Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Looking back: 1968 - Chris Amon's unluckiest year

Chris Amon. Mention of his name to a historically-minded F1 fan invariably brings up the association of 'the best F1 driver never to win a Grand Prix'. His ill-luck was legendary, and was only equalled by his astonishing natural talent and artistry behind the wheel.

Chris Amon in 1973
Credit: Lothar Spurzem / CC
Many argue that Amon didn't help himself in many ways: he was guilty of a number of bad career moves, had a far from disciplined life off the track and his relative lack of selfishness didn't serve him well in the warped world of F1. But it was also the case that time and again Amon would dominate F1 races with considerable elan and flair (summed up by one of the most iconic photographs in the history of the sport, of Amon attacking Oulton Park in his Ferrari 312 in 1968), only to crawl to a halt through no fault of his own. 183 laps, and 851 km, led in 95 F1 starts didn't add up to a single victory. Mario Andretti once commented that had Amon become an undertaker people would have stopped dying!

The tag of 'best F1 driver never to win a Grand Prix' sells Amon short however. This is partly because his talent is such that he should be remembered as being among the best of all time, regardless of the lack of wins. Ferrari designer Mauro Forghieri rated Amon as highly as they come: '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', while Jochen Rindt considered Jackie Stewart and Amon as his only true rivals. But the tag also sells him short because there was one season that the drivers' world championship should have been his. This year was 1968.

The world championship was made up of 12 rounds that year, and eight times Amon qualified on the front row. He led, or was well-placed, virtually 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. This left him a distant tenth in the drivers' standings.

Youthful New Zealander Amon joined Ferrari for the start of the 1967 season. He was recruited as very much the junior of four drivers on the books initially (and nominally as a reserve). But within weeks Amon was necessarily thrust into the role of team leader. The previous team leader Lorenzo Bandini died after an horrific, fiery accident at the Monaco Grand Prix, Mike Parkes would never race in F1 again after injuries sustained in a violent smash in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, and Ludovico Scarfiotti, demoralised by the same accident, would also never again race in F1 for Ferrari. 'It was a growing up experience' Amon mused on the The Flying Lap vodcast earlier this year (see below - he also discusses the 1968 year extensively).

Episode 3 - The Flying Lap with Peter Windsor - Chris Amon from Smibs TV on Vimeo.

Amon nevertheless gave an excellent account of himself that year, with a series of tenacious and determined drives in a car that never seemed to be quite up to the challenge, especially on the engine power front. Little did anyone know at the time that his fourth place in the final standings was to be as good as it got for Amon.

While the Brabham Repcos claimed both titles in 1967, there was little doubt that the Lotus 49s with their Ford Cosworth DFV V8 engines, introduced mid season, were the class of the field and would be the ones to beat in 1968.

This was bad news for Ferrari, whose V12 unit was left breathless by the Repco engines in the Brabham, and the Cosworth was something else compared even with those. Further, the Scuderia was incredibly slow to react to the engine challenge, Enzo Ferrari and other engineers were disbelieving apparently that their V12s were behind in the engine race (indeed, two years earlier their star driver John Surtees was unceremoniously sacked by the team for labouring the point). As Amon commented about 1967: 'I kept telling Mauro Forghieri that we were slow in a straight line, 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...'.

The V12 engine for the 1968 theoretically gave similar horsepower to the Cosworth (around 410bhp), but the Cosworth had a much wider power range, whereas the V12's power dropped away quite dramatically at lower revs.

Worse for the Scuderia and Amon, Walter Hayes of Ford had decided to make the Cosworth unit available for sale to other F1 teams for the 1968 season, meaning that the McLarens and the Matra entered by Ken Tyrrell and driven by Jackie Stewart, as well as the Rob Walker's privately-entered Lotus Ford, driven by Jo Siffert, would also have access to the DFV in '68.

Fortunately though the Ferrari 312 did have one thing going for it. 'I loved that '68 Ferrari more than any other car I ever drove' said Amon. 'You could do anything with it, and sideways was the quickest way, which I always enjoyed. I think, without a doubt, that it was the best chassis of that season, but the V12 was just blown away by the Cosworths. 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 (they didn't hang around - the race was held on the 1st of January!). Predictably, Jim Clark took the pole and win in his Lotus, while Amon, outpowered at this power circuit to end all power circuits, came home a distant fourth, not helped by a refuelling stop three laps before the end.

