Chris Amon: The man in Manfeild

CHRIS Amon never turned a racing lap of Manfeild, but his association with our internationally-famous facility are firm – spanning from when it was just a dream project to today, with the 3km main track’s renaming in his memory.
There’s more. Castrol Toyota Racing Series, the high-powered wings and slicks single-seater category that annually brings in top international talent, is an Amon ‘baby’ that contests the New Zealand Grand Prix and also vies for the Chris Amon Trophy on Manfeild, the circuit he helped design.
Born and raised at Scott’s Ferry, a small settlement at the mouth of the Rangitikei River just 30 minutes’ drive from Manfeild, Christopher Arthur Amon is best known for being a massively talented racing car driver who rose to motorsport’s highest ranks.
He spent 14 years in Formula One and his status as the only New Zealander to compete regularly at that level over such a long period will likely always remain singular.
Amon’s story is stuff of Boys’ Own legend. Having cut his teeth on a variety of elderly racing cars – including a Maserati 250F that’s now a prized possession of the Southward car museum – he was talent-scouted by visiting English team owner Reg Parnell and went to Europe in 1963, still a teen.
At the time of his Grand Prix debut at Spa, Belgium, he was the youngest ever F1 driver.
The second big break came when he joined the Ferrari team for the 1967 season; he led the Italian thoroughbred marque’s effort through challenging years. His New Zealand Grand Prix wins in 1968 and 1969 – in Dino V6s improbably, but impeccably, prepared by his longtime mechanic and friend, Bruce Wilson, in a Hunterville garage – were the Prancing Horse’s finest gallops of that period.
Amon’s talent was undeniable; everyone, fellow drivers among them, agreed he was special. Belgian ace Jacky Ickx, who is at Manfeild this weekend as guest of honour for the Chris Amon Celebration Dinner, reckoned the Kiwi who he teamed with in 1968 was “if not the fastest, then one of the fastest” of his era.
It is a matter of record that the speed and natural talent was never properly rewarded. When Amon retired from F1 in 1976, having taken part in 102 Grands Prix, scoring 83 championship points and reaching the podium 11 times. But world championship wins and a title, even when they seemed certain, eluded him.
Regardless, many of Amon’s contemporaries acknowledge a special greatness. Three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart saw “one of the most skilful and natural drivers” ever to grace the sport, saying: “Chris was one of the best I ever knew or saw in action. Because Chris didn’t win on the Grand Prix circuit, his name may not sit so naturally alongside those of other headliners, but my goodness he was talented.”
Enzo Ferrari, more easily given to criticism than praise, also agreed Amon never achieved the success he deserved and cited the New Zealander as his favourite test driver. He also kept a photo of Amon in his personal office.
Poor luck in F1 did not carry through to other key classes. He was a Tasman Series champion here, almost nabbed BMW’s first touring car title and he and Bruce McLaren, in winning the 1966 Le Mans 24-hour sportscar race, provided Ford with a motorsport result that remains one of its most cherished.
Retirement from F1 in 1976 spelled the end of Amon’s racing career; but return to run the family farm also allowed closer ties to Manfeild; which by then had been part of his life for four years.
In ‘Manfeild: The Real Story’, a circuit history compiled for Manfeild’s 40th birthday celebration in 2013, original circuit promoter Rob Lester recalled the meeting he had with Amon – who often came home for Christmas and the summer racing series – to discuss layout ideas for what was then a bare patch of scrubland and swamp.
“I took … plans out to Chris Amon … and the circuit choice was made there and then.
“This was fortuitous in retrospect because a prevailing view was a tight track provided closer racing – Amon refuted this and opted for the more open, flowing design.”
Lester and Manawatu Car Club members of the period attest it was Amon who promoted the need for what remains a trademark feature unique in this part of the world – banked corners. The ace argued these would help Manfeild achieve its intended status as being the country’s fastest and most exciting track and would also allow unprecedented spectator viewing. He was right on both counts.
Amon and two other top national drivers of the day, Graeme Lawrence and Graham McRae, were here as guests when the track work got under way in February, 1973. The trio manned a Higgins earth mover to turn the first sods of earth.
Amon finally got to drive regularly on Manfeild around 1978, as a celebrity road tester for a television programme. That association led to an approach by Toyota New Zealand. He’d lambasted one of their products and they decided they needed his expertise to provide improvements.
From this began a product development partnership with Toyota of unique and undoubtedly special status.
Amon’s expertise in tailoring the brand’s products for local conditions required special dispensation from Toyota Japan – his illustrious motorsport reputation helped swing the deal – and remains unprecedented.
A process always centred at Manfeild, and ended only when local car assembly concluded in 1998, was incremental in the brand assuming a national market dominance still comfortably held today.
With road car work behind him, Amon turned back to motorsport – the Toyota Racing Series, wholly designed and funded by Toyota New Zealand, was activated on his argument that a top-calibre single seater category was an essential springboard for young Kiwi talents to reach the international stage.
That belief was quickly proven: Brendon Hartley of Palmerston North, the winner of the first TRS race, was snapped by the Red Bull Racing Programme. Now World Endurance Racing champion and a Porsche works driver, Hartley raced at Le Mans in 2016, the 50th anniversary of that famous GT40 win, with a helmet design dedicated to his Amon, his mentor and friend.
Amon has also gone to bat for Manfeild during the TRS era. He readily provided testimonial letters of ardent support for the circuit’s initial and ongoing host rights bids for the New Zealand Grand Prix, arguing memorably in 2009 that “Manfeild as a circuit provides a layout not equalled at present by any other track in the country.”
Manfeild provided close and interesting racing, he continued, and as such, “has become a key feature of the Manawatu sporting community.”
Chris Amon might have imagined he would slip into obscurity on retirement from racing. How wrong he was. His passing on August 3, 2016, not only rocked this nation but the entire motor-racing world. Drivers, his mechanics, the great teams, from his era and since, delivered moving tributes.
For Manfeild, there was no debate. Chris Amon was with us from the start – he should be with us always.
Welcome to Circuit Chris Amon.