" I was never thinking about the World Championship. I was just racing day by day. I enjoyed life. That was the maximum for me."

Clay Regazzoni lived life to the full and still does. Adam Cooper talks to one of Ferraris favourite sons about life in the F1 firmament and the accident that ended his career

Everything changed for Clay Regazzoni on March 30 1980. The accident at Long Beach that left him in a wheelchair ended a grand prix career that had lasted for 10 years, but set the Swiss on course for a life that has perhaps been even richer and more rewarding than the one that preceded it. His refusal to let his injury conquer him has served as an inspiration to many.

Had he channelled that sort of determination into his earlier career he might have achieved so much more, but for Clay racing was first and foremost always to be enjoyed. It was not his style to hustle his way into a better, situation or trample over a rival to get a drive.

"I was never thinking about the F1 championship," he says. "I was just racing day by day. With Niki [Lauda], every race was to be on the top. He programmed his life to be champion. I enjoyed life. That was the maximum for me..."

Gianclaudio Regazzoni was born near Lugano on September 5 1939, just two days after the start of World War II. His father owned a bodyshop, and when he was old enough Clay joined him in the business.

"When I was 14 I was already driving cars," he recalls. "It was the time of Fangio and Moss. I liked watching them very much but there was no television, and it was not easy to find magazines. I remember going with a friend to the Racing Car Show in London. It was the only chance to see F1 cars.

"In Switzerland racing was forbidden after the 1955 Le Mans accident, but we still had a lot of good drivers."

Regazzoni was 23 when his competition career got off to a low-key start in 1963, campaigning an Austin-Healey in hillclimbs. The following year he switched to a Mini Cooper S and was usually in the top three in his class, but at that stage there was no great desire to move on.

"I was working with my father, going out on Friday night and back on Sunday night. I never thought seriously about motor racing. That only happened when I met Silvio Moser. There was a club in Lugano where we met every Thursday night and just talked about racing. Silvio was driving a Jaguar with a trailer with a Formula Three car on it. Then one day he said, 'Why don't you drive too?' So I started."

To qualify for a Swiss competition licence Clay had to undertake a racing course at Montlhéry, where his instructor was Tommy Spychiger, who was to lose his life at Monza just a few months later.

Regazzoni's first F3 outings at the start of 1965 were with a De Tomaso, before he joined forces with Moser to run a pair of Brabhams under the Martinelli-Sonvico banner. During his second season, in '66, there were signs of genuine progress. The high and low points came in the Italian GP support race at Monza, where he won his heat and led the final until he was eliminated in a spectacular collision.

His break came with a works Tecno drive in 1967. A reputation as a ruthless charger began to take hold, but he stayed with the constructor in '68. He was lucky to escape from an F3 shunt at Monaco, while Tecno's Formula Two car proved to be uncompetitive. The fallout of an accident at Zandvoort, in which Chris Lambert was killed, would dog him for years to come. Then came a chance that any driver with Italian ancestry dreamed of.

"I received a phone call near Christmas in 1968. Franco Gozzi asked me if I'd like to race for Ferrari. I thought it was a joke! He said, 'OK, if you like. I'll come tomorrow to Lugano.' He came, and then I went to Maranello to meet the Old Man for the first time. He didn't talk too much... I never thought about racing for Ferrari: it was a dream. I signed for the '69 season for F2 with the Dino. It was full of problems. I did about four races, the Old Man was very angry and the team was retired."

'Regga' returned to Tecno, but he was still in favour at Ferrari and was offered an F1 chance for '70. Fellow rookie Ignazio Giunti was also signed up, and the plan was for the pair to share the second car alongside Jacky Ickx, when one was available.

Both men had a long wait. Giunti eventually got his chance in the fourth race at Spa, finishing an impressive fourth. Clay, already aged 30, matched that in his first outing at Zandvoort.

