Nigel Roebuck on Clay Regazzoni

Following the death of Clay Regazzoni earlier today in a road car accident in Italy, autosport.com brings Nigel Roebuck's memories of the former Grand Prix driver.

Nigel Roebuck on Clay Regazzoni

The article was originally published in autosport.com's weekly edition of Ask Nigel.

  WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER OF CLAY REGAZZONI? Published on June 15th 2005  

Dear Nigel,

In 1974, Clay Regazzoni missed the World Championship crown on the last race by three points to Emerson Fittipaldi. Clay has always been portrayed as a showman and entertainer in the F1 world. Do you remember that 1974 season? Would you have any Regazzoni anecdotes?

Laurent Rupp

Dear Laurent,

Yes, I well remember the '74 season. Emerson Fittipaldi won the title for McLaren, but the most exciting aspect of the season, for me, was the resurgence of Ferrari, who had been absolutely nowhere the previous year. Niki Lauda had joined the team, and Clay Regazzoni - after being dropped for one season - was back as his teammate.

It's a fact that race in, race out, Lauda was Ferrari's pacesetter in 1974, but he made several of the mistakes of youth, and Regazzoni emerged as the team's main hope in the World Championship. At the Nurburgring - the proper Nurburgring - Clay took a brilliant victory, never threatened through the entire race.

Regazzoni was - and is - a delightful man, with a deep love of motor racing, and an excellent sense of humour. What do I remember of him? The first thing, I suppose, is his final Grand Prix victory, at Silverstone in 1979. It was also the first win for the Williams team.

We didn't have post-race press conferences in those days, but sometimes there would be an informal ceremony, and they had one at Silverstone, in a marquee near the paddock. Given that Frank's team had won at last, the atmosphere was unusually emotional.

At first he could barely 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 well-wishers, and there were tears in his eyes.

After a few minutes, Regazzoni came in, dabbing at his face with a towel. On the podium, in deference to the team's Saudi-Arabian sponsors, he had toasted his victory with orange juice; now he looked ready for a swig of his boss's scotch.

He shook Williams's hand. "Bravo, Frank," he quietly said.

That was the essential modesty of a man who had class to throw away. Clay had won a Grand Prix for the first time in three years, but uppermost in his mind was that this was Williams's day.

Regazzoni was never overly concerned with status. "I consider myself a good professional," he said to me once. "If I have a big fault, it's that I am not ambitious enough. I drive for me, sure, but also for the team and the public."

The fans adored him, particularly at Monza, where he - not Jackie Ickx, not Lauda - was always the favoured Ferrari son, for in Clay the tifosi saw a warrior. He looked the part, too, and his name - was ever there one more mellifluous than 'Clay Regazzoni' for a Grand Prix driver? - didn't hurt, either. Although Swiss, he was from Lugano, the Italian end of the country, and that would do.

Much of the time, you never quite knew what you were going to get from Regazzoni. Sometimes his driving was sloppy, sometimes - as at the 'Ring in 1974, or Long Beach a couple of years later - sublime. Like Jean Alesi, he always seemed to find something extra at Monza, winning there in 1970 and '75.

At the end of the '76 season, though, he was replaced by Carlos Reutemann. Clay always spoke his mind: "I never understood why [Enzo] Ferrari didn't speak clean with me. Before Monza he told me there would be no problem for 1977. That weekend I had offers from Brabham and McLaren, but said I was staying with Ferrari."

Perhaps, even 20 years ago, Regazzoni was too ingenuous a man for an increasingly commercial F1. Eventually he learned that Reutemann had signed with Ferrari many weeks previously. "Carlos could have told me," he said, "but Ferrari's behaviour was worse. If he had said no, it's finished for you, I say OK, I am happy to drive for you these six years."

Clay got in touch with Bernie Ecclestone, for at Monza the then Brabham team owner had offered an attractive contract for 1977. Now, when they met at Heathrow, Bernie was in more of a buyer's market. "He asked me how much I wanted, and I mentioned his offer at Monza. Now it was less than half. It was too late to join another big team, and for sure he thought I would agree. I said it wasn't even worth talking about, and got the next flight back to Switzerland. It wasn't the money that was so important. I like to race with nice people..."

Thus Regazzoni joined Ensign, moving at a step from one end of F1's financial spectrum to the other. If it was not a particularly successful year, it was a happy one, the glamorous ex-Ferrari star blending in easily with Morris Nunn's little outfit. In 1978 he joined Shadow, and then came the call from Williams, which is where we came in.

He did a superb job for Frank, as teammate to Alan Jones, but the contract lasted but one season. For 1980 he rejoined Ensign, and was running fourth in the Long Beach Grand Prix at the time of the final accident. At the end of Shoreline Drive, his brake pedal broke, and the car hurtled up the escape road. A barrier had been erected, closing it off, and this the Ensign struck, at colossal speed.

Clay soon knew he had to face the unimaginable. His spinal cord had been severely damaged, and he was paralysed. Finally, in 1985, he began coming to Grands Prix again, as a TV commentator. During practice at Monaco, I saw him in Casino Square, and several minutes went by before it dawned on me: he was standing, albeit leaning against the barrier.

"For a long time I felt very sorry for myself," he said, "but when something like this happens, you move into a different world - a world you never thought about. You see little children with cancer, and you feel ashamed - you've had years of good life which they will never have. I can't walk, but I can drive my Ferrari, I have my driving school for handicapped people, I can still go to races. I don't feel desperate any more."

A great man, I always thought.

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