Sometimes theatrical, sometimes stubborn, sometimes brilliant Clay Regazzoni lived his Formula One dream for a decade. Then it became a nightmare. Alan Henry profiles one of racing’s bravest.
Consider the following. “I have “to say that what I saw that day at Monza was unethical, unsporting and dangerous. It was the start of a breakdown of discipline among the grand prix drivers and the beginning of an unfortunate trend.
“Weaving on the straight at that sort of speed is downright dangerous. You can be surprised by the speed at which another car can catch you under those circumstances. You can get yourself badly caught out. I was not impressed.”
So who made this terse observation? David Coulthard complaining about Michael Schumacher’s tactics? Could be. But it’s not. Go back more than 30 years. It was Jackie Stewart’s assessment of Clay Regazzoni’s behaviour in the 1970 Italian Grand Prix.
The determined Clay eventually broke his tow to Stewart’s cumbersome March 701 and moved his elegant Ferrari 312B1 commandingly ahead score his first F1 victory in only his fifth GP start. Needless to say, as the delighted tifosi invaded the circuit in the wake of this memorable victory, Stewart’s opinion was very much the minority view. Ignored, rather.
Gianclaudio ‘Clay’ Regazzoni could be one tough customer at the wheel of a racing car. His F1 career straddled a decade from 1970 to ’80, during which he scaled considerable heights of achievement before plumbing the depths of despair after he ended up paralysed from the waist down following that final shunt at Long Beach. He competed in 132 grands prix, won five, set 15 fastest race laps and bagged five pole positions. In 1974 he finished runner-up in the world championship at the wheel of a Ferrari, trailing McLaren team leader Emerson Fittipaldi.
He was — indeed, is — charismatic, philosophical and warmly popular among the legions of his fans. By contrast, his on-track rivals regarded him as quick, sometimes erratic, occasionally inspired. Overwhelmingly, though, it was the charisma and charm for which the moustachioed Swiss will be remembered.
He hailed from Ticino, the predominantly Italian-speaking area of southern Switzerland. Born on September 5, 1939, in Lugano, where his father was a coachbuilder, he was competing in Swiss hillclimbs at the wheel of an Austin-Healey Sprite by the time he was 18. Circuit racing had been banned in Switzerland in 1955 following the Le Mans tragedy, so Clay had to venture abroad if he was to become a serious racer. Like other hopefuls of the period, he scrimped and saved to raise sufficient cash to break into the 1-litre F3 category.
He did so in 1965 and was soon on the verge of making his name. But his win-or-bust mentality looked like being costly, from the standpoint of his bank balance and his personal health. He walked away from several spectacular shunts.
But he was quick. Very quick.
He was signed to drive for Tecno, the Bologna-based former kart specialist company owned by the Pederzani brothers, in 1967, and raced for them with increasing success, first in F3, then F2 andF3 in 1968, which is when he ‘made’ his name on two counts.
Firstly, he had a remarkable escape with the F3 car at Monaco. He hit an insecurely-fixed barrier at the waterfront chicane and his car submarined beneath it. A length of guard rail ended up between the back of his neck and the front of the Tecno’s roll-over bar!
Secondly, in the Dutch round of the European F2 series at Zandvoort, when jousting with British rising star Chris Lambert’s Brabham BT23C , they touched coming through the fast right-hander leading onto the start/finish straight. The Brabham vaulted over the edge of the circuit and landed in a spectator access gorge which led to a footpath underneath the track. Lambert was killed instantly. Clay’s Tecno flipped in the sand on the other side of the circuit. He was unhurt.
Lambert’s team-mate in the self-styled London Racing Team was none other than Max Mosley, now president of motor racing’s international governing body. “I wasn’t far behind them when the accident occurred,” he remembers. “I saw Clay upside down where he’d come to rest, a hand just emerging from beneath the car. After the accident there was a lot of criticism of Clay’s driving, but I don’t really recall him being particularly outrageous. The fact is that this accident was a bit like the Luciano Burti/Eddie Irvine collision in this year’s Belgian Grand Prix. But in somewhat less robust machinery.”
Nevertheless, Regazzoni was vilified by some sections of the media, particularly in the UK, where Lambert’s distraught father bombarded the press with lengthy critiques of Regazzoni’s behaviour. He even offered to go wheel to wheel with him in Formula Fords in what seemed to be an embarrassingly confused bid to avenge his son’s death. A sad and painful postscript to an extremely unfortunate racing accident, these events cast a shadow over Regazzoni’s reputation for some time, however unfairly.
Clay flirted with Ferrari’s F2 programme in 1969, but the 1.6-litre V6-engined Dino 166s were less than reliable and he reverted to Tecno mid-season, and stayed with the Pederzanis to win the 1970 European F2 Trophy. But by the time he clinched that title, at Imola in September, he’d already won the Italian GP — and secured a place in Maranello’s F1 squad for the foreseeable future. He recorded one win, three seconds, two fourths, three (consecutive) fastest laps, one pole and never qualified lower than sixth during a memorable eight-race F1 intro during the second half of 1970.
The next two years, however, were to be a relative, winless disappointment, partnering Jacky Ickx. His consolation was sharing the winning Ferrari 312PB sports prototype with the Belgian in the Monza 1000Km and Kyalami Nine Hours.