Despite an encouraging Tasman Series, run under 2.5 litre engine regulations (rather than the 3 litre F1 regs), wherein Chris Amon had won two of the eight races and run Clark's Lotus 49 very close in the standings, the Ferraris were similarly outpaced by the Cosworths at the non-championship Race of Champions event at Brands Hatch in March. Amon was finally on the pace however at the other pre-European season non-championship event, at the International Trophy at Silverstone (by this time Jim Clark had tragically been killed in a F2 race at Hockenheim). Amon could have won but for his goggle strap breaking (typical Amon luck!), but the performance encouraged everyone at Ferrari.

The second Grand Prix of the season, some four and a half months after the first, took place at the go kart track-like Jarama in Spain. This circuit could have been designed for the fine handling, yet underpowered, Ferrari 312. Amon made good on this: he took his first ever pole position. Then, having dropped to third at the start, he moved past Rodriguez's BRM on lap 11 and then took the lead when Beltoise's Matra, smoking since the start, had to head for the pits to have an oil filter problem rectified. Rodriguez slid off shortly afterwards, which left Amon in a clear lead, the gap to second place eventually close to half a minute, and looking untouchable. Then, at two-thirds distance, his fuel pump failed. Amon was rueful: 'It was as sickening feeling when the car stopped...no warning, just gone.'

Monaco was next up, another circuit that would suit the Ferrari. But Enzo Ferrari chose not to enter any of his cars for that event. The reasons for this have never been fully explained, though they are most likely related to the trauma of Bandini's accident there the year before. Amon commented: 'I suppose it (Jarama) gave us a pretty good boost, although I felt (Enzo) Ferrari failed to capitalise on it. He made the decision to miss Monaco, possibly because of Bandini's accident the previous year, although I never fully understood why. It was a great shame because I'm certain that the 312 would have been very very competitive that year.' Amon was actually offered a Matra drive by Ken Tyrrell for Monaco (regular driver Stewart was recovering from a wrist injury), but that was vetoed by Ferrari. The drive was subsequently handed to Johnny Servoz-Gavin, who was leading the race until breaking a driveshaft after tagging a barrier early on.

Then to Spa, where Ferrari (unusually) proved to be aerodynamic innovators, turning up kitted out with front and rear aerofoils, the first F1 ever team to do so (although the Lotus had featured a modest front wing at Monaco, and the Brabham team had rapidly imitated the wings on their own cars by the time of the Spa race start).

Amon again qualified on pole around the daunting Spa circuit, some four seconds clear of Stewart in second. Even accounting for the long lap it was an amazing margin. And Amon was also insistent that it wasn't all down to the wings, as he did almost identical lap times around Spa without them: 'What you gained on the corners you actually lost down the straights'.

'The thing felt tremendous' said Amon of the 312 around Spa '...there's absolutely no way I shouldn't have won that race'. And for a lap and a half it looked like he would indeed win it. He streaked clear from pole and appeared to have dropped the chasing pack from his slipstream. However, on the second time around at the fearsome Masta Kink, vital for lap time, he encountered a limping McLaren of Jo Bonnier on the racing line. He had to back right out of it, which allowed John Surtees's Honda to slipstream past him. The Honda was much quicker than the Ferrari in a straight line, meaning getting back past wouldn't be the work of a moment. 'If I tried pulling out of his slipstream, I just slowed down. I was really furious'.

Amon was soon put out of his misery, but not for the right reasons: 'After about eight laps one of his (Surtees's) wheels flicked up a stone which went right through my oil radiator, so that was the end of that.' This made it three races in a row that Amon could, perhaps should, have won, and ended up with nothing.

Spa also had long term negative consequences for Ferrari. For one thing, as Amon said: 'After that (Spa) everyone said "we've gotta have wings" because I was four seconds quicker...in hindsight it (running wings) 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. Ferrari would never put suspension-mounted wings on because he said they were too dangerous...ultimately he was absolutely proved right'.

