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Late bloomer gone too soon



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Clay Regazzoni


Ferrari 312B3




XXXVI German GP (August 4, 1974)


These days, little boys have only barely thrown their toys out of the pram before they sample their first go-kart and move on to debut in F1 before reaching the age of 20. Back in the sixties, that was when most drivers got their first acquaintance with some sort of racing car, but compared to his contemporaries Gianclaudio Giuseppe Regazzoni from Lugano, Switzerland, was a throwback to an even earlier age.

A fierce and determined competitor from a country where motor racing was banned, the man who was nicknamed ‘Clay’ only wanted to race – and race hard – the moment he found his passion in life. That moment came very late, at the age of 24, which did not quite make him a ‘young’ talent when he made his Grand Prix debut for Ferrari seven years later. By the time he drove his last Grand Prix he was well over 40 – and still it was cut short dramatically. If it hadn’t been for the dreadful spinal injuries sustained at Long Beach in 1980, who knows how long he would have gone on?

Not that his paraplegia stopped him from competing. On the contrary, this rough and tough man from the Italian-speaking Swiss region of Ticino decided to switch to the most demanding motor racing environment on planet Earth – the African desert. That was to be expected after two major incidents in his early international career failed to tie him down. First there was the Lambert case, in which he was accused of being responsible for fellow F2 driver Chris Lambert’s death at Zandvoort in 1969 – a case that dragged on for years until Clay was finally exonerated. And then there was the fiery accident at Kyalami in 1973 when Mike Hailwood’s bravery was needed to rescue him from the flames that had engulfed his stricken BRM.

As long as he raced everything was fine, and he cared less about being in a competitive car than some of his equally gifted colleagues – even if he had been treated badly by Enzo Ferrari at the end of 1976. Just as happy to race for Shadow as he did for Ferrari, being part of it was more important than being at the head of the queue. Still, he did quite of lot of the latter in the early part of his career. Especially after he joined the works Tecno team, having started racing with an Austin-Healey Sprite before switching to F3 and F2 with fellow italophone Swiss Silvio Moser, he came good when in 1970 the Tecno F2 became the car to beat in the category.

It was not just the sudden dominance in F2, which led to ‘Regga’ taking the European F2 crown, it was Clay’s most impressive season in motor racing anyway. After his F2 wins at Hockenheim, Paul Ricard, Enna and Imola he was invited to rejoin Ferrari, after a dismal 1969 F2 effort had seen him return to Tecno. This time it wasn’t for F2, however. Instead, he jumped into Ferrari’s F1 car at Zandvoort and took fourth place on his debut. He followed it up with another fourth at Brands Hatch, then upped the ante with second in Austria – having qualified third but spinning off with a stuck gearbox at the Nürburgring two weeks before. Then came his fifth race, before Ferrari’s home crowd at Monza saw him head his team leader Jacky Ickx to a one-two the day after Jochen Rindt lost his life. In Canada the two reversed order, but Clay took his third fastest lap in a row. Fuel problems prevented him from scoring at Watkins Glen, but starting from his first pole position he took second again in Mexico, following home Ickx.

It had been a shattering debut half-season in Grand Prix racing. A win, one pole position, three fastest laps, and 33 points catapulting him into third in the final 1970 championship standings, ahead of Hulme, Brabham and Stewart – a trio with, at the time, five World Championships among them. It sealed Clay’s future with Scuderia Ferrari but had anyone seen it coming? To be honest, going back two years earlier, probably no-one in F2 expected this aggressive but not very effective driver to make it this far. The view held by most in the paddock was that Clay Regazzoni was a fast but accident-prone racer who probably started racing too late to change his habits of driving himself or others off the circuit. In the F3 support race at the Monaco GP Clay lost control of his Tecno at the chicane, and with a frightful resemblance of what would happen to Helmut Koinigg five years on the car shot underneath the Armco, almost beheading Regazzoni on the spot. And that’s not to mention Clay being disqualified at Monza for overtaking at the site of an accident – in the F2 event ahead of that fateful European F2 Trophy at Zandvoort.

