Formula One's First Lady: Remembering Lella Lombardi
Since the 20th century, women have risen from being second-class citizens in previous eras, to now running countries, corporations and, in truth, men. And while motorsport has certainly reflected this progress, one exception is in Formula One — where Lella Lombardi remains the single female who has scored points while competing.
Maria Grazia Lombardi "Lella" Lombardi was a talented and brave driver, racing in Formula One from 1974 to 1976. Originally from Frugarolo in Piedmont district of Italy, Lombardi climbed through the junior Formulas, becoming the Ford Escort Mexico Champion and putting on a very assured performance in the Monaco F3 race, ahead of then future World Champion, Alan Jones.
This, and other good results, attracted attention, with which Lombardi obtained backing to try and run in the 1974 British Grand Prix. There were 34 contestants for the 25 places on the grid, which made the prospect of the Italian getting into the race remote. Not only was she a novice in Formula One, but her car also suffered a broken gearbox in the vital Final Qualifying Session.
While failing to qualify, Pete Lyons, arguably the leading F1 journalist of that era, nevertheless described Lombardi's introduction to the world of Formula One like this:
"Lella Lombardi drove her BT42 — the same chassis with which Pace failed to qualify in France — in a brisk enough, and clean enough, manner to impress people favourably."
At the start of 1975, Lombardi was back on top. She'd signed a deal, backed by personal sponsor Lavazza, the leading Italian coffee provider — double espressos for everyone! Lombardi succeeded at qualifying this time and would be in the field for the South African Grand Prix. She was just the second female driver to ever race in the Formula One World Championship, preceded only by Maria-Teresa de Filippis' pioneering race career in 1958 and '59.
There was no fairy-tale result in South Africa, however, as her car was retired with low fuel pressure.
The world in general, and motor racing in particular, was a less enlightened place in the mid-'70s than present day. Some of this was cultural, while the rest was sheer bravado in a sport that still regularly claimed the lives of those who competed. The F1 cars of that time were no easy feat to manage — worlds away from the control of today. For Lombardi to gain the respect of such men as the legendary Arturo Merzario (seen above with teammate Vittorio Brambilla) was a clear indication of her abilities and bravery.
Lombardi's next race, the Spanish Grand Prix, saw her make history. Held in Barcelona's Parc de Montjuïc, later the site of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, the race passed into legend for other reasons. Pete Lyons summed up the mess that Formula One stumbled into at this race:
"The first 1975 GP in Europe was an unmitigated debacle. Most of the scheduled practice was boycotted by a majority of drivers, who were adamant that the circuit barriers as erected on the round-the-houses circuit were badly assembled. Only a last minute threat by the race organisers to have the entirety of the Formula One equipment impounded by the police induced the drivers to practise in the last session. The World Champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, had the courage of his convictions and did the bare legal minimum of practice, and refused to start the race at all. Two of his fellows, his brother Wilson and Arturo Merzario, retired after completing one token lap."
"The rest of the drivers proceeded to put on a display of shunting never before seen. There was a multiple crash at the first corner involving at least nine cars, and there were other incidents for some 35 minutes, until finally the leading car suffered a structural failure and went over the barrier killing four bystanders. The race was stopped shortly thereafter and half points awarded to those who happened to occupy the top six positions at the time."
The drivers' concerns were fueled by three recently killed, in otherwise survivable accidents, as a result of poorly installed barriers; certainly this sort of disorganization on the organizers behalf would have no place in modern Formula One.
Quite what Lombardi made of all of this confusion and acrimony is anyone's guess, but it took a great deal of intestinal fortitude and determination to climb aboard and race to a sixth place and half a point... and a place in history.
From that peak it was back down to earth with a bump; Lombardi failed to qualify next in Monaco. The Grand Prix cars of the '70s were not very reliable, particularly the further down the grid you traveled. Retirements in Belgium and Sweden were followed by a 14th place in Holland, 18th in France and another retirement in Great Britain.
The next race, the German Grand Prix, was held at Nürburgring on the 14.189-mile Nordschleife — not for the faint of heart. Here, Lombardi ran her best race of the year according to observers, finishing seventh, just missing out on acquiring a full point.
The rest of the season played out and finished with Lombardi not being able to start the U.S. Grand Prix due to ignition failure on her way to the grid. A start in the 1976 Brazil Grand Prix with a 14th place finish would be the end of Lombardi's career with the March team; she was then replaced by the great Ronnie Peterson.
Lombardi returned to F1 in 1976 for the British Grand Prix but failed to qualify the aging RAM Racing Brabham BT44 she was piloting. This was followed by the car being impounded at its next race in Germany, as the team had a dispute with a former driver. The final Grand Prix for Lombardi was in Austria; a 12th place was her reward.
In Formula One, more than any other branch of the sport, if you are not in the right car at the right time, then you stand little chance of success. Lombardi's career in the Grand Prix arena was done, but her career in motorsport was not.
As one might expect, Lombardi turned her hand to endurance racing in both sports and touring cars — racing at Le Mans on four occasions, including her final appearance when she partnered with Mark Thatcher, son of the British Prime Minister. Lombardi enjoyed a successful association with Osella. It was in one of their BMW-powered 2-litre prototypes that she became the first woman to win a round of an FIA-sanctioned World Championship, the 1979 Enna-Pergusa Six Hours, with hill-climb specialist Enrico Grimaldi as her co-driver.
Later that season, partnered by Giorgio Francia, she won the Vallelunga Six Hours; the pair would go on to win the 1981 Mugello Six Hours as well. Amazingly, Lombardi also raced in NASCAR — driving in the Firecracker 400 at the Daytona International Speedway in 1977.
Lombardi then switched to racing an Alfa Romeo in the European Touring Car Championship from 1982 until the end of her career in '87. By then she was fighting the cancer that would eventually take her life March 1992 at the young age of 50. While a premature end to a life and career that had not reached its full potential, Lella Lombardi nevertheless made her point; no one can take that away from her. While she remains one of the elite few women who've raced in Formula One, and the only of them to gain a score, motorsport continues to evolve, and in many ways, reflects the social progress seen elsewhere.
At present, women hold two team principal positions in F1: Claire Williams and Monica Kaltenborn with Williams Grand Prix and Sauber, respectively. Leena Gade is one of a growing number of female engineers in the sport, with multiple Le Mans victories to her credit while working for AudiSport. Behind the wheel, female drivers compete at the highest levels. Michele Mouton came within a whisker of becoming the World Rally Champion, Lilian Bryner has won the Spa 24 Hours, and Sabine Schmitz has twice