There is a song by the great blues guitarist and singer Albert King called ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, which features the lines, ‘If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all’. There is no doubt that if we had to match that song to a Formula One driver, then we would have to choose the driver of whom Mario Andretti once said, ‘If he became an undertaker, people would stop dying’; the third driver in the trio of great drivers from New Zealand, and the man whose 68th birthday it is today: Chris Amon.
Christopher Arthur Amon MBE was born in the rural town of Bulls in North Island, New Zealand on July 20th 1943, the son of a wealthy sheep farmer. Chris persuaded his father to buy him an Austin A40 when he left school and like those other great Kiwi drivers, Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme he was soon entering it in races and hillclimbs. He progressed through a series of cars and started to come to people’s notice when he drove the Cooper-Climax T51 which Bruce McLaren had driven when he won his first GP at Sebring in 1959.
In 1962 he entered the New Zealand Winter Series and whilst driving there he was spotted by Reg Parnell, who had taken part in seven F1 races between 1950 and 1954 and who now ran his own team. Parnell was impressed enough by the young driver that he invited him over to Europe to drive for him, and Chris spent his first two seasons in F1 driving for Reg Parnell Racing.
His first race seems now in retrospect to have set the scene for the rest of his career. Before the race started his team mate, Maurice Trintignant’s car developed a mechanical fault and he took Amon’s car. Throughout the rest of his debut season, he finished two races, coming second at both Reims-Gueux and Silverstone. He retired from four more races and had another DNS at Monza.
He raced for another thirteen seasons, up until 1976 and he drove for twelve different teams, but never really achieved the success everyone thought he was capable of. Out of 108 races over the course of his F1 career he retired from 45 of them. He did not start a further 8 and did not qualify for a further 4. Of the remaining races he finished second three times and took a further eight third places to give a total of eleven podiums.
His most successful season in Formula One was 1967, when he drove for the Scuderia and finished fourth in the drivers’ championship, but even that season started badly as he crashed his car driving to Brands Hatch for the pre-season Race of Champions. He notched up third place finishes at Monaco, Spa, Silverstone and the Nürburgring and a fourth place at Zandvoort, but then finished the season with a sixth place in Canada, a seventh at Monza, a retirement at Watkins Glen and a ninth place in Mexico.
Despite failing to win a race in Formula One, Chris Amon was by no means unsuccessful as a racing driver, winning eight non-championship GPs, the Silverstone BRDC International Trophy, the 1000km Monza, the Tasman Series and the 24 hour races at Daytona and Le Mans, the latter as co-driver with Bruce McLaren.
Although Chris Amon is synonymous in most people’s mind with bad luck, he himself does not agree, arguing that he competed for fourteen of Formula One’s most dangerous years, during which time many drivers, including his friend Bruce McLaren, died on the track, whereas he himself had been lucky enough to survive some serious accidents including the 1976 Belgian GP at Zolder, where his Team Ensign car lost a wheel causing him to crash. It was Niki Lauda’s crash at the Nürburgring that season that prompted him to retire from Formula One, after he was sacked from the team for refusing to continue.
From a statistical viewpoint Chris Amon was not a very successful F1 driver, however there is a saying, which is as true in motorsport as it is in any other area of life, that not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted, counts. In 2008, motorsport journalist Alan Henry published a book in which he listed and ranked his greatest F1 drivers of all time: in that list he placed Chris Amon thirteenth. Unlucky for some? Chris Amon for one would disagree.