Clay Regazzoni

Formula One racing driver who earned a tough-guy reputation


Gianclaudio "Clay" Regazzoni, racing driver: born Mendrisio, Switzerland 5 September 1939; died Parma, Italy 15 December 2006.

Clay Regazzoni, who was killed in a road accident on his way to the Bologna Motor Show on Friday, was the archetypal tough-guy race driver. His dauntless brio led him into many situations from which he was lucky to escape. At Monaco in 1968, he crashed his Formula Three Tecno exiting the chicane, and the steel guardrail sliced over the cockpit. Somehow, Regazzoni was able to duck down sufficiently to avoid decapitation, sitting up again to find the barrier behind him, jammed up against the rollover bar.

In 1973, only the intervention of that great cavalier Mike Hailwood saved "Regga" from death in a blazing inferno after he crashed his BRM in the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami.

Sometimes he was too tough. At the Nürburgring in Germany in 1972, Jackie Stewart branded him crazy after a coming together had seen the Swiss driver's Ferrari force the Scot's Tyrrell off the road as they fought over second place. Worse, many blamed Regazzoni for the death of the English privateer Chris Lambert in a Formula Two race at Zandvoort in the Netherlands in 1968. Regazzoni's Tecno collided with Lambert's Brabham, which crashed into a bridge abutment. An inquiry exonerated Regazzoni, but Lambert's father, John, never forgave him.

In 1974, the only season in which he was in contention for the world championship until the final race at Watkins Glen in America, Regazzoni ruthlessly blocked the eventual champion Emerson Fittipaldi after falling back with a pit-stop.

Yet, Gianclaudio "Clay" Regazzoni was also a great racer. Raised in Ticino, a predominantly Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, he did not begin competing until 1963, taking two thirds and a fourth in three races with an Austin Healey Sprite before switching to a Mini Cooper. From 1965 he quickly graduated through the ranks in Formula Three with the Brabham, de Tomaso and Tecno marques. In 1970, the year he would win the European Formula Two Championship, he graduated mid-season to Formula One with Ferrari, alternating with Ignazio Giunti. He finished fourth in his first two races, in Holland and Britain, then second in his fourth, in Austria. He then won his fifth, in Italy, the weekend that Jochen Rindt was killed. Despite only competing in seven races, he finished third in the world championship.

He won the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in 1971, but had to wait until the German Grand Prix in 1974 to win again. Other victories followed, at Monza again in 1975 and Long Beach in 1976. But when Niki Lauda returned to race again for Ferrari, after his fiery crash at the Nürburgring in 1976, Enzo Ferrari had already written off his Austrian star and signed the Argentinian Carlos Reutemann. With Lauda back, there was suddenly no room for Regazzoni, who drifted off to race for Morris Nunn's private Ensign team from Walsall. It might have been a step from the sublime to the ridiculous, but Nunn's car was neat and Regazzoni got on famously with him and his wife Sylvia.

The following year, he partnered with Hans Stuck at Shadow, before being rescued by an emergent Frank Williams as number two to the ebullient Australian Alan Jones for 1979. Jones was quicker, but his car was more fragile than Regazzoni's, and it fell to the latter in his Indian summer to score the team's first victory, fittingly enough in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. It was a massively popular success, and Regazzoni's last. He finished fifth in the championship that year. Williams described him as "an absolute gentleman," but at the end of the season Regazzoni was on the move again, as Williams had signed Carlos Reutemann.

Many drivers would not have been able to bear the ignominy of being dropped by another major team. But Regazzoni adored racing. "I love it like Graham Hill did," he said.

For me, it is not a matter of winning all the time. I am quite happy just to be a part of Formula One. I love it, and most of all I love to drive racing cars. So why should I stop when I feel this way?

With backing from Unipart, he went back to Mo and Sylvia Nunn at Ensign, and a brand new car. Then, at Long Beach, the fourth race of the 1980 season, a titanium brake-pedal broke. Riccardo Zunini's abandoned Brabham was still parked in the hairpin escape road, and as the brakeless Regazzoni struck it he sustained injuries that left him paralysed from the waist downwards.

Soon, he was back at the wheel of a specially converted roadcar, fighting campaigns for disabled drivers and the greatest challenge of his life with his habitual enthusiasm and pride. He pursued the hope that his damaged spinal cord might be repaired, undergoing many operations, before finally accepting that the miracle would not happen for him.

"Clay was the sort of guy you could never forget," said Lauda, who partnered him at BRM in 1973 and then at Ferrari.

He died as he lived, simply taking life as it came. He was a great blend of the professional and the playboy. He enjoyed life and was never negative. Even after the accident in 1980, he made the best out of his circumstances.

When I joined BRM, he was the star and I was the young kid, but I learned a great deal from him.

Regazzoni commentated on some grands prix, then competed in the Paris-Dakar and London to Sydney Marathon events. In later years he would always appear at Monaco in his electric wheelchair. He would happily sign autographs for the many fans who still remembered with great affection the tough guy with the cloth cap and the famous bandit moustache.

His body might have been broken, but nothing that life threw at him ever overcame his unquenchable dignity and spirit. Fittingly, his 1982 autobiography was entitled E questione di cuore - "It's a matter of heart".

David Tremayne

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