Clay Regazzoni - a racer and a gentleman

On Sunday evening, I would have liked to watch Eurosport's coverage of the Long Beach Grand Prix, but a policy change by the company this year means that the CART races are screened only on 'digital', which I don't have. It was a matter, therefore, of turning to Sky for coverage of the day's NASCAR race, at Talladega, won -after a lean spell - by Jeff Gordon

Clay Regazzoni - a racer and a gentleman

As the Winston Cup guys did their thing, however, I confess that Long Beach remained at the back of my mind, and whenever there was an ad break or a 'yellow' in Alabama, I flicked back to Eurosport in the hope that maybe Montoya and the rest might now be gracing my screen. No such luck.

Although I have only been once to Long Beach since it became a race for Champ Cars rather than Formula 1, it has always been among my favourites. In 1992 I was taken aback by how much, in nine years, the place had been 'Disneyfied', and thought how perfect it would be for contemporary F1.

On Sunday night it struck me suddenly that 20 years had passed since Clay Regazzoni's dreadful accident at Long Beach, and, with the British Grand Prix upon us, a jumble of Regazzoni memories started to come back to me. It was, after all, in the '79 race at Silverstone that this most delightful of men scored the first Grand Prix victory for Williams.

In some respects, many felt that the wrong Williams driver won that day, that Alan Jones should have been the man to do it for Frank. It was the same at the Nurburgring last autumn, when Johnny Herbert broke the Stewart team's duck, but Rubens Barrichello was more deserving of that honour. He, like Jones, had been with the team longer, played a bigger part in its growth.

Back in '79, the season swung this way and that, initially favouring Ligier, then Ferrari - but all the time there was the impression that Patrick Head's Williams FW07 was the best car around, that all it needed was a little more reliability. As with Mika Hakkinen 20 years on, Alan Jones couldn't wait to start winning, and you felt that, once under way, he would be difficult to stop.

At Silverstone he took pole position, by a numbing six-tenths of a second, from Jean-Pierre Jabouille's turbocharged Renault, with Nelson Piquet's Brabham-Alfa and Regazzoni on the second row.

Clay was always a phenomenally good starter, and on this day he excelled himself, contriving to lead into Copse on the first lap, with Jabouille, Jones and Piquet crowding in behind him. Alan, though, lost no time in dispensing with Jabouille, and on the run down to Stowe both towed past Regazzoni.

For a few laps the Renault clung on to the leading Williams, but then its tyres began to go away, and Jones was into a race of his own. When Jabouille retired, on lap 21, Frank's boys were apparently unassailable.

Until lap 39, that was, when Jones came slowly in, engine blown. Thus, Gianclaudio Regazzoni, citizen of Lugano, found himself in the lead, and, to celebrate, he promptly ran the fastest lap of the race.

You never saw a happier winner. "So you'd all written me off as a front runner, had you? Well, you've been doing that for years. I can still get the job done, thank you very much" was what his expression said, and the Silverstone crowd, which had huge affection for this purest of racers, cheered him loud and long.

In those days there were no post-race press conferences, as such, but sometimes there would be an informal ceremony, and they had one now, in a marquee near the paddock. It was all very emotional, too, for Frank Williams had become a winner at last, and everyone wanted to share his day in the sun.

At first, he could hardly speak. Then someone gave him a whisky, and another a lit cigar, and FW, a lifelong teetotaller and non-smoker, gamely sipped the one, puffed on the other. "Thank you, thank you so much," he murmured to everyone, and there were tears in his eyes.

A few minutes later, his driver came in. He was dabbing at his face with a towel, for the afternoon was warm, but his mountain bandit grin was never broader. On the podium, in deference to the team's Saudi-Arabian sponsors, he had toasted his victory with juice; now he looked ready for a gulp of his boss's scotch.

He shook his hand. "Bravo, Frank,' he quietly said, and it was an unforgettable moment. For the first time in three years Regazzoni had won a Grand Prix, but uppermost in his thoughts was that this was Williams' day.

That '79 season was very much an Indian Summer for Clay. After parting from Ferrari, he had passed a couple of thin years with Ensign and Shadow and his Fl career, in any competitive sense, looked to be over. Then Williams called him.

"We'd run Alan Jones alone in '78." said Frank, "and needed a second driver. Clay may not have been the greatest driver in the world, but he was more than a number two, and absolutely superb on his day: I remembered that when he'd last had a world-class car, back in '76, he'd driven everyone into the ground at Long Beach..."

So he had. He took the pole, led all the way, and set fastest lap; a victory as consummate as you could imagine. But in the same place, four years later, he had the accident which put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. After being replaced at Williams by Carlos Reutemann, he had returned happily to the little Ensign team. At the end of Shoreline Drive, the car's brake pedal broke.

"Clay was very different from most racing drivers," said Williams, "in that he was - and is - an absolute gentleman, who loved motor racing for its own sake. A totally adorable character.'

Wonder if we'll have such a popular winner on Sunday.

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