He still went to the USA equal with Emerson Fittipaldi, but was never in the hunt all weekend: “We never know what happened in Watkins Glen. The car was undriveable, and for me the problem was with the tyres — Goodyear had changed the tyres — and also in Canada the car was very nervous… It was really uncompetitive. But nobody was excited. It was just the same routine. Montezemolo was pushing hard for Niki. Nobody was interested in winning the championship with me.”
In 1975 Lauda really took control and Regazzoni struggled to keep up, although he did win again at Monza. It was only after he left Ferrari that Clay discovered one of the tricks that the Austrian had employed over their years together.
“At the time there were no radial tyres, and the tyres were made manually. There were many guys, and the tyres made today and tomorrow may be different. Every time I went out with my car it was pulling right or left — it would never go straight. Then they adjust with the pressures.
“Niki never had this problem. He had the possibility to look at all the tyres and chose those made by the same hand on the same day. So his car was always perfect! Goodyear had a good relationship with Ferrari, and Montezemolo gave Niki the opportunity to do this. If you look at the grid, nine times out of 10 he was in front of me.”
Clay scored the fourth World Championship win of his career at Long Beach in 1976, but the season was turned upside down by Lauda’s crash in Germany. “The media put out a big story: Niki’s finished, cannot drive anymore. We did not race in Zeltweg because the Old Man was angry. Then they started to find other drivers for the next season. In Monza, when Niki came back, Carlos Reutemann was there.
“At Monza Teddy Mayer and the Marlboro people asked me to join McLaren… I remember I was in the motorhome, talking to him about money. But things were very good with Ferrari, so no way was I going to move. Then I said to Montezemolo, ‘Normally at Monza we decide on next year.’ He said, ‘The team is the same, Reutemann is just for this grand prix,’ and it was not the truth. Finally at the end of the season I read in the newspaper Carlos is coming. Nobody said, ‘You are out!’ I lost the opportunity to have a good, competitive team.”
Had he been more politically adept Regazzoni might have read the writing on the wall. After turning down Bernie Ecclestone, he followed fellow Ferrari alumni Chris Amon and Ickx into the little Ensign team. “It was a nice experience. Morris Nunn is a good guy. The engine was not the best, but everyone was on the same tyres. Even in ’77 with a small budget we could have a good season with a normal car. If something happened in the race, you could easily get into the points.
“Then they had no money for the next year, so I signed for Don Nichols. It was unlucky, because Shadow was broken as Jackie Oliver went off to start Arrows after I signed. So it was me, Hans Stuck and Jo Ramirez!”
In ’78 Clay suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify on five occasions. At 39 his stock was at rock bottom, but a revival was on the horizon. After a promising year with Alan Jones, Frank Williams had found enough backing to expand to two cars. After Stuck and Jochen Mass turned the down the opportunity, he settled on Regazzoni.
“I saw the new project and Patrick [Head] was a very good guy. The problem was the qualifying tyres; they gave just one set, and the car was completely different to drive. You go fast where normally you brake, so you have to understand them. I made bad use of them… At this time we also raced in the BMW Procar series. You had to be in the first five on Friday so I did all the races! Then on Saturday the qualifying was no good.”
The new FW07, once it was sorted, was to revive Clay’s career. At Monaco he started only 16th, but drove an inspired race to second — right on the tail of Jody Scheckter’s Ferrari. Two races later at Silverstone Regazzoni had his day of days, winning the British GP after Jones retired: “I always liked Silverstone so it was very nice. It was like winning in Monza with Ferrari.”
Although the veteran was getting decent results, Frank Williams needed a driver who could really push Jones. Distracted by abortive discussions with Alfa Romeo, once again Regazzoni failed to spot which way the wind was blowing.
“It was a misunderstanding. After we finished first and second at Hockenheim we started talking about re-signing. Then I made a mistake at Zandvoort. Patrick was angry. Then Reutemann came in…”
Instead he found himself back at Ensign: “Carl Haas asked me to race in the Can-Am. Maybe it would have been the right decision to go to the States with a good team, a winning car. I decided to stay, then Morris called me and said, ‘We have a good team, we have money,’ and he showed me the design of the new car. I decided to do it. And it ended up with the accident. But I think it was part of my life, not because I was driving the Ensign.”
After three earlier disappointing outings Clay started on the back row at Long Beach, but had charged up to fourth place by lap 50. Then the brake pedal broke.
“At the end of the straight I tried to brake, and the pedal was not there. Then I tried again. I thought maybe the pedal went down and it would come back. I took second or third gear, I tried to reduce the speed, and I tried to slide into the Brabham of Zunino. Maybe that was not a good decision. They told me that when I hit the Brabham my car moved up and then went down so I didn’t go straight into the tyres — I went under them. When I woke up I was still in the car, and Dan Gurney was saying, ‘Is everything OK?’
“I’m in a wheelchair not from the accident, but from a mistake. It was a mistake to operate, because my spine was never hurt. It took them only six hours to decide whether to operate or not, but they should have left me in traction. The operation was not completed, the spine was not stabilised. They just removed the compression, but they didn’t stabilise the vertebrae. Normally they lock two vertebrae with a piece of bone, a graft.
“After one week I was moved to Basle and spent two months in bed. I regained the feeling and started to move my toes a bit. Everything was OK. There was no pain, we just had to wait. After two months they removed me from the bed. They found the spine was never fixed — the operation was not complete. During the physiotherapy the vertebrae were moved and compressed. Then they had to operate at once, then another time: five times in all. I discovered that in the United States they were about 20 years behind compared with European technology…”
Regazzoni quickly came to terms with his new circumstances and threw himself into helping others, notably by founding a driving school. “I discovered another world, especially in Italy where everything was not easy for handicapped people, for paraplegics. Then we started with the school. Now I’m involved in a Swiss foundation for research into the spinal cord.”
He couldn’t keep away from motorsport. For years he’s be a regular on the Dakar raid, and has undertaken gruelling events like the London-Sydney revival. He’s also raced on circuits — a celebrity event at Long Beach a few years ago exorcised some ghosts. He even broke a leg in a karting accident in 1999. Now 66, he’s as busy as ever.
“I enjoy driving fast. Even when I was in F1, it was more important that I was driving the cars rather than becoming champion.”