For another, Forghieri decided after Spa to move the rear wing on the Ferrari forward to be over the middle of the car rather than over the rear, theorising that it would spread the downforce offered over more of the vehicle. Amon reckoned it didn't work as well.

He nevertheless took his third pole of the season at the next round at Zandvoort in the Netherlands. But on the race day it rained, initially not enough to justify starting on wet weather tyres for most, but as the rain intensified in the race the Firestone tyres on the Ferrari proved particularly unsuitable. Amon eventually came home sixth, having lost ground by making a tyre stop at two-thirds distance, which cost him over three minutes. Stewart won, benefiting from Dunlop tyres with a hand-cut drainage channel in the centre. He said that 'if it had been dry on race day there is no way I could have run with Chrissie (Amon) or Jochen (Rindt)'.

The next race, at the classic Rouen track in France, was also run in the wet. As at Zandvoort, rain gathered before the start, but initially not at a sufficient level to justify fitting out and out rain tyres. Amon's team mate Jacky Ickx did gamble on running full wets however, and after starting third won as he liked as the rain got harder during the race. Amon slipped from fifth on the grid to finish tenth: 'another bloody fiasco. I never got with it at all' (Amon, car number 24, can be seen briefly in the cine footage below).

Amon hoped that the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, taking place on his 25th birthday, would spell the end of his terrible luck. Practice indicated that he would provide the only opposition to the Lotus 49s: Graham Hill and Jackie Oliver in the works Lotuses were first and second on the grid, with Amon third and Jo Siffert fourth in the Rob Walker-entered Lotus. Hill and Oliver cleared off in the race, only to each drop out in turn with mechanical problems. Amon was therefore left hounding Siffert for the lead, but he had the same problem as with Surtees at Spa: Siffert simply left him on the straights. But according to Amon that wasn't the only problem: 'I think wings were decisive that day. Lotus were just starting that use that huge rear-mounted thing, whereas we had a smaller, centre-mounted, one, which didn't give anything like as much downforce...I still think if we'd had a bigger wing on the back of the car we'd have won the race'. The battle with Siffert lasted for several laps and was eventually settled in favour of the Swiss, helped by Amon's rear tyres going off, forcing him to settle for second, four seconds shy.

The German Grand Prix was at the Nurburgring Nordschleife. And there, for the third time that year, Amon's seemingly promising race hopes were significantly diminished by the adverse elements. Heavy rain and fog had set in firmly since before the second day of practice, and made the Nordschleife even more intimidating than usual. 'We went to the 'Ring with high hopes because we'd gone really well in testing there, but I was really dreading the race when I woke up on Sunday and found the rain still pouring down and the fog still as thick as ever'.

By this time, Amon had a reputation as a substandard rain driver attributed to him, mainly because of his poor showing at Rouen (only being as good as your last race is not a new delusion in F1). This was unfair: among other things the Ferrari engine's narrow rev band was hardly suitable for driving in the wet, and the Firestone rain tyres they ran on were certainly not as effective as the Dunlops.

Forghieri suggested to Amon, who'd qualified second on the grid behind team mate Ickx, to hold everyone up in the race to allow Ickx to check out at the front: 'they'd completely lost faith in my wet weather driving, I guess simply because of Rouen' said Amon. Come race day it was all academic though, as Stewart won the race by four minutes after a widely celebrated drive. Amon reckons it wasn't all down to skill though: 'I don't believe he went any quicker than Graham (Hill) or I, comparatively, it was just that he had vastly superior tyres (the Dunlops)...Stewart just drove round the inside of me as if the track was dry....he had so much more grip than our Firestones'.

As for Amon, for most of the way he hounded Graham Hill in second place and thus gave lie to those who said he couldn't cut it in the wet. He spun out late on, which Amon reckons was caused by the differential packing up. And while this was going on Amon said Ickx 'never got within half a mile of me in the race' .

