In 1966, 23 year old Chris Amon was hoping to join friend Bruce McLaren’s fledgling F1 team, but a season of unreliability with hastily adapted Ford and Serennissima engines relegated him to the sidelines, a one-off drive for Cooper at Reims aside. At least that’s the tale the record books tell, for in ‘reality’ he was competing in one of the most fiercely contested championships of all time, alongside the best of his generation: Jean-Pierre Sarti, Pete Aron, Scott Stoddard, Nino Barlini, Tim Randolph and Bob Turner. This is Grand Prix, as he remembers it…
“It was off and on a years’ work – still racing in between. Funnily enough I got involved with the trial for the movie John Sturges and Steve McQueen were going to do, Day of the Champion. You had two camps – the MGM and the Warner Brothers’, and they were both running around signing people up – effectively I signed for Warner Brothers. They did some trial footage at the Nurburgring, but at a certain point Warner Brothers decided there wasn’t room for two movies and scrubbed theirs, which I think was probably a wise decision, though it would’ve been interesting to see what they actually came up with, because Sturges had made The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, those sort of movies, so it would’ve been a serious effort. It was interesting actually, meeting John Sturges and comparing him to John Frankenheimer – they were very different sorts of people. Sturges appeared to be very matter-of-fact, very down to earth, whereas Frankenheimer was a much more artistic type of person. But both were obviously great in their own right.
The whole moviemaking thing was a bit of an eye-opener to somebody like myself, coming in from the outside – you sort of got the impression that there was an awful lot of time wasted, but really when you think about it, it was such a huge project with so many people going in so many different directions, that to actually make it happen was a huge achievement. In hindsight Frankenheimer must’ve been a great organiser because things always seemed to happen – there didn’t seem to be a great deal of panic, which there was certainly a great deal of potential for, because you had a professional group of people: cameramen, make-up and lighting and actors, then you had a big group of total amateurs – in terms of the film world – and to coordinate all of that was obviously a fair achievement.
I didn’t do any direct to camera stuff as an individual, but to have all that stuff pointed at you in such a controlled atmosphere, it wasn’t easy. I think that the most relaxed footage they got was in that pub somewhere near Brands – basically everyone filled themselves up and had a great party. Frankenheimer was struggling a bit to get people to relax and not look wooden, and I think one of the ways to do that was to actually get some beer flowing. Graham was almost a stand-up comedian, and that’s the surprising thing in the film – if he’d just been himself it would’ve been great, but it’s not easy having a camera put in front of you and being told what to say, and how to say it. It definitely wasn’t Graham because it’s not just the camera, it’s all the people and the lights and everything else. Phil was probably – as far as the drivers went – one of the better actors, he sort of played himself, really.
James Garner was great, a really nice down to earth guy – he wasn’t particularly ‘Hollywood’. He was a very capable driver, a very keen driver, too – he liked racing and he liked cars, which made a big difference. I found him a really nice, pleasant guy.
Sabato could barely even drive, from memory. Montand wasn’t capable, but watching him, he was certainly very professional. Sabato we had some very funny moments with. We had this GT40 with a trailer hitch on the back of it, which it became my principal job to drive, Frankenheimer used to sit beside me and work the cameras – he had television lenses strapped on beside the camera lens, so he could see what he was shooting from inside the car via monitors. It was basically a Formula 3 car, or Formula Junior car with the front wheels cut off it and the trailer hitch attached, so the camera was just focusing on the driver. I got the distinct impression he didn’t like Sabato, and when he put him in the trailer hitch we’d be doing some scenes and Frankenheimer would say ‘Hang it out a bit’ and you know you could hang the GT40 out and it would hang the trailer out into the ditch basically – it was very obvious, after a while that Frankenheimer wasn’t very impressed with Sabato, and the more I hung him in the ditch, the better. But Montand did a lot in that trailer car too and it was interesting watching him work because he’d, you know, get going and you could see it must’ve been bloody terrifying – you could see it was bothering him – but then he’d pull himself together and act again, so very professional. I mean I wouldn’t have wanted to sit in the thing for all the money in the world! I tend to think that occupational health and safety these days wouldn’t fully approve it!
Francoise Hardy was very interesting, she was quite aloof on the movie, but probably that was a deliberate thing in that first of all she didn’t know all these motor racing people – probably had no interest in motor racing and sort of kept to herself. But after the shoot was finished – in fact it might have been after the premiere – I had dinner at the Dorchester, where Frankenheimer was staying, and Francoise came. She was just a totally different person – relaxed, chatty, friendly, and I think that was the true person. She obviously got on very well with Frankenheimer.
A lot of the driving was very compromised by the cameras and all the paraphernalia that they sort of crammed into and onto the cars, but it wasn’t really a major issue because we weren’t really going hard out. Some of the stuff on the banking at Monza would have been 100/120mph, but quite often the fastest you went was going back to start a take again. We didn’t do whole laps, but there were sequences of corners and things, then you know, you’d all turn round, go back in the other direction, and sort of hoon it, whereas the stuff that was actually shot tended to be quite controlled. If you get a bunch of racing people in that environment then every now and then they want to break out, certainly was in terms of repositioning cars! I mean at Clermont they shot on various different parts of the circuit, and you know, because it’s quite a long circuit, a bit of hooning used to go on between the various shooting spots.
I spent two or three weeks at Clermont, quite a lot of time at Brands too, and Monza. We actually did some of the Monaco stuff in the town of Clermont – I remember there were scenes going up the hill at Monaco, and a lot of what appeared in the film was actually shot at Clermont. My hotel room was next to James Garner’s and they were using that part of the hotel for some of the scenes between him and Jessica Walter. There was probably a lot more done at Clermont than just the racing scenes, but they were identified as somewhere else.
We saw the odd clip, or rush, whatever they call them, but it wasn’t until it was all put together that I really got a grasp of the storyline. I guess the initial reaction, and not just from me, was that it was all a bit over the top. But to be bluntly honest – I’ve watched it a number of times since – looking back, it was all pretty much as it was. Slightly embellished in what people were saying, in that I don’t think we used to talk that way, but what the people were saying in the movie was what I guess people were thinking privately at the time. So in that regard it was probably fairly close to the truth, but as I say, we didn’t tend to talk about it quite so much…”