"In the first part of the season Ida had a spare car and I didn't race. I had nothing to prove. All I had to do was just finish the race and not make a mistake. When I started in F1 I didn't have any problems. It was maybe more difficult when I moved from F3 to F2, but an F1 car for me was easy to drive because it had a lot of power."

Regazzoni missed France, took another fourth at Brands Hatch, retired at Hockenheim and was second, behind Ickx, in Austria. People began to take note, but no one expected his dramatic victory at Monza in his fifth start, 24 hours after the death of Jochen Rindt.

"That was terrible, but next day was the Grand Prix, so you didn't have time to think about it too much. Monza was a very fast circuit. It was not easy because you had to slipstream — all the way full throttle, with the long corners. So you had to be careful and not make mistakes, because if you went off the circuit there, the accident was terrible, no? That was unbelievable, to win in Monza with Ferrari... When I crossed the finish line I had a big problem with the spectators!"

Second places in Canada and Mexico followed, and he finished third in the World Championship from only eight starts. That same season he also won the European F2 title after a great season with Tecno. Regazzoni had arrived.

Two largely frustrating years alongside Ickx followed, during which time he failed to win another grand prix. Unreliability proved costly, but Clay also made his share of mistakes. During '72 the team began to lose its way, although the boss never lost faith in the Swiss.

"Il Commendatore had said to me, 'Clay, we don't have a programme for '73. We don't have money. If you can find another car then sign, but remember the door is still open.'

"Then I signed for BRM. The year before they were running with five cars. I talked with Mr Stanley and said, 'I'll sign, but with a maximum of two cars because you don't have enough power to support five cars.' So I signed for two cars — for myself and Jean-Pierre Beltoise.

"In December he called me to the Dorchester. 'There's a young guy from Austria who wants to join the team.' But Mr Stanley, the agreement is there.' He comes with a lot of money from a sponsor, we can develop the engine, blah, blah, blah.' I said, 'OK,' and Niki Lauda joined the team.

"This was bad. The BRM car was competitive from the first part of the season — pole in Argentina, the second row in Brazil and South Africa — but in South Africa when they started practice all the engines were open. I said to Alan Challis, 'What's happening? "We've rebuilt the engines.' How can you rebuild the engines at the track?' There were only five engines for the season..."

Regazzoni lost faith in BRM well before the end of the year, and was even 'rested' by an irked Stanley in Canada. By then he had other plans.

"In June or July Ferrari called me for the '74 season. Later I tested the new car at Fiorano. It was top secret. The new car was very competitive. The B1 and the B2 were terrible cars; very nervous compared to the British cars, which were easy to drive. The B3's handling was much better.

"I signed in August, and the Old Man said, 'Who do you want as a team-mate? With Ickx we're finished, and Arturo Merzario we don't want any more.' I suggested Niki. He was young and he was good. We were together in BRM. Some people were pushing for Jarier."

Regazzoni was competitive from the start of '74, but so too was his team mate: "In '74 he made a lot of mistakes, but Luca di Montezemolo was pushing him. When Niki came the media in Italy did not agree. 'Why Lauda?' They were always pushing for an Italian driver. To keep the media quiet he had to put Niki in front of me, because if he was behind, well, Merzario could also stay behind! For that we lost the championship..."

The 1974 season would prove to be his best. The record books show that Lauda was faster, and that Clay took just one pole (at Nivelles) and won only at the Nürburgring. But he was a consistent podium finisher, and no other driver seized the initiative either. He was in title contention until the finale at Watkins Glen.

"It was full of misunderstandings, that season. I lost the championship by three points," he says, reeling off an impressive list of wasted opportunities. In Argentina he qualified on the front row only to blow the start, despite discussing flag waving technique with starter Juan Manuel Fangio. He recovered to third, but five points went astray. At Nivelles backmarker Gerard Larrousse forced him off while leading, and he finished fourth — six points gone. In Austria he was a comfortable second when he had a puncture — a pitstop turned into a comedy of errors, and he dropped to fifth. Four more points lost. Finally, at Monza his engine failed while he was leading.

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 ofJody 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 th4 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."