California dream win

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1976 United States Grand Prix (West)
Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari 312T)

The Formula One teams were wary when they turned up at Long Beach for the first time in 1976. A street race by the seaside, to F1 regulars, meant Monaco, complete with a backdrop of glamour and glitz, beautiful people and beautiful yachts.

The west coast of America could not have been further removed from the French Riviera. Instead of guard-rails, there were concrete blocks. Instead of sleek yachts, there was the faded majesty of the Queen Mary. And where Monaco was full of hangers-on with little interest in motor racing, here was an enthusiastic crowd, eager to see the cream of Europe hurtling round a Los Angeles suburb. Chris Pook (president of the Long Beach GP Association), and the F1 drivers themselves, had worked hard to promote the event.

The gladiators lived up to their promise in qualifying for the third round of the season; Niki Lauda, the reigning champion and winner of the first two grands prix of ’76, found himself fourth, alongside James Hunt’s McLaren. Ahead of them were Lauda’s Ferrari team-mate, Clay Regazzoni, and the ragged, flamboyant Patrick Depailler in a Tyrrell.

Regazzoni was already renowned for exceptional starts, so it was no surprise when the moustachioed Swiss hurtled up Ocean Boulevard to lead into the first turn, heading Depailler, Hunt, Lauda, Tom Pryce (Shadow) and Ronnie Peterson (March). And by the end of that first lap, it became clear that Depailler was going to offer Clay no opposition, with a wayward brake balance. Instead, Patrick was having to fend off the serious attentions ofJames Hunt.

On the third lap, the inevitable collision happened, when Depailler squeezed Hunt into a wall. James emerged from his wrecked McLaren to stand trackside for many laps, shaking his fist at his French aggressor. Patrick, meanwhile, was still wrestling with his car, and had to concede to Lauda’s Ferrari. With the Ferraris running 1-2, many expected Niki to close the gap to his number two, but Clay instead stretched his advantage, so that by lap 20, he was 14sec up on his team leader. Indeed, it was the Tyrrells which provided the race’s entertainment, Depailler climbing up the top six after a spin and Jody Scheckter receiving a hose-down having sat in leaking fuel until a front wishbone broke. With three quarters of the race gone Regazzoni was still 12sec ahead of Lauda, and the Austrian could go no quicker. His challenge finally foundered when a failing differential suddenly forced him to ease his pace.

“Niki wasn’t happy,” remembers Daniele Audetto, then Ferrari’s team manager. “I think he had expected us to slow his team-mate to let him past. But Clay had been in a class of his own all weekend, and driven a fantastic race. He didn’t deserve that in only the third round of the championship. It was absolutely one of Ferrari’s great F1 victories.” Clay Regazzoni had, in fact, driven with the pace, fluidity and precision of his brilliant team-mate. And had deservedly beaten him. David Malsher

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