It was just before Christmas and end of year appointments were accumulating. A motorway trip as he had made many times. Then suddenly a truck… and it was the end. Gianclaudio Regazzoni, the popular former F.1 driver, thus met his death, a year ago, in a banal road accident.
Many people have heard of Regazzoni, Ferrari driver and runner-up in the Formula 1 World Championship. But few remember Clay outside the Maranello team. Here is a short summary of that period.
Driver of the Alfa 33
Thanks to his experience at Ferrari, in 1973 he was hired by Autodelta. He was to race in the World Makers Championship against the awesome Porsches and Ferraris.
Regazzoni's car was the brand new 33tt12 with tubular chassis and 3-litre flat 12 cylinder engine.
The car was promising (it would be World Champion in 1975) but the tuning proved difficult. In fact, for the Alfa 33 "tipo 115.12" the season was a true calvary. Autodelta entered it only in four races. In three of these Regazzoni drove: Targa Florio, Zeltweg and Nurburgring. Unfortunately the poor reliability of the 33tt12 limited the potential of the Swiss driver.
In the Targa Florio Regazzoni was paired with Carlo Facetti: during the test drive he had a bad accident , flying off the track and over a flock of sheep, landing upside-down! Clay got out unscathed but the car was a write-off. No race then. In any case he marked up a very good third best time.
In the Zeltweg 1,000 kilometres, in Austria, he was with the very good German driver Rolf Stommelen: the 33tt12 chassis 001 came only 18th due to technical problems.
In Germany, at the Nurburgring 1,000 kilometres, again in car 001, with Facetti, he quit in the second lap while in sixth position, due to engine failure.
The former Autodelta workshop head, Roberto Fanin, thus remembers Regazzoni: “He was a very fast driver. He needed only a few laps to give the go-ahead to the car. Like all foreign drivers of a certain class, he saved the car for the race”. Fanin recalls also a little anecdote: “We were at the Targa Florio. Regazzoni, sitting on a pile of tyres, was watching the preparation of De Adamich’s car. The Italian driver, from the cockpit, kept giving me instructions on how best to adjust the rearview mirror of his 33. At one point Clay, slyly, cracks: “Hey Andrea! Tomorrow you must look in front, not behind! And everyone burst out laughing… “.
Clay back with Ferrari
In 1974, in spite of a by now victorious 33tt12, Regazzoni could not resist Ferrari’s new call for F.1: he lost the championship by a hair’s breadth through no fault of his own. And 1975 for the Swiss racer was not an outstanding season: he won the Grand Prix of Italy but he came fifth in the championship won by Lauda.
In 1976 Lauda’s Ferrari lost the title by just one point. If in the last, decisive race if Ferrari had also backed up Clay, they would have won the championship. In any case Regazzoni did his part: he won the Grand Prix of the USA and ampionship in fifth place. But the Regazzoni-Ferrari chapter was over. With a Clay deeply disappointed at the way in which he had been “dropped” by Maranello.
In 1977 he passed to Ensign, a small English team which did not even have the money to pay him. He came fifth twice. A great achievement for the potentialities of the team. Still today Morris Nunn, the team owner, remembers the way in which Clay raced: “He was the bravest, most reckless driver that I’ve ever met. During the race he fought like a lion…”. And to think that champions such as Amon, Ickx, Piquet, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Montoya and Zanardi have worked with Morris.
Still in 1977 he took part in the “500 miles” of Indianapolis for the first time, in a McLaren. Even if forced to withdraw, for him it was an unforgettable experience.
In 1978 Ecclestone offered him the steering-wheel of “his” Brabham, the BT45 powered by the flat 12 engine of the 33SC12, World Champion in 1977. But after having reached a gentlemen’s agreement, Clay saw his proposed salary halved. “I am a professional, I won’t accept it” he told Ecclestone. Regazzoni then raced for Shadow, even if it was a minor team that was not going to give him any glory. Yet on paper the BT45 was very competitive: in fact in 1978 Lauda left Ferrari to race in this car.
In the Shadow he could not race to win: the best result being a fifth place in the Brazil Grand Prix.
