As 2020 gets under way and a new decade is upon us, we all gear up for a new season of Motorsport. Whichever hemisphere you are in it is always a time to look to the future as well as look back at the past.
For me watching the movie “Ford V’s Ferrari” over the holiday season was the epitome of that culmination.
In my opinion a brilliant motor racing film. It’s one which anyone, whether they be a fan of the sport of not, can enjoy and appreciate it for what was truly an astonishing story of endeavour and glory at the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
If you haven’t seen it – it’s a must. The movie centers around Englishman Ken Miles, who was an intricate part of the development of the Ford GT 40 and Ford’s quest to beat Ferrari in their own backyard at Le Mans.
It’s a great human story of how American Carroll Shelby spearheaded the Ford campaign bringing in his best friend Ken Miles. They took the fight to Ferrari in a world of sports car racing where Ford had never really ventured outside of Shelby’s efforts using Ford engines.
For me what made the movie so poignant is that I knew the man who won the race that day in 1966 and had a chance, though briefly, to talk to him about that story back in 2013.
Chris Amon was one of three New Zealanders involved in that famous undertaking in 1966 and while the movie hardly mentions them, it reminded me that I sat down with Chris at Hampton Downs during the Toyota Racing Series. We discussed the famous race that, also in many ways, launched his own international career leading to his own future with Ferrari in Formula One.
Chris Amon was the Patron of the Castrol Toyota Racing Series and had a long history with Toyota in developing and testing their road cars. He loved nothing more than watching young drivers chasing their dream of Formula One as he had done back in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Sadly gone now, but certainly not forgotten, Chris was a huge figure in the world of Formula One during the late 60’s and early 70’s. One of the humblest men and and unassuming superstars you are ever likely to meet.
He is remembered each year in the Castrol Toyota Racing Series with the awarding of the Chris Amon Trophy given to the driver with the highest aggregate points over the five rounds constituting the championship, with a fund of $20,000 to the winner. The New Zealand Grand Prix, the final round of the Series, is also held at the Circuit Chris Amon Manfeild, so his legacy is still very much alive and with us as we head to the new decade for Toyota GAZOO Racing New Zealand.
So having seen the movie and knowing that it centered around Ken Miles and his story, the race was actually won by Chris Amon partnered with Bruce Mclaren. Miles was second with his Kiwi teammate Denny Hulme. So the Kiwi’s had a huge roll to play on that famous ’66 podium, and in fact it was Chris Amon’s only win at the race he entered many times.
So with this in mind I went back through my video archive and found my interview with Chris Amon to find out first hand his view of that famous day when he and Bruce won for Shelby and Ford.
Chris had actually begun his relationship with Carroll Shelby at Le Mans In 1964.
“I think something that helped my career a lot in the early days is at the end of 1964 I joined Bruce McLaren and his team, which was very much in its infancy. At that point it was purely doing sports cars.
And along with that, I also drove with Carroll Shelby at Le Mans in 1964 in a Daytona Coupe Cobra and when Carroll got involved in the Ford programme to win Le Mans in 1965, he asked me to drive for him there in the Mark 11 Ford seven litre car (at Le Mans) with Phil Hill in 1965.
“So I sort became part of the Ford long distance programme.“
The irony is that win for Amon, who was only 22 at the time, actually led to an opportunity for his own career that led him to the opposition Ferrari in Formula One.
“In 1966 Bruce and I won Le Mans – and that became very important to me because as a direct result of winning that race in 1966 I was invited to see Mr Ferrari and ended up signing a Formula One contract with Ferrari for 1967.”
Chris remembered with fondness the role of Shelby at the ’66 race and what it meant to be lucky enough to be a part of it.
“Carroll of course knew what he was getting into as he’d won Le Mans himself in 1959 with Aston Martin, so he knew the ropes. But to control the operation that he controlled with Ford at Le Mans, was a huge effort to me. He truly is a huge part of motor racing history.“
The film does a good job of portraying the enormity of the project for Ford. In fact almost half the field that year were either Ford or Ferrari with 14 Ferrari’s and 13 Ford’s entered.
It’s ironic too that the Kiwi’s and the Brits won the day for the Americans when you consider that Ford had thrown everything they could at the effort. Consider this, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, Mark Donahue and Peter Revson were all part of this supreme Ford effort to beat Ferrari at their own game.
CHIRS AMON :
“Carroll did a remarkable job and one of his big strengths was that he got people around him like Phil Remington and Carol Smith. I wouldn’t say he was unflappable, but he was pretty close. Obviously the pressure in ’65 and ’66 running Fords at Le Mans was immense, from Henry Ford the 2nd and his team. I mean they had cars everywhere.