He then tangled memorably with Stewart’s Tyrrell-Ford on the last lap of the ’72 German Grand Prix. JYS:”I was right on his tail going down through the forest after the North Curve. At the bottom of that hill there’s a right-hander, followed by a left, which leads out towards Flugplatz.”
Clay made a mistake on the previous S-bend leading into that right-hander, so I came up alongside him on the left. I reasoned I could sit it out with him to be on the inside for the left-hander onto the straight. But he simply moved over on me and pushed my car into the guard rail.”
Clay begged to differ: “I think the truth is that Jackie was annoyed with himself. When he came up alongside me he was off-line where the track was quite dusty. I braked late and he’d got a problem.” Then he smiled.
At the end of 1972, Regga accepted an invitation from BRM’s imposing Louis Stanley to drive for the British team in ’73. Although the partnership started well, Clay planting the P160 on pole and leading for 28 laps in Buenos Aires, it soon ran out of steam along with the car’s V12 engine. Stanley and Regazzoni were hardly obvious soulmates. Having been sold the deal by Stanley on the basis that he had a car which could win the championship, Clay allegedly replied, “Screw the championship! How mucha you pay?”
He returned to the Ferrari squad, now revamped under the stewardship of Luca di Montezemolo, in 1974, and would enjoy three fruitful years,coming within an ace of the world championship at Watkins Glen that first year.
Team-mate Niki Lauda remembers him fondly: “Off duty, I always got on incredibly well with Regazzoni. To the Italian public he was the original macho man, a no-holds-barred womaniser, and I must say that it was anything but dull being in his company.
“He was honest and direct. You could tell what was going through his mind by the expression on his face. When something didn’t suit him, he let you know at once. To be honest, though, I have to a admit that he was a little in the shadow of the Lauda/Montezemolo pairing.”
During his second spell at Ferrari, Regazzoni won three grands prix: the ’74 German at the Nurburgring, the ’75 Italian at Monza where third place earned Niki his first world title and the ’76 US GP West through the streets of Long Beach. This latter event yielded a classic performance from Regazzoni: he started from pole, led every lap and set fastest lap.
Later that year, though, his pal Lauda crashed heavily at the Nurburgring and sustained serious burns. The pressure now fell upon Clay to salvage the championship. In many ways, the rugged Swiss would be as much a casualty of the ’76 season as his hapless mate. Lauda hovered between life and death for several days, but eventually recovered and returned to the cockpit. Neither he nor Regga, however, could prevent the drivers’ title from falling into the hands of James Hunt. And even before the end of the year, Clay was ditched in favour of Carlos Reutemann, despite assurances to the contrary. Regazzoni never forgave Old Man Ferrari his duplicity.
Two relatively unproductive years followed, one with Mo Nunn’s tiny Ensign team (1977) and one with Shadow (1978). Clay loved driving for Nunn. “Please put the kettle off,” he would say to Mo’s first wife, Sylvia, when hinting that a cuppa might be nice. He revelled in Ensign’s matey, family environment.
Jackie Oliver’s Shadow was ostensibly better funded but, in reality, was one step further down the ladder to career oblivion. But a surprising lifeline awaited him in ’79.
He grabbed it.
And made the most of it.
Frank Williams wanted an experienced hand to drive alongside Alan Jones in his fledgling F1 operation. He chose Clay. The timing was perfect .
“I remembered that when he’d last driven a world-class car, back in ’76, he’d driven everyone into the ground at Long Beach,” explains Sir Frank. “He scored a lot of points and rarely crashed. Perhaps not the greatest F1 driver in the world, but absolutely superb on his day certainly more than a number two and a happy,uncomplicated man. It worked out very well. We did each other a favour.
“Clay is an absolute gentleman, very different from most racing drivers. He genuinely loved racing for its own sake. A totally adorable character.”
It was with Williams that he scored the last, and most memorable, GP win of his career. Those who were present at Silverstone that day will recall with a lump in their throat the moment Clay’s FW07 tore into view through Woodcote to win the British Grand Prix. It was Frank’s first F1 victory.
But Clay was just two months shy of his 40th birthday when he celebrated that day with orange juice, in deference to Williams’s consortium of Saudi Arabian sponsors. He probably knew his time in front-line F1 was running out, and there was no bitterness when the ever-pragmatic Williams replaced him with Carlos Reutemann in 1980.
Instead, he returned to Mo Nunn’s little Ensign operation. During the Long Beach Grand Prix, scene of his memorable drive four years earlier, the titanium brake pedal distorted under heavy load and, despite downchanging frantically from fifth to third in a desperate bid to slow the car, he slammed down an escape road at the end of Shoreline Drive and smashed into the Brabham BT49 of Ricardo Zunino, which had been abandoned earlier in the race.
The resultant disability may have ended his F1 career, but despite being confined to a wheelchair, Clay continued to compete in events like the Paris-Dakar Rally in hand-controlled machinery. He also opened a disabled drivers’ school, suffusing those around him with optimism and the power of positive thinking.
Star quality comes in diverse forms. Clay Regazzoni very definitely has his own particular variety. And he has it in heaps.