Aerofoils had been rapidly honoured by imitation by rival teams in the races since Ferrari debuted them at Spa, seemingly being wider and higher race by race (though as mentioned, Ferrari persisted with a smaller, centrally-mounted version). Furthermore, by the race in Germany the V12 Matra came equipped with a movable rear wing system which allowed the driver, via the brake pedal, to move the wing to a downforce creating angle in the corners and to flatten it, and thus have less drag, on the straights. Ferrari arrived for the next round, at Monza, with an ingenious device along the same lines. It moved the rear wing automatically using engine oil pressure, dropping the rear wing to a steep angle when in first, second and third gears or when on the brakes, but flattening it out when in higher gears and when the throttle was open (with a manual over ride in the cockpit). More details on movable rear wings in 1968 can be found here.

At Monza Amon again qualified on the front row, and was running with the leaders in the race when the new rear wing system leaked fluid onto his rear wheels and sent his 312 flying upside down into the trees outside of the Lesmo turns at high speed. All who witnessed it assumed that this was the latest in a long line of F1 fatalities, only for Amon to wander unscathed from the woods minutes later! Amon came to rest, removed from his car, hanging from a tree branch from his safety harness but otherwise unscathed, with his 312 car balanced precariously on the branches above him! Amon fails to understand to this day how he could have been removed from the cockpit in the accident without breaking bones at least. A few minutes later an obliging marshal clambered up a tree with a knife to release the grateful driver.

The next race, in Canada at the beautiful Ste. Jovite circuit, was one that summed up Amon's season in extremis. Once again Amon qualified on the front row, having equalled pole man Rindt's time, and led comfortably, eventually by over a minute. But from early on Amon's clutch had failed, forcing him to change gear without it. And with only 18 of the 90 laps remaining his final drive pinion, by now toothless, would take no more. The groan from the grandstands as Amon again toured into the pits from a comfortable lead with victory apparently certain was audible.

Amon's final two races of the season were strangely subdued by his standards of that year. In the USA, at Watkins Glen, Amon was off the pace, spun early on and eventually retired (again!) with a broken water pipe. And at the final round, in Mexico, Amon again started on the front row, but once again retired, this time succumbing to transmission problems after 17 laps.

In a season where Amon had been a pace setter (often the pace setter) almost everywhere, he finished up with an absurdly meagre 10 world championship points from 12 races. While, far ahead (in the table at least), Hill took the drivers' title in the last race from Stewart and Denny Hulme, Amon's dropped points would have thrown him right into the centre of championship contention. Hill finished up on 48 points, and the 'lost' wins for Amon in Spain, Belgium and Canada alone would have seen his total leap from 10 to 37, with Hill going down to 44. And thinking of the succession of other races in 1968 where points were lost for Amon, it's easy to see how a potential world championship title was squandered.

The consensus was at the end of 1968 that Amon's luck would surely have to turn - his talent was too great for any other outcome. Sadly, his luck never was to turn in F1. 1969 witnessed more of the same for him at Ferrari. Further, he didn't enjoy a good relationship with Stefano Jacoponi, who had been brought in to replace the shuffled Forghieri. Amon, exasperated, left the team before the end of the year, but at precisely the wrong moment as Enzo Ferrari at around the same time guaranteed the marque's future by entering a deal with Fiat, allowing him to spend money like never before. Worse, Amon chose to join March for 1970, who arrived in F1 with much fanfare but proved to be a busted flush (think of the early days of BAR as a parallel). This sent Amon's F1 career into a downward spiral, stopping by a succession of uncompetitive teams before retiring in 1976. Don't let anyone tell you that in F1 cream always rises to the top.


  1. Great Stuff! in a different car in the years after Ferrari Chris would have been a world champion.
    Who can forget that drive in the Matra at Clermont Ferrand in 72. Pure Tallent, not forgotten.

  2. Thanks very much Andy - glad you like the post.

    Yes, it's real shame that Chris Amon didn't get into a car worthy of his talent after Ferrari. He did get offers from teams such as Brabham and to return to Ferrari, but he never felt able to leave the teams he was at in the lurch. Too much integrity for his own good in that strange world of F1!

    The Clemont Ferrand in '72 drive was a classic, he was really unlucky to get the puncture, but his recovery drive to third was something to behold by all accounts.