It was this image that didn’t help when he got involved in a two-car pile-up on the hairy Zandvoort backstretch where he tried to pass promising Chris Lambert. Regazzoni had stalled on the grid and was working his way up the field when he came up to the privateer Brit and failed to force his way past at Tunnel Oost. The Tecno’s left-front wheel touched the Brabham right-rear and in the ensuing carambolage Clay’s Tecno rolled. Miraculously, the Swiss escaped unscathed. That could not be said of Lambert, who died on the spot as a result of plunging straight on into the guard rail, which was covered in straw bales. The unfortunate effect of these was that the impact of the London Racing Team Brabham compacted the bales into a ramp, launching poor Chris onto the pedestrian pathway behind it. A female spectator was killed as well.

Angry at suggestions that the accident was caused by his son being a ‘Sunday driver’ not being quick enough to spot the faster man trying to overtake him, Lambert’s father sought vindication by diverting the blame to Clay, who by all means had been a lap down to begin with. However, the following inquest by the FIA, which took over three years to complete, led to the Swiss being let off the hook after it was judged a racing incident, with Regazzoni only apportioned a carefully worded "mistake in appreciation" instead of serious negligence. But although the FIA investigation in a sense exonerated Clay, that didn’t put the matter to rest. Unable to come to terms with the loss of his son, John Lambert continued to pursue the private action that he started against Regazzoni, and some of the bad feeling and suspicion stuck as long as the civil courtcases dragged on well into the seventies before they were finally abandoned. In the finest traditions of the time, most of this was ignored in the motorsport press.

As he describes in his book Behind the Scenes, Louis Stanley at one time tried to persuade John Lambert into dropping his case against Regazzoni, but to no avail. Instead, Lambert’s determination grew as he lambasted the official Dutch RAC report, which gave a "libellous and completely untrue account of the accident", which enabled them "to lie doggo". He also felt that the motor racing community as a whole sought to sweep the facts under the carpet when he found that the British RAC also failed to stand up for ‘their’ driver, with the GPDA sticking to the party line as well. Helped by the faith that the Dutch judicial system kept in Lambert’s case, he continued his battle after the FIA cleared Regazzoni of dangerous driving in their official statement of November 14, 1971. However, while Regga ultimately went unpunished there were some clever statements full of compromise regarding the "audacity" of a driver which is "impossible to monitor"

Even more importantly, the FIA refused to implicate Chris Lambert in the cause of the accident, as the original ‘libellous’ Dutch investigation had done. It could be argued that this should have been enough for John Lambert to drop his charges against Regazzoni, but he didn’t. In fact, statements made by the Ferrari star to the effect of him being not to blame, Chris Lambert running into him and his father pursuing the matter for insurance money turned John Lambert into an even angrier man. And while he denied being vindictive and claimed that he was trying to prevent someone else getting hurt at the hands of a reckless driver, the evidence was simply not convincing enough for the case to be upheld. And so finally, after years and years of criminal investigation Lambert surrendered to the inevitable.

It can’t be said whether the affair influenced Regazzoni in his further career. On the one hand his form became erratic again in the years following his explosive Grand Prix debut but on the other hand that magnificent 1970 season came ahead of the FIA’s final verdict. And being erratic was probably just Regga being Regga. Years later, that was succinctly put forward by Frank Williams when asked why had replaced his experienced and universally loved number two driver with Carlos Reutemann. The team owner who is known for speaking his mind and not making friends told Mike Doodson it was because of Regazzoni’s inability to consistently match his best lap times. "Very simple, Michael," he said. "Lap 1, 1m 14.2s; Lap 2, 1m 14.6s."

