Clay Regazzoni

Full Name: 
Gian-Claudio Giuseppe Regazzoni
Birth Date: 
4 September, 1939
Birth Place: 
Lugano, Switzerland
Death Date: 
15 December, 2006
Death Place: 
Fontevivo, Parma, Italy
Driver Status: 

Clay Regazzoni Biography

Clay Regazzoni F1 Career Overview

Notorious for his hard charging determination - both in F1 and the years after - that Clay Regazzoni didn’t quite get to the very top of the sport is testament to the sheer talent and quality he was grouped with during the 1970s.

Indeed it is no coincidence Jody Scheckter remarked if Clay Regazzoni was a cowboy he’d ‘be the one in the black hat’ such was his reputation. 

Few drivers get to spend much of their careers with Ferrari (six of his 11 years) and Regazzoni was well liked by the iconic top brass of the time - not least Enzo Ferrari - for good reason. Given he hailed from a country that banned motorsport within its borders between 1955 and 2015, the Swiss driver is the most successful of an impressive alumni from the European nation.

He came closest to the title in 1974 when he lost out in a final round shootout to Emerson Fittipaldi, though he could have easily clinched it in his first year of 1970 had his big debut not come in the middle of the year. Regazzoni won five races in total (four for Ferrari, one for Williams).

His F1 career ended abruptly in 1980 when he was involved in an accident during the United States West Grand Prix at Long Beach, which left him paralysed from the waist down. Even so, he determinedly kept his hand in motorsport and went on to compete in events as the Dakar Rally and Sebring 12 Hours.

He died on 15 December 2006 aged 67 in a road traffic accident.

Clay Regazzoni F1 Career - Team-by-Team

Ferrari: 1970-1972

Basing himself in Italy after Switzerland banned motorsport in the country as a response to the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours disaster that killed 83 people, Regazzoni plied his early continental trade in both F2 and F3.

He was lucky to survive a race in the latter at Monaco when he hit the barrier and car slid underneath the metal Armco, a quick thinking Regazzoni shuffling down the cockpit low enough to stop the sharp edges catching the top of his helmet and potentially killing him, as had become worryingly frequent during the period.

After avoiding a legal case lodged against him following an accident between himself and another driver, Regazzoni got his F1 bow in 1970 with Ferrari having competed with the outfit in F2 the previous year.

Sharing a second entry initially with fellow youngster Ignazio Giunti, while the pair were evenly matched at the start of what was effectively a shootout for a full 1971 drive, Regazzoni’s two fourth place finishes from his first two starts ultimately won him favour and he saw out the year from Silverstone onwards.

That proved a shrewd move by Ferrari with Regazzoni on the podium in only his fourth start before claiming a superb win on Ferrari’s home soil in Italy, thus cementing his legend status within F1’s most iconic team right at the start of his career. Two more podiums before the year was out earned Regazzoni a sensational third in the standings despite missing five of the year’s 13 events.

Having also dovetailed his commitments to still win the 1970 F2 title with Tecno Racing, his extraordinary breakthrough year made Regazzoni a surprise favourite for the 1971 F1 season.

However, the Ferrari 312B2 - an update on the previous year’s car - wasn’t nearly reliable enough for him to demonstrate his talents and three podiums from the four races he finished (among seven DNFs) told its own story.

It was more of the same story in 1972 with Regazzoni proving quick where he finished but four DNFs - coupled to a pair of non-starts in France and Great Britain - negated his two podiums in Spain and Germany as he took seventh overall for the second consecutive year.

BRM: 1973

Lured by a healthy salary that came courtesy of Marlboro, Regazzoni defected to BRM for the 1973 F1 season. However, it was an unhappy season in a car that skirted the fringes of the points but only cracked the top six once in 14 starts (a sixth place in Austria).

However, Regazzoni at least was lucky to be alive after being involved in a fiery accident during the South African Grand Prix. The stricken Swiss driver was pulled from the burning wreckage by rival Mike Hailwood, who was subsequently awarded the prestigious George Medal for his bravery in saving Regazzoni’s life.

