Le Mans winner: “You could drive one-handed at 220mph” | Top Gear
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Le Mans 2016

Le Mans winner: “You could drive one-handed at 220mph”

50 years since the Ford GT40's Le Mans win, Kiwi Chris Amon talks us through it

  • Tell us what it was like winning Le Mans...

    "I still find it hard to believe it was 50 years ago, but as it’s turned out, it was one of the most important wins I had in my career. It was a great feeling to win the race, but I’ve got to say it was tainted by all the politics.

    "I just can’t remember the timing, but at a certain point, Ford decided to hold station, basically. Bruce McLaren was driving at the time, and he backed off. But Ken Miles ignored the slow signs. At that point, somebody in the Ford management said, 'Ah, well, if we can’t get the drivers to do what we’re telling them to, we’re going to stage a dead heat, and there’s not going to be any arguments.'

    "Ken and Bruce sort of formed up for a dead-heat finish. I’m never quite sure to this day, but our car crossed the finish line well in front of the other car. One thing that I’ve always felt good about is that on sheer pace, we would’ve won the race. So, no matter how it was done, I think we did actually deserve to win on the day."

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  • What was the Ford GT40 like?

    "Bruce and I went to Daytona for the 24-hour race along with several other big-block GT40s. Having done quite a bit of the testing, I wasn’t fully confident that these things were going to last 24 hours being driven fairly hard, so Bruce and I agreed that we’d stick to a set lap time and take it fairly easy; and we ended up finishing fifth. There were, I think, four Fords in front of us, so we changed our strategy a bit for Le Mans. We thought, 'We’ll go for it.'

    "The ’65 car had been very quick - probably 12mph quicker in a straight line than the ’66 car - but it did wander around a bit. The ’66 car was very stable. Literally, you could drive down the straight one-handed at 220mph, and it never deviated. In those days, it wasn’t a case of downforce. It was a case of less lift, really. But very easy to drive, the ’66 car."

  • What was it like racing with Bruce?

    "He was a thoroughly delightful person. Bruce could go to sleep on a pile of tyres in the back of the pits during the middle of the day, so he slept quite well during the night. I never got one wink of sleep, I don’t think. The biggest problem we had is that Bruce loved air flowing in his face, so he’d always aim the vents at his face. When I got in the car, I’d spend the first lap or so readjusting them. That was about the biggest disagreement we had, I think.

    "Aside from the driving side, technically he was very good. He’d come up with ideas. Often, it’d be over dinner on the back of a menu or something. He’d draw something and say, 'This is going to be the way to go on this particular thing.'

    "He was a great guy, too, very positive, very easy to get on with. In late ’66, having beaten them in the Ford, I got this offer to go and see Ferrari. I had to pick myself up off the floor almost. I said 'Yes,' and then I had to go to Bruce and say, 'Ferrari want me to go over next week.'

    "He understood. I think he was disappointed, because he’d invested a lot of time and effort in me. But I think he understood that, firstly, McLaren hadn’t been able to provide me with a Formula 1 car that year; and, secondly, it was an opportunity that doesn’t come along to very many people. He was a great guy, and it’s wonderful to see how the whole McLaren thing’s progressed."

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  • Was there a real overriding sense of having to beat Ferrari in 1966?

    "Yes, very much so. It was very obvious to everybody that was the intention right from Henry Ford himself, down. It wasn’t necessarily make-or-break, but there was a huge amount of determination to succeed.

    "I don’t think Formula 1 had ever really seen an effort on that scale that Ford produced. The number of people involved, to us at the time, was quite mind-boggling. I guess there was an era when a Formula 1 team would go to a race with a maximum of 12, 14 people, including the drivers. Now I don’t think that even covers the catering."

  • So were endurance racers bigger stars than F1 drivers in 1966?

    "The difference was we raced in both. It was sports cars one weekend, Formula 1 the next weekend, and then the odd Formula 2 race or something would get thrown in, too. It would be nice to see a few more F1 guys out at Le Mans now. I’ve seen in print that Alonso’s quite keen to do it sometime. One or two guys like that would definitely raise the profile.

    "Alonso is probably my pick of the current drivers in terms of sheer racing ability. There’s probably others that are as quick as him, but he spent quite a lot of his career actually not in the best car. Watch him at the start. He can be starting from the third or fourth row or something, and he really is good from the moment the lights go out. He’s right on the case."

  • How do you think endurance racing compares now, to back then?

    "It was interesting talking with Brendon Hartley [fellow New Zealander and a Le Mans racer with Porsche]. He said that at the end of the day, you’ve still got to drive the car, but you’ve got to play with the technology all the time while you’re doing it. We had a rev counter and an oil temperature and water temperature gauge, and that was basically it. Now they’ve got 20 buttons or something. But you’ve still actually got to turn the steering wheel at the right time, press the brakes at the right time.

    "Whilst we didn’t go to gyms and things and lift weights and all that sort of thing, the cars were physically so hard to drive, because you had no power steering or anything, and you were racing every weekend, almost, and doing testing in between. If you look at the drivers from my era, there’s a lot more upper body strength, whereas these guys today are sort of beanpoles, really. They’re straight up and down. They’re very fit, but they certainly don’t have particularly the upper body development that we had. It was really like driving a truck without power steering with a lot of the old stuff."

  • It was a considerably more torrid time for driver safety. How evident was fear?

    "It was a bit like the people getting run over crossing the street. It was always going to be somebody else that it was going to happen to. I guess you had to have that attitude, or you wouldn’t have done it.

    "Had we thought about it, we could have gone to a drivers’ briefing first race of the year, looked around the room and said, 'Well, probably 20, 25 percent of these guys are not going to be here at the end of the season.' Which was ridiculous, really."

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