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Remembering Chris Amon, 1943-2016

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Chris Amon (R) with Jim Clark at Indianapolis in 1967. Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Best remembered for his win in the Ford GT40 Mk IIA with co-driver Bruce McLaren in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, Chris Amon was also renowned for his bad luck behind the wheel during a Formula 1 career that would span 14 seasons. On August 3, Amon died of cancer in a New Zealand hospital, age 73.

The son of a wealthy sheep rancher in New Zealand, Amon reportedly learned to drive on the family farm at the age of six. After progressing up the racing ladder in Australia and New Zealand, Amon was discovered by British racer and F1 team owner Reg Parnell in 1962, and the following year, he joined Parnell’s team in England.

His career in F1 would be an odd mix of brilliance and misfortune, with mechanical failures ending many races that Amon should have won. Often described as the best driver never to have won a Grand Prix, his racing CV included stints with Parnell, Cooper, Scuderia Ferrari, March Engineering, Equipe Matra, Martini Racing, Elf Team Tyrrell, Team Motul BRM, and Team Ensign. In 1966 and again in 1974, Amon even attempted to go it alone, forming Chris Amon Racing, but with similar results. Mario Andretti once said of Amon’s fortune (or lack thereof), “if he became an undertaker, people would stop dying,” but it was Ferrari’s former technical director, Mauro Forghieri, who best summed up the driver’s talents by calling him “by far the best test driver I have ever worked with.”

Le Mans 1966

Le Mans 1966: Bruce Mc Laren (L), Henry Ford II (C), and Chris Amon (R). Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company.

Ironically, Amon’s path to the Scuderia wound through Ford and his 1966 victory at Le Mans. In 1967, his debut year with Ferrari, the Kiwi driver earned four podium finishes and 20 world championship points, placing him fourth in the drivers’ standings at year end.  As part of his contract with Ferrari, Amon piloted sports cars as well, delivering victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona and at the 1000km of Monza, helping Ferrari to a World Manufacturer’s Championship in the process.

Amon also drove in the North American Can-Am Series in 1966, 1969, and 1970, and attempted, without success, to qualify for the 1967 Indianapolis 500. His F1 career came to a close in 1976, following Nikki Lauda’s near-fatal crash at the Nürburgring; when the race was restarted, Amon refused to participate, resulting in termination by Morris Nunn and the Ensign Team. He briefly signed with Walter Wolf and the Wolf-Williams team for the remainder of 1976, but a crash during qualifying for the Canadian Grand Prix convinced Amon that the time had come to leave the sport.

Following his retirement from F1, Amon returned to the family farm and later worked as a television test driver and consultant to (and spokesman for) Toyota New Zealand.