Ferrari: 1974-1976 

Returning to Ferrari on the back of his failed BRM sojourn, Regazzoni found a more competitive and reliable package than when he left and he was soon back to his best, enough to launch what would be his most convincing title tilt in 1974.

Facing up to a stern rival in Emerson Fittipaldi, Regazzoni’s title bid was built on a foundation of metronomic consistency - unusual for the time - compared with his Brazilian rival’s better out-and-out speed but more temperamental reliability.

As such, despite winning only once in Germany (compared with Fittipaldi’s three trips to the top of the rostrum) seven podiums meant he’d go head-to-head on level-pegging during the final round in Watkins Glen.

However, Regazzoni’s title bid would end when his ill-handling Ferrari developed problems and he was forced to pit early, leaving him out of the points and with no chance to overhaul Fittipaldi, who wrapped up the title in 4th.

For the next two seasons Regazzoni remained quick but largely overshadowed by his rapid new team-mate Niki Lauda - who was hired on his recommendation - but he remained a reliable steer for Ferrari to ensure it wrapped up the constructors’ title hat-trick in 1974, 1975 and 1976, despite finishing fifth overall in each of the latter two campaigns

Ensign: 1977 

Despite his success, Regazzoni was replaced by Carlos Reutemann at Ferrari, leading to a switch to the considerably smaller privateer Ensign team having turned down a more lucrative but more pressured seat from Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham.

While Regazzoni may have found a more pleasant working environment, it didn’t lead to similarly enjoyable results with only three top six results all season, together with a pair of DNQs.

Shadow: 1978

Regazzoni switched to Shadow Racing the following year but his results failed to make a notable improvement with a pair of fifth places in Brazil and Sweden undone by as many as five failures to qualify from the 16 races.

Williams: 1979

Despite a lean couple of years, Regazzoni nonetheless landed a competitive berth for 1979 with Williams alongside Alan Jones, whom he had replaced at Shadow the previous season. 

It was a shrewd move for the Swiss man as he found a British team on an upswing that would ultimately lead it to its maiden world title courtesy of Jones the following year in 1980.

While the Williams FW06 lacked performance and its successor the FW07 - introduced from Round 5 - lacked reliability initially, by the end of the year Regazzoni and Jones found themselves with the quickest car on several occasions.

Though this was used to greater effect by Jones - who won four of the final six races - it was Regazzoni who delivered the team the first of its (to date) 114 victories with success on Williams’ home soil at Silverstone. His victory, more than three years after his erstwhile most recent success in Long Beach, came amid a strong patch in which he also achieved four other podiums for fifth in the standings.

Ensign: 1980

Despite his renewed success, Williams recognised it had a title winning package in its midst and while Jones was primed for a full push in 1980 (which he achieved), Regazzoni - now 40-years of age - found himself again succeeded by the younger Reutemann despite finishing ahead of him in the overall standings the previous year.

Without a competitive drive on offer, Regazzoni resisted retirement and instead returned to Ensign for 1980 but his F1 career would instead come to an abrupt end in Round 4 when an accident during the United States Grand Prix West at Long Beach cost him the use of his legs. 

During the race he suffered a sudden brake failure at the end of the straight and couldn’t sufficiently slow a car travelling at 280km/h, travelling up the escape road and striking the stationary Brabham of Ricardo Zunino that had been parked there following an accident on the opening lap.

Taken to hospital, Regazzoni had been paralysed in the impact. He later attempted to sue race organisers for safety breaches that led to him striking Zunino’s car but lost the case.

Clay Regazzoni - Beyond F1

In the years following his F1 career-ending accident, Regazzoni became a staunch advocate for ensuring disabled people receive equal rights.

He would go on to become an inspiration for other racing drivers faced with disabilities by successfully winning back his racing licence - becoming one of the first in the world to do so - and use it to make a return to motorsport.

Competing in the gruelling Dakar Rally and in sportscars using cars adapted to be driven with hand controls, there was talk he could even make a return to open-wheel racing in the IndyCar Series but reported test outings never materialised.

On December 15 2006, Regazzoni was killed on the A1 motorway near Palma, Italy after the car he was driving was involved in a collision with a lorry. He was 67.