In the two more years at Scuderia Ferrari, where he also formed an occasional part of the sportscar team, Clay witnessed the same downfall that Jacky Ickx experienced. He suffered similar poor reliability, dropping him out of points-scoring positions all the time, but his speed was never in question when he was on it, often being the faster qualifier. But these front-row performances, and a win in the Race of Champions, would be interspersed with complete off-days, such as at Monaco in 1971 or in Canada later in the year, when he had sizeable shunts on both Friday and Sunday in the murky Mosport conditions. On other occasions he would lead serenely before dropping back, as he did in South Africa in 1971, or crashing out of it, such as at Monza in 1972. That was the last time that Ferrari really featured at the front of a Grand Prix before it would sink into the shameful depths of 1973.

Mercifully, Regazzoni didn’t need to endure the agony that caused his erstwhile team mate Ickx to jump ship in the middle of the season, as moving to BRM proved to be a blessing in disguise. Clay got off to the best possible start by scorching to pole in the season-opening Argentine GP and leading the first 28 laps before his P160D develop tyre problems. It was the closest Regga would get to a win, let alone a top-three finish, as the shake-up brought about by the new deformable-structure regulations didn’t quite favour BRM’s uprated P160E. And then there was Regazzoni’s shake-up of his own, before he could sample the very modest joys of racing a P160E.

At Kyalami, in the last race according to the old rule book, an overzealous overtaking move by local hero Dave Charlton set in motion a chain of events that almost cost Regazzoni his life. Having made an excellent start from 13th on the grid to be seventh at the end of lap 1, the South African tried to cover himself in even more home glory when on lap 3 he attempted to outbrake sixth placed Carlos Reutemann into Crowthorne. He slid wide and was hit by Mike Hailwood’s Surtees. Unbelievably, the rest of the field squeezed past undamaged but Ickx and Regazzoni became involved as well. One of the side-mounted fuel tanks of the BRM was ripped open on impact and burst into flames, the unconscious Regazzoni trapped inside. With total disregard for his own safety Hailwood jumped from his stricken car and with the help of a marshal pulled the BRM driver free. The former bike champ’s valiant effort, for which he was subsequently awarded a George Medal, had limited Regazzoni’s injuries to a few minor burns. A narrow escape indeed.

By the end of the season Regazzoni's stock had plummeted to the lowest level his formerly meteoric Grand Prix career had seen. Meanwhile, Niki Lauda had determinedly taken over the mantle as quickest amongst the trio of BRM drivers, much to the surprise of many followers who had seen Ronnie Peterson confirm Lauda's status as a pay driver when the Swede completely outperformed the Austrian at March in 1972. Over in Italy, his former employer in Maranello was suffering from a similar ebb in their glory tide. Clay returning to Ferrari and advising to take on his young team mate seemed a match made in anguish. But as we all know, 1974 became Ferrari's first season of a new heavenly era.

While Ferrari's new age of dominance would later become known as The Lauda Era, it was Regazzoni who almost gave the Prancing Horse its first drivers title in ten years. And he did it by banking on experience rather than speed, simply being reliable and consistent. If anything, Gianclaudio Regazzoni had taken the next step in the natural cycle of a typical Grand Prix career. While young Lauda and Scheckter would be the brash race winners in 1974, assuming the role that Clay himself had played in 1970, they themselves would later win the Championship by using guile and determination against their faster team mates Prost and Villeneuve.

In a thrilling, topsy-turvy four-way battle for the championship, which also saw Ronnie Peterson and Carlos Reutemann win multiple races, the tide shifted in someone’s else favour almost every race. After Regazzoni had taken the tiniest of early leads in the championship, champion elect Emerson Fittipaldi first took command with a second season win in Belgium. He increased the gap to five points at Anderstorp, where Jody Scheckter also joined the fray, taking equal third place with Niki Lauda in the championship. A crushing Ferrari one-two at Zandvoort moved Lauda into second, just one point adrift of Fittipaldi, before a second and third in France lifted the two Ferrari drivers above Emmo in the championship standings. Then Scheckter’s second win moved the South African to equal points with Regazzoni, with the top-four only separated by three points. Meanwhile, Ferrari and McLaren were also neck-and-neck in the constructors championship. The scene was set for a very exciting final quintet of races.