“Big Block 7 litre cars and the small block cars. They were having lots of technical problems with the small block engines leading up to the race. So it was somewhat chaotic and it looked like chaos was reigning supreme. But Carroll kept it all together and really did a remarkable job and I always had a very good feelings for Carroll. And so to me, Carroll Shelby is a big part of motor racing history. Not just in motorsport directly, as his road cars too will live on in history for a long time to come.”
So with the Le Mans win under his belt the call came from Mr Ferrari and Chris Amon was duly summoned for an audience with Enzo at Maranello, with a view to Chris racing for him in 1967.
In fact, Amon’s first race for Ferrari was January 1967 at the Daytona 24 hours. He took Ford on in America and beat them in their backyard to win overall and prove to Mr Ferrari he was the real deal and worthy of one of his F1 seats.
“That was my first race for Ferrari and winning the Daytona 24 hours wasn’t a bad way to start off.
“ At that point, I was one of four drivers in the Ferrari team and there was only two places for the F1 Grand Prix (team) so I was very conscious of the fact that I needed to make a good impression early on to make sure I got the drive in Formula One.“
So again Chris delivered for his employer and became one in a stable of four Ferrari drivers for the 1967 season. Formula One though only had two full time seats in F1 and Chris knew, at 23, he was the youngest and least experienced and it would still be very difficult to get the seat.
Then you consider the era in which Chris raced and to hear how 1967 played out is both remarkable and astonishing in many ways as this was one of the most dangerous era’s ever to be part of Formula One. Between 1950 and 1960, 39 drivers lost their lives in the pursuit of of Formula One. By 1967 it was no less dangerous as Chris describes:
“I guess in simple terms we didn’t know any different and that was how it was. If you wanted to race, that was how it was going to be. I have to say looking back in hindsight, those times were fairly horrific as you could go to the first drivers briefing of the year and if you looked around the room you could have said that 25 percent of those drivers weren’t going to be at the last drivers’ meeting of the year. Didn’t mean they were all dead, but they were either dead or injured beyond ever driving again.”
For Chris his first year in Formula One with Ferrari in 1967 was no different.
“That year though so traumatic to say the least.
“In my very first race at Monaco I lost my teammate Lorenzo Bandini when he was involved in an accident. It happened at three quarters of the way through the race and his car went up in flames with him in it and for the rest of the race I had to drive by the burning car – that was the thing, you just drove on.
“Then two races later, another teammate, Mike Parks from England had a huge accident at Spa breaking both his legs. He never raced again in Formula One as result of that crash. My other Ferrari teammate, the fourth member of the team, Ludovico Scarfiotti, then immediately retired from racing after Parks’ crash.
“So in a matter of months from being one of four, I was one of one and I was still only 23 at the time and for the rest of 1967 I was the only Ferrari driver in F1 shouldering the entire Ferrari reputation at a very young age.”
An incredible insight into what racing was like in that era, the pressures they were all under and the risks they took to race at that time. For me it actually makes the movie that much more outstanding when you hear the real stories from those like Chris Amon and what they undertook to chase glory of that era.
So as we all look ahead to 2020 and another decade of racing and another Chris Amon Trophy up for grabs in Castrol Toyota Racing Series it is sometimes nice to delve back into the past and shine the light on the names of trophies and the men who they are named after.
The Chris Amon Trophy, the Bruce McLaren Trophy, the Denny Hulme Memorial Trophy and of course the New Zealand Grand Prix trophy, read like a who’s who of motor racing history. Steeped in great names of the past that are the very fabric of this enticing, dynamic and alluring sport.
In just a few weeks time, the circuits of New Zealand will be alive to the sound of a new crop of Formula One hopefuls all chasing the dream that Chris Amon and so many others have chased since 1950.
The parallels are certainly there to be seen. Several of the drivers in this series are all ready part of junior F1 teams. Caio Collet of Brazil is with the Renault Sport Academy and Lirem Zendeli of Germany is a Sauber Junior team driver. Last year’s Toyota Racing champion Liam Lawson of New Zealand is now an established part of the Red Bull F1 Junior programme and will defend his title against the likes Yuki Tsunoda who is also part of the same Red Bull stable.
And to bring this full circle, don’t forget Christchurch’s Marcus Armstrong who was runner up to Lawson last year in New Zealand, but won’t be back for another crack at the title this year.
Instead, not unlike Chris Amon all those years ago, Armstrong is one step away from Formula One as this year he will race in Formula 2 for champion team ART Grand Prix. He is already a long term member of the Ferrari Formula One Academy so he too will be out to impress Marenello as Chris did back in 1966 at Le Mans. Here’s to a great and mouth watering new decade of motor sport and enjoying it all with you, the fans of this great sport.
Main picture – Chris Amon with 2015 Toyota Racing Series title winner Canadian Lance Stroll