In 1979 he made a quality leap. He was hired by Frank Williams, who saw him as the driver who could win in his new car. And Clay gave him his very first success: the Grand Prix of England. Of that victory Regazzoni recalled: “Frank Williams’s behaviour was incredible. After the race he did not even say thank you!”. In any case that season he achieved a string of very good places finishing the championship fifth. But at the end of the season Williams did not confirm him. Clay had to find another team.
Last season in Formula 1
1980: he returned to Ensign.
In Argentina and Brazil he was forced to quit. In South Africa he was ninth. Then came Long Beach. About that race Autosprint wrote: “…despite the inferiority of his vehicle Regazzoni pushed himself as usual to the limit until he got into fifth position.
Then at the fiftieth lap came the accident… ”. And that was the end of his career: Clay, very fast, at the end of a long straight stretch, the umpteenth violent braking incredibly broke the brake pedal.
At full speed the car hit first a Brabham parked in the slip road, then crashed against a useless concrete wall…
At that point, in fact, the road continues straight for four kilometres!
A new career
The accident forced him into a wheelchair for the rest of his life: but even then he proved to be “tough”. As a disabled driver, Regazzoni raced all over the world and in all sorts of competitions. He was the technical assistant during TV commentaries of Formula 1 Grand Prix races. He wrote two books winning also in this: in fact he was awarded the Literary Prize of Coni [the Italian National Olympic Commitee] and the Premio Bancarella award.
Regazzoni’s new sporting activity was endless: Paris-Dakar, historic Mille Miglia race. He had a “Sport” racecar –which he never used in a race - fitted out with the controls on the steering-wheel: the Symbol, powered by Alfa Romeo’s 2.5 litre V6, built and once raced by Arturo Merzario.
Later on Regazzoni went back to drive for Alfa Romeo but in historic races. For the Club, the Scuderia del Portello, he drove both the 1900 TI and the Giulietta Spider until recently. Fast and aggressive as ever, he had a spectacular accident in Mexico, at the Carrera Panamericana: his 1900 TI was a write-off and the pieces were sold for charity autographed by Clay!
But already in 1984 Regazzoni and Alfa were close: in Rome he founded a school for disabled drivers, to the present day still the only existing launching pad for the disabled racers of tomorrow. The school is based at the Vallelunga race-track . Alfa Romeo and a tobacco sponsor are the main financial backers of the initiative.
The cars, Arnas 1.3 Ti with the controls on the steering-wheel, are tuned up in Rome, at “Autoscama”, Alfa Romeo’s dealer, winning team of the Trofeo Alfasud.
On the race-track the Arnas did not cut a bad figure at all: during the "practical" lessons they displayed
almost the same potential as the well-established Alfasud Trofeo.
It was nice to see all those cars on the race-track following Clay's Alfa, as he showed his pupils the correct trajectory to take on the bends.
With the Arnas, Regazzoni and his drivers took part in some non-competitive displays which precede some Grand Prix races, Montecarlo included.
And that was just the start: in the Nineties the school made a leap in quality. After the course, its pupils were able obtain the CSAI licence and take part in the championship reserved for them. Moreover, the best onescould also compete in the higher category races together with the other able-bodied drivers.
And this really is integration: in only a few years Clay managed to knock down the barriers and prejudice against disabled drivers.
Regazzoni was committed to races and disabled drivers until the end: for some years he had been collaborating with Telethon, the TV marathon to collect funds for the research on muscular dystrophy. He worked on the selection of disabled drivers for the 24 Hours of Adria, the endurance race which is held every year at the race-track of the same name on Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, 300 HP cars. And he was often in the thick of it, never missing the chance of getting behind the wheel!
To best understand Regazzoni’s “heart” we must quote Leo Turrini. The day after the death of the great champion he wrote*: “I met Clay when Destiny had already nailed him to the wheelchair. He had a contagious enthusiasm: despite the misfortune, his existence was a continuous service to others. I mean that, more than twenty years before the great Zanardi, Rega did not surrender to the painful situation of being disabled. He fought, with pride and dignity, to defend the rights of those in his condition.
And in this he really was a great, extraordinary world champion… “.