The first of which was the German GP at the Nürburgring. Again, the Ferraris proved to be the fastest of the field, Lauda again outqualifying Regazzoni. But the Austrian undid his qualifying performance right at the start by getting not getting away and then tangling with Scheckter as he tried to recover positions. While Niki was out on the spot, the unperturbed Clay cruised to his first win of the season, his first at the ‘Ring and first place in the championship, finishing a massive 50s ahead of Scheckter. He further proved his run of consistency by taking fifth at the Österreichring while his adversaries fell by the wayside one-by-one. With three races to go, Clay was leading Scheckter by five points, Lauda by eight points and eventual champion Fittipaldi by nine points. And it could have been a lot more if the Swiss hadn’t suffered from a slow puncture in the final part of the race.

The swing came in Italy. And instead of it being a decisive swing in favour of Ferrari in front of their home crowd, it all ended in tears when first Lauda, on lap 30, and then Regazzoni, on lap 40, had their engines suffer from a water leak and a broken oil seal respectively, causing both to retire from the lead. So when Fittipaldi finished second and Scheckter third, the two closed right up on Regazzoni again, who now only held a one-point lead over the Brazilian.

The two North American races would decide this tense battle, and the first thing that the Canadian GP did was eliminate the season’s fastest driver from the title race. That hadn’t looked likely until lap 49, when the four title challengers were running in the top-four positions, Lauda leading Fittipaldi, Scheckter and Regazzoni. If the order had stayed the same, the latter three would have shared first position with 49 points, with Lauda closing up to 47 points. But on lap 49 Scheckter’s brakes failed, causing him to crash heavily. Now Regazzoni was the virtual championship leader again, but ten laps from the end race leader Lauda saw his title chances evaporate when he ran over some debris and crashed. Thus Fittipaldi inherited the lead in both race and title race. Regazzoni trailed him by one point while Scheckter now only stood an outside chance, being eight points adrift.

A year ago, François Cevert had been killed and Jackie Stewart retired from racing and yet the four drivers battling it out for the 1974 title had turned all that into a distant memory. But strangely, none of the three title contenders featured in the deciding US GP. Fittipaldi and Regazzoni qualified eighth and ninth respectively, with Scheckter two places up on Emmo. Lauda was only fifth, underlining the fact that Ferrari was suffering from strange handling problems. It was obvious that the Italians weren’t getting to grips with Watkins Glen. Brabham were, however, and consummately so, as the Carlos train of Reutemann and Pace rambled off into the sunset to make it an Chessington one-two, with the only challenge coming from James Hunt’s Hesketh, which ran a strong second all race before dropping off to third. Meanwhile, Fittipaldi was looking untroubled, simply shadowing Scheckter while being comfortably ahead of Regazzoni, who was struggling with an ill-handling 312B3. To Clay’s credit, he never gave up and indeed finished the race, but in 11th place, a massive four laps down. Lauda had already retired on lap 38 after dropping back to 14th with similar handling problems, so a large part of Clay’s trouble lay in his car. But had this been all? In pre-race testing Clay had a huge accident, bruising his leg, while Ferrari had to ship a new chassis over to the US. These were hardly the ideal conditions to challenge Fittipaldi’s slim title lead, and so, in all honesty, Regazzoni can’t be blamed that he failed to do so.

Still, this had been Clay’s closest shot at the World Championship. From 1975 on, Lauda would take charge at Ferrari, forcing Regazzoni to play second fiddle. There were no regrets, however, with Clay still taking the opportunity to shine on a few very special occasions. In hindsight, the moniker ‘Clay Regazzoni, World Champion’ almost seems a contradiction in terms, as the nostalgic motor-racing follower would rather remember Clay for these shattering single performances, such as those at Monza in 1975 and at Long Beach in 1976. It fits with the image Clay had of himself – a good professional with the one big fault of not being ambitious enough.

The Monza race had been preceded by Regazzoni winning the non-championship Swiss GP at Dijon before heading to Italy, where Lauda needed just half a point to clinch the title. As the Ferraris shut out the front row, Lauda heading Regga, the two drove clear of the field with ease, the Austrian seemingly content with scoring a couple of points and indeed dropping back at the end to allow Fittipaldi into second. At the front, Regazzoni reeled off the laps to take his second Monza win, much to the delight of the crowd, who always regarded Clay as their favoured son – instead of Ickx or Lauda.

