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CFM: Clay Regazzoni – A Tribute

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Published at Chequered Flag Motorsport on 20th December 2006

Gianclaudio Giuseppe ‘Clay’ Regazzoni 1939-2006

On December 15 we lost one of the great characters of 1970s Formula One. Clay Regazzoni was killed in a car accident in Parma, Italy. Regazzoni’s career started at Zandvoort in 1970, and ended in unfortunante circumstances at Long Beach in 1980. He made 132 starts for Ferrari, BRM, Ensign, Shadow and Williams. Although he won just 5 times, he should be remembered in the same esteem as drivers like Stewart, Rindt, Ickx, Lauda, Fittipaldi, Hunt, Scheckter and co.

His debut came at Zandvoort in 1970 for Ferrari. Qualifying in sixth in the 312B, he finished in fourth, as Jochen Rindt took the win for Lotus (incidentally, the race was marred by the tragic death of Piers Courage). Clay then had to wait until Brands Hatch for his next turn, as Ignazio Giunti was also driving for Ferrari and drove the second scarlet car alongside Jacky Ickx in France. Regazzoni again qualified sixth and finished fourth at Brands Hatch, which put him equal 10th in the drivers’ championship. At Hockenheim, he battled with Ickx and Rindt for the lead from third on the grid, but retired with engine dramas. It was clear that Regazzoni had talent. At Austria he completed the second half of a Ferrari 1-2, taking the fastest lap in the process. Then came Italy. Rindt sadly died in practice, and Regazzoni took his maiden win (with a fastest lap to boot), but it was marred by the tragic circumstances of the weekend. With the untimely passing of Rindt, Regazzoni was now an outside chance for the title, but second to Ickx at Mont Tremblant (and another fastest lap), a disappointing 13th at Watkins Glen, and another second to Ickx at Mexico City saw him finish 3rd in the WDC, behind team-mate Ickx, and posthumous champion, Jochen Rindt. Third place in the Formula One WDC was backed up with a European Formula 2 Championship for Tecno, establishing his credentials.

Unfortunately, over the next couple of seasons, Regazzoni did not live up to the promise of his debut year. 1971 was an unlucky season – retiring while in contention for podiums three times did not help his cause on his way to seventh in the WDC. In 1973 he again finished seventh in the WDC, amidst more bad luck, including colliding with Carlos Pace whilst in the lead at Monza.

For 1973 Regazzoni turned his attention to BRM, however this turned out to be a mistake. Despite taking pole at the first race at Buenos Aires and some promising early grid positions, he scored just two points. But it could have been much worse. At Kyalami, he crashed and the car caught fire. Clay was trapped inside the burning BRM, but thanks to the brave, selfless actions of Mike Hailwood, he was pulled free with minor injuries. Hailwood was rewarded for his actions, and Clay continued his racing career

He returned to the Scuderia for 1974 for what was probably his best year. He stayed consistent throughout – 11 points-scoring results, including a dominant win at the Nurburgring, four second places, and two third places.The Championship had not been out of his reach either. Had it not been for mechanical failures at Kyalami (from 3rd) and Monza (from first), he may well have won. But 11th at the final round sealed his fate, as Emerson Fittipaldi won the title.

In 1975, Regazzoni was overshadowed by his team mate, Niki Lauda, who won the championship. Regazzoni was unlucky at times, but did take his second Monza win. He retired from second twice, in France and Germany, but finished third in Sweden and Holland – he finished the season fifth with 25 points. 1976 was a similar story. He took a win from pole in the first Grand Prix at Long Beach, and took podiums at Zolder, Zandvoort and Monza, but retired from podium places in France and Britain. So, it was fifth again.

1977 saw a new challenge. He joined Mo Nunn’s small Ensign team, so big results were not expected. And they did not come either. He was in the points just three times, with sixth in Argentina, and fifth at Monza and Watkins Glen, as the car improved towards the end of the season. At Mount Fuji, he was running second before an unfortunate engine failure. He ended up joint 17th in the WDC for his efforts, and was on the move again at seasons end, this time to Shadow for 1978. From bad to worse it went, and there were just two fifth places – in Brazil and Sweden.

Seemingly, Clay’s F1 career wouldn’t last much longer. But Frank Williams came knocking on his door in time, and Clay found himself in a Williams for 1979. After a slow start he soon gained momentum, and won the Didcot team’s first Grand Prix, fittingly at their home track, Silverstone. It did not matter that it only happened after Alan Jones hit troubles – it was a richly deserved result. Second places at Monaco and Hockenheim, and third places at Monza and Montreal helped him once again to fifth in the championship.

Unfortunately, it would be his last full season in F1. For 1980, aged 40, he rejoined Ensign for what would be a final fling. At round 4 at Long Beach, he was lying an impressive fourth (from 23rd on the grid), but on the run down to the Queen’s Hairpin, his brake pedal snapped. The car plowed into Ricardo Zunino’s parked Brabham. Regazzoni suffered bad spinal injuries, exacerbated by the awkward extrication process.

Paralysed from the waist down, it seemed his career was over. But it was not. He became determined to live his life to the full and tried to win equal opportunities for disabled people. He returned to compete in the Paris-Dakar Rally and sportscars in the 1980’s, using special hand controls which he did so much work developing, that have gone on to to help disabled people both on and off the track.

His last competitive race was in 1990, but continued to test cars and race in historic races, the last of which he competed in was in 2000. He became an inspiration to many disabled drivers including Alex Zanardi and Jason Watt. Ironically his death came just weeks after Zanardi tested a modified BMW Sauber F1.06 at Valencia. Incidentally, after Zanardi’s horrific accident at the Lausitzring in 2001, Regazzoni was one of the first men to send Zanardi his wishes, despite the two having never met.

Clay will always be remembered as a brilliant racing driver. Although Swiss, he was from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, and was adopted by the tifosi as a sort of quasi-Italian. You can’t get much more Italian-sounding than a name like Gianclaudio Regazzoni, can you?! When you consider he was the first man to win for Williams, and that he won at Monza twice – more than Gilles Villeneuve or Jean Alesi ever did – it is a wonder he was not more greatly revered. Maybe now in death, as sometimes happens, his legend will grow

The Wins

Italy 1970
Germany 1974
Italy 1975
USA West 1976
Great Britain 1979

The Stats

Starts: 132
Podiums: 28
Poles: 5
Front row places: 21
Fastest laps: 15
Points: 212
Races led: 20
Laps led: 360
Km led: 1851


Written by James Bennett

December 23, 2010 at 23:08

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