold together (also not everyone was convinced of the, erm, extent that the winning machine conformed to the rules…).
From that day [the 1972 French Grand Prix] on, I started to lose interest. Subconsciously, I thought: ‘If it’s not going to work on this day, it’s never going to work’ - Chris Amon
Coming full circle Amon decided by the end of that year that 12 cylinders were the future of F1 engines rather than the Cossie. Granted that sounds very odd to the modern ear given the DFV still was winning championships a decade-plus later, yet with Ferrari’s late 1970 success we have outlined it was a fairly common view at the time. But again it proved a false prophecy.
Nothing with 12 cylinders in 1971 was up to much and the Matra that Amon piloted certainly wasn’t – while lovely sounding it was well short on power. But even so there were chances to finally bag his overdue race win with it. Many of us know of that 1971 Italian Grand Prix thriller – the final Monza Grand Prix pre-chicanes on the famous slipstreamer; the race that for a long time was the fastest ever as well as provided the closest finish, and with a top five at the end that a tea towel could have been thrown over. Yet Amon had for a time that day made a break on the pack. But, using an early version of visor tear offs that now are long since de rigueur, Amon went to remove a strip and found his entire visor came off in his hand! It, in a way, mattered not however as his engine soon developed a misfire anyway, and he finished sixth.
Then there was the French race in 1972, which for Amon was a watershed. That weekend on the spectacular Clermont-Ferrand road track Amon was on another level. And leading from pole he disappeared…only to puncture on one of the track’s notorious stones that tended to litter the surface. He resumed after pitting in eighth place almost a minute off the lead and then stupefied, shattering the lap record time and again on the way back to third, having taken more than half a minute from winner Stewart’s advantage by the end.
JYS in that way of his spoke haughtily of how he’d driven carefully so to avoid the stones but, as Roebuck has explained, “it fooled no one. At Clermont you could not avoid the stones, for others peppered the road with them. All you could do was hope that your tyres would survive.”
But whatever, the effect on Amon was great. And speaking some years later his admission is extraordinary in its sheer candour. “From that day on, I started to lose interest,” he admitted. “Subconsciously, I thought: ‘If it’s not going to work on this day, it’s never going to work’…Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. I never again felt that I really dug down deep. I was never quite 100 per cent after that.”
After that Amon lingered nevertheless for four F1 seasons in a series of uncompetitive and often absurd machines – including one under his own name in 1974. In 1976 at little Ensign Amon had enough to show his old talent however, and often irritated the front runners such as running third in Belgium and qualifying in that place in Sweden.
And several top drives were turned down by Amon in this time – Brabham, Wolf, McLaren, even a long-awaited Ferrari return for 1974 (when the team really started an upturn). Many of the rejections were ostensibly on the grounds that he didn’t want to walk out on an existing team – maybe that lack of selfishness again. But there was more to it. “After ’72 I was really in the back of my mind trying to get back to New Zealand,” conceded Amon years later. “The success [from such a move] might have delayed his return home,” added Mark Hughes pointedly. Not only the lack of selfishness, perhaps that caring not enough too.
It was after witnessing Niki Lauda’s fiery Nurburgring accident in 1976, and the time taken for Niki to be rescued (as well as coloured by that his car had already broken on him sending him into big accidents more than once that year already), that Amon decided to walk from F1 to tend to his farm in New Zealand. Not old by any means – he’d only just turned 33 – it transpired that was the last the sport was to see of him.
“It truly was,” concluded Roebuck, “a lost career”. By some way of comparison, Alonso perhaps should count himself fortunate even for what he’s had.