While Regazzoni’s Italian GP victory could still be put down to Lauda handing him the win, his Long Beach performance in 1976 was one of pure dominance, and probably the best Grand Prix weekend of his entire career. Taking the hattrick of pole, fastest lap and win, Clay didn’t give anyone else a look-in in those three late-March days. Championship-wise, however, these were his very first points of the season, while team mate Lauda had already mustered 24 of them. By the time of the Austrian’s fiery accident at the Nürburgring, these had accumulated to 61 while Regazzoni had found only 7 more points in the meantime. Taking a clinical view, it was no surprise that in the end Ferrari decided to replace him with Carlos Reutemann, who was very unhappy with Brabham’s new association with Alfa Romeo, which had only netted him a single fourth place in Spain. Initially contacted as a replacement for Niki Lauda, who had been given the last rites in hospital, ‘Lole’ suddenly found himself in a third Ferrari at Monza when Lauda arose from the ashes to re-stake his title claim. At the same time, Regazzoni found new pace, which gave him second places at Zandvoort and Monza.

It would be to no avail, as Ferrari had to honour their 1977 contract with Carlos Reutemann. However, the Commendatore was hardly honourable when it came to dealing with the issue of squeezing three drivers into two 312T2s. In fact, in between the Dutch and Italian GPs he reassured Clay of his 1977 seat with Ferrari. So when the Old Man eventually informed Regazzoni that there would be no room for him in 1977, Clay had already declined on two lucrative offers, one by McLaren, the other by Bernie Ecclestone, swapping places with Reutemann. And since Carlos didn’t go off the record either to tell Clay that he had signed for Ferrari, it was too late for Regga to contact any of the other big teams. There was pride in it too, since Bernie offered Clay a sizeable Brabham-Alfa deal for 1977 while they caught up with each other in the Monza paddock. Carlos racing for Ferrari at Monza could have been a clue, but perhaps Clay was simply too old-fashioned to even consider the fact that Reutemann had been signed weeks before without him being informed. Then, having finally been told the truth by Enzo Ferrari, Regazzoni quickly approached Ecclestone. The two met at Heathrow, where Clay reminded Bernie of his Monza offer. The Brabham team boss showed why he later became the richest man in the F1 paddock by far, by lowering his offer to less than half of the Monza figure. While Regazzoni was never in F1 for the money, that sort of deal-making wasn’t part of his dictionary, and he took the next flight home.

So Clay left Ferrari as their longest serving driver to date, but a disillusioned man. He proved that he didn’t care for the money by signing for Mo Nunn’s little Ensign team, going the same way that other former Ferrari drivers Amon and Ickx had gone before. There wasn’t much success to speak of, but Clay felt at home at Ensign. He showed he hadn’t lost any of his single-lap speed by often qualifying the low-budget N177 way ahead of where it was supposed to be on the grid, although Patrick Tambay also showed why it was a great little car later in the year. Two fifth places and a sixth were Clay’s net result, while he crashed out of points-scoring positions in Brazil and Spain. His race of the year came in the season-closing Japanese GP, however, for which he qualified tenth. After a great start, charging past Reutemann, Laffite and Stuck, and profiting from the misfortune of others, he challenged Jody Scheckter’s Wolf at the half-way point before overtaking him for second place. It was a heroic drive before his engine gave up on lap 43.

Looking back, 1978 became a bit of a transitional year, both Regazzoni and team mate Stuck wasting their efforts on the hopeless Shadow DN9, which was a midfield car when at its best but usually lingered at the back. After his single DNQ in 1977, at Monaco, Clay followed that up with five more in 1978, but he also had his days at Jacarepagua and Anderstorp, finishing fifth on both occasions. The only other good thing to be said about the 1978 season was that Clay was the generally the quicker of the two Shadow drivers, as the team went down the drain at the same speed in which the offshoot Arrows team rose to fame.

