Remembering Clay

Death is a strange thing. It brings out events and stories of the deceased, which otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed. It raises curiosity and suddenly makes History seem interesting. More importantly, it gives newer generations a glimpse into a past that was so different and not so different. One such death is that of Clay Regazzoni.

To the Schumi-generation, he could be as obscure as a set of Engleberts. But to hordes of F1 fans from the bell-bottom era, the name was the V12 version of Cassius Clay. Ask Jackie Stewart who was shoved off the track at the notorious Nurburgring in 1971, or the Clerk of the Course at Watkins Glen who got punched back in 1974 or Luca di Montezemolo who used his charm and diplomacy to save his driver’s license, or worse ask those who saw British privateer Chris Lambert crash to death while being lapped at Zandvoort.

But then, he was not short of bravery. Like Jean Alesi on a good day, he was capable of blowing the opposition away. Just a day after championship leader Jochen Rindt was killed in his Lotus at Monza, Regga went on to win the Italian GP for Ferrari (only his fifth race). The tifosi had found a new darling. Never mind his Swiss roots, his Italian-sounding name helped.

Strangely though, he wasn’t astute when it came to his career. He was so naïve, he fell for one of Enzo Ferrari’s lies and shunned offers from both BRM and McLaren for the ’77 season, only to be left without a drive. By the time reality dawned upon him, McLaren was full. So he approached BRM, which was then Bernie Ecclestone’s team. Even thirty years ago, Bernie was as shrewd as he is today. Regga’s pride didn’t allow him to bite into a sloppy deal, so he went back to Ensign. A year later, he moved to Shadow and then to Williams whom he gifted their first ever F1 win at Silverstone in 1979, only to be replaced soon by Carlos Reutemann – the man who replaced him earlier at Ferrari.

Maybe he was paying for his earlier sins, or maybe he was destined to be relegated to the back of the grid, he again moved to Ensign for the ’80 season. He was running a commendable fourth at Long Beach when his brake pedal broke. The resulting accident severely damaged his spinal cord and brought his 10-year grand prix career to an abrupt end. He was 40 then.

The racer in him didn’t give up though. For years, he’d been a regular on the Dakar raid, raced on a few circuits, hell he even broke a leg in a 1999 karting event. He donned the role of a TV commentator, drove around in his Ferrari and even ran an Alfa-Romeo sponsored driving school for the handicapped. So it’s rather ironic that Clay had to lose his life in a road accident at the age of 67. Maybe this was the only way we could remember a man who will never feature among the greats. Death certainly is a strange thing.

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