There are certain Grand Prix on the calendar, such as Spa, Monza or Monaco, that are special and for drivers a win there can be sometimes more important than winning at other circuits. There are also certain teams that are special, Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus, and to take your first victory for one of those is also important for a driver. So when you combine together a circuit such as Monza and a team such as Ferrari, taking your first win for that team at that circuit is something very, very special indeed. This September 5th would have been the seventy second birthday of racing driver Gianclaudio Giuseppe ‘Clay’ Regazzoni, who on September 6th 1970, achieved this distinction in his first season racing in F1.
Despite his Italian sounding name, Clay Regazzoni was actually Swiss, although in his early career he mostly competed across the border in Italy, as motor racing had been banned in Switzerland as a result of the terrible crash in the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hour race, which had resulted in the deaths of 83 spectators.
He was born in 1939, in the Swiss town of Mendrisio and, unlike many other drivers, he did not start motor racing until he was 24. Driving an Austin Healy Sprite he took two podiums in his first three races and as a result of this moved up to racing a Mini Cooper for the 1964 club racing season.
He soon moved to Formula Three, driving first for Brabham, before being offered a drive with the Italian team Tecno, first in Formula Three and then in Formula Two. He was a fast and aggressive dirver and he had a lucky escape when driving at Monaco in F3, being nearly decapitated when his low slung F3 car crashed and went under one of the barriers. Only his lightening reflexes saved him and the car was only stopped when the roll bar hit the barrier. His aggressive driving style also caused controversy in F2, this time involving the fatal crash of Chris Lambert in the 1968 Dutch F2 GP. Regazzoni was accused of deliberately ramming Lambert off the track whilst lapping him, causing the young British driver to leave the track and crash into a bridge, killing him. Regazzoni was cleared by the official inquiry, but rumours persisted for several years and Lambert’s father brought a private case against him, which dragged on for several years before being abandoned.
At the same time as competing in F3, Regazzoni was driving sports cars for Ferrari and in 1970 he was given the chance to compete for the second Ferrari seat with Ignazio Giunti. After alternating drives with him, Regazzoni took the place available and in only his fifth race he took first place driving for Ferrari at Monza. The celebrations however, were muted by the tragic death the day before in qualifying of Jochen Rindt, who later went on to become Formula One’s only posthumous champion. Regazzoni finished the season in third place.
The following two seasons were disappointing ones for Ferrari and for Regazzoni, who finished in seventh place in both of them and in 1973 he drove instead for British Racing Motors, alongside Niki Lauda. For the second time Regazzoni had a close brush with death, having to be dragged from the burning wreckage of his BRM at the South African GP. British driver Mike Hailwood pulled him from the car and was later awarded the George Medal for bravery for his actions. This was Regazzoni’s only season with BRM and he finished the year in seventeenth place. The next season both he and Lauda were to drive for Ferrari.
In 1974, his first season back with Ferrari, Regazzoni finished second in the championship, just three points behind McLaren’s Emerson Fittipaldi. Perhaps surprisingly to those of us used to the modern day Scuderia, he would have won the championship if Ferrari had decided to enforce team orders in his favour. The following two seasons were not as successful, with fifth place finishes in both seasons, although in 1975 he did take the top step of the podium once again at Monza.
He was released by Ferrari following the 1976 season and he signed for the small Walsall based Ensign team – a move which shocked many, especially as he had turned down an offer from Bernie Ecclestone to drive for Brabham. Regazzoni was quoted as saying he preferred to race ‘with nice people’. There is a saying that nice guys finish last, and while that was not entirely true the season was not a successful one and the following year he drove for another small team, Shadow with a similar level of success.
1979 saw him switch teams once again, this time with more success as he drove for the Williams team. After having won for Ferrari at Monza twice, he achieved a similar success for the British team, taking their maiden victory at Silverstone by almost twenty five seconds. Regazzoni finished the season in fifth place in the drivers’ championship, but found himself without a competitive drive for the next season.
Instead he returned to drive for Ensign for a season and at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1980 he was involved in his third major accident, but this time he was not so lucky. His brakes failed at the end of a long straight and he crashed into a retired Brabham on the safety road and bounced into the barriers. As a result of the crash Regazzoni was paralysed from the waist down.
Despite this Regazzoni continued racing, although his F1 career was over. He competed in both rallying and in sports cars driving hand-controlled cars with some success, helping to pave the way for greater acceptance of disabled drivers in the world of motorsport.
He was always known for his fast aggressive driving and was dismissive of other, more cautious drivers, once telling Niki Lauda that, ‘if you block cars and drive like a woman, you will never be great.’
Clay Regazzoni died in 2006 at the age of 67 in a car crash on an Italian autostrada, still driving with speed and passion. His funeral was attended by many of the sports greats, including Lauda and Fittpaldi. A few years after his F1 career ended, Ragazzoni had published his autobiography; he called it È questione di cuore (It’s A Matter of Heart) and the title serves as a fitting tribute to a driver who did so much to inspire people to overcome their difficulties and to achieve their ambitions.