He was probably very happy to leave Shadow for Williams, since Alan Jones had already shown what the former cash-strapped team was able to do with a wallet filled with Arab money, as the Australian drew ever closer to the all-conquering ground-effect Lotuses. But even to Clay it must have been a surprise that he would be challenging for wins again very soon. On a one-year contract, he joined Jones as the team’s second driver as Williams became a force to be reckoned with. The new FW07, which took the Lotus 79 concept to a higher level, was the team’s true breakthrough car. With it, Alan Jones quickly moved into a dominant position, with Regazzoni following close behind, and it was a surprise that a first victory took so long to become a reality. Indeed, designer Patrick Head later admitted to not having been as pleased as the man whose cars bore his name when the win eventually came at the British GP, as in his opinion it had been too long overdue.

Although that first Williams victory of many came at the detriment of team leader Jones, whose overheating engine meant he had to forsake his lead to Regazzoni, everyone was overjoyed at the fact that sly old Clay – now nearing the age of 40 – had been the man who clinched it. Showing that he was indeed a good professional, Clay did not so much elate at returning to the winners circle after a barren period of over three years, but instead went to congratulate a teary Frank Williams on his well-earned success – "Bravo Frank!"

It was Clay’s fifth and final win, and although he did a thoroughly competent job as second driver to Alan Jones, bringing home 29 points for Didcot, he didn’t argue at being replaced by Carlos Reutemann – again. He was on a one-year contract and he understood why the team needed two equal title challengers in 1980. The veteran was happy to rejoin Ensign’s single-car effort instead, and again looked to make good use of it, qualifying well up in the first few races and just happy to be part of it, back with Mo and Sylvia Nunn’s cosy little outfit.

At Long Beach, the place of his dominant 1976 victory, he was up into an incredible fourth place when he raced onto the Shoreline Drive for the 50th time. Braking for the hairpin corner at the end, his pedal simply broke, leaving him helpless as the car hurtled towards Ricardo Zunino’s car parked in the escape road. The Ensign hit the Brabham and was pushed into the concrete barriers at the far side of the escape road, leaving Clay unconscious for ten minutes before he woke up to feel a terrible pain in his hips. It was a massive shunt which damaged his spinal cord and left him paralysed from the waist down. His days as a Grand Prix driver were numbered.

For a long time he felt sorry for himself, as he readily admitted after he returned to the paddock as a commentator. He even sued the Long Beach organisers for their supposed lack of track safety, in a remarkable judicial challenge that mirrored that of the Lambert affair two decades earlier. Unsurprisingly, he lost the case.

But he recovered all the same, even making a comeback in motor racing, having won back his racing license. It’s no wonder that his 1982 autobiography was entitled È questione di cuore (‘It’s a matter of heart’). Regazzoni’s starts in the Dakar rallies of the late eighties and in the 1993 Sebring 12 Hours paved the way for the acceptance of disabled motorsport competitors, and were an inspiration to Alex Zanardi and Jason Watt, who also came back to successfully race in touring cars despite of their disability. Apart from racing and commentating, Clay worked tirelessly to promote research and improve public accessibility for all those bound to wheelchairs, running a driving school for the disabled at the Vallelunga circuit near Rome. Regazzoni even started a Swiss watch brand of his own, trading on his reputation as a cool, old-school motor racing hero while investing the proceeds into further efforts to improve disabled people’s lives. It was his wish to walk again and he underwent a long series of operations, but his spinal cord would never be repaired.

His last competitive appearance driving a hand-controlled car came in the London-Sydney Marathon of 2000, in which he competed in a specially modified Mercedes, but after that he came back to visit several historic festivals. Six years later he was dead, and the news came as a shock to all. Driving his Chrysler Voyager on the A1 near Parma he hit the back of a lorry and was killed on the spot. This late bloomer in motor racing had gone too soon but at least he died in his favourite place – at the wheel. The racer with the most glorious name of them all – Clay Regazzoni – had gone.