A Perfect Dance: Clay Regazzoni's Ferrari F40

Photos by Davide Saporiti

Three fascinating, terrible and for better or worse, unforgettable days…

We came together this Ferrari F40 and I. We each drew the scorn of the other, and then we found peace. I didn’t drive this F40 – I only photographed it. Given the chance to get behind the wheel, I would still have declined. Clay Regazzoni was the owner, and I wouldn’t have dared drive this machine without a closer bond to his family. But believe it or not, the passenger seat was good enough. Witnessing her power and precision through the lens as she slices through the air in the most sensual ways drew more than enough emotion from me.

I first discovered the F40 in the early 1990s, when she was new on the scene and I was just a kid. Fiercely red, that imposingly low center of gravity, and those huge 335 rear tires. Bonnet grills opening up to the sky to reveal the complex innards of a thirsty machine, lusting for petrol and speed. 25 years later, I visit the Clay Regazzoni Memorial in Lugano, Switzerland. It’s an underground garage, a cozy and modest nest, a precious sanctuary that collects the legendary driver Clay's efforts and emotions, without fanfare and without fireworks.

There is a mixture of awe and bitterness: it welcomes fascinating relics - vintage helmets marked by battles on the track, countless trophies, memorabilia - but it is so different from any other museum, so "homely" that it really feels like visiting the garage of Clay; it is not just any other museum with cars as perfect as models and the life of a person freeze-dried in the text of an exhibition panel. Regazzoni's own cars are still there, as if he left just yesterday and still hadn't had time to prepare them for the guests. And his death was so sudden, absurd and unjust that you can't blame him.

Although he was paraplegic, Clay did not give up the pleasure of sitting in his F40, having her spit blood from the exhaust: he had turned to Guidosimplex to modify his cars with controls that could only be carried out with the hands. Thus, he realized the dream of returning to driving.

While racing towards the famous Nufenen pass in his very own Rossa, I observe my colleague Benjiamin at the wheel. The "normal" controls are all there, but he struggles to drive it because the horizontal lever under the steering wheel, with which Clay operated the clutch, is really quite a task for a person who still has the good fortune functioning legs. I think about those who can no longer use their legs and I wonder if I might be able to understand what it feels like to reset everything you have learned in years of driving, perhaps when you are a driver like Clay, who had for years moved his own limbs in a perfect dance – now forced to dance with half a body. I look at my feet struggling to find space in the narrow compartment reserved for them - mostly occupied by the photographic equipment - and I force myself not to complain about the luck I have and take for granted.

We are inside Clay Regazzoni's very own F40.

The last Ferrari wanted and built by Enzo Ferrari himself. The man who wanted Clay for his team, at all costs. We are talking about a Formula 1 ere that was still raw and merciless. For superior men only. Titans. I don't think I deserve it. And I am ashamed of myself as I observe the cockpit and criticize -- the material of the headliner that is unstuck and the right door that does not close well and the engine that, under three thousand rpm, coughs and sputters like a Beetle struggling to take pace due to the long rest in the garage. What right do I have to judge? What can I know about cars compared to a man who has dedicated his entire life to motors and who has risen to the glory of succes? This is not the usual car of any press office: it is the supercar of a man with whom I have nothing to impress. What am I doing here?

The feeling doesn’t linger though. It can’t.

Before long, we’re in step, entranced by the majestic pace of this piece of treasure. I come back to my senses as I read terror in Benjiamin's eyes -- he tightens his grip on the steering wheel, while the twin-turbo V8 gallops up to the limiter. There it remains, roaring and firing cannon shots from the exhausts. What the hell is going on? And then I understand: Ben has his foot on the clutch. Try to slow down the car because the accelerator is stuck. Out of pure instinct, I grab the key in the ignition and turn it OFF. The monster calms down and rolls to an inert stop. Silence falls as the accelerator pedal comes back up. We look at each other. We exhale. We will then discover that the fault lies with that cylinder of the manual controls that acts on the gas: every now and then, it blocks the pedal preventing it from returning to the rest position. Quite a scare.

This Sword of Damocles, the harbinger of doom, has largely ruined the experience. A shame, because the F40, in itself, is certainly a wild animal, but much more approachable than I imagined: I can only express judgment as a passenger, but I didn’t find the car unmanageable or indomitable as it’s been described by many (stuck throttle aside).

Benjiamin also considers it very precise and true. The same boost of the turbo, although really only present over 4000 rpm, is never as violent as many journalists describe it; indeed, it is rather progressive and constant up to the limiter. Of course these are still the turbo of the past, nothing in comparison to the cleanliness and progression of today's supercharged versions. But it is a truly perfect character for a racing car, because the F40 is a real racing car: despite its unsuspected qualities as a traveler (it's a bit like a big Lotus), it is, in fact, a carbon frame covered with more carbon and Kevlar, exotic materials barely covered with a layer of deliberately very thin paint; a huge contrast with the austerity of the leather case for documents, an object too elegant for a car that shouldn't even leave the circuit.

The F40 emits a sound which is at times disappointing but undoubtedly Ferrari, with the characteristic Maranello timbre that comes out especially around 3000 rpms; the incessant blowing of the turbo, the bellowing of the wastegate, but above all the cannon fire that it emits in release - barrels that make the hair stand on end, so much so that at first we thought we had lost the exhaust on the street (from the same exhaust, with these eyes I saw leaking fireballs and flames of thirty centimeters). Although the radiators do an excellent job of keeping the hot spirits of the F40 at bay, the heat from the engine behind your back is clearly felt inside the cabin. The more you press on the accelerator, the more the environment fills with petrol and exhaust fumes, which only adds to the feeling of being on board a racing car. It is a mix of conflicting emotions: if on the one hand you feel in the belly of the monster, in a dangerous environment like the beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944, on the other you realize that the F40 knows perfectly what it is doing and only asks you to be heard.

“Don't be afraid” he seems to say, “I'll teach you how to go really fast”.

The Nufenen pass like almost all Swiss passes, in all its highly variable weather conditions, is a fantastic location for driving and photographing. Driving through the curves in an F40 in the late afternoon, as the fog slides over the mountainsides and the Ferrari opens its way with the retractable headlights, is an image that I will hardly forget. I couldn't stop smiling while shooting, because, however I framed her, she always made the most of it: there is not a single element of that car that I don't find attractive. Not a single atom of a Ferrari F40 is out of place.

And the many curious and passionate people we met, who greeted us and expressed their approval, seem to think the same way – even the envious one who showed us two fingers! After all, he too knows that an F40 is not a simple car to show off at the bar. Day one ended at 9pm, when the tank was empty and our strength gone. By now we had learned to know and respect her and, perhaps, she too seemed to have accepted the thankless task of hosting us for a few hours, because she ran better and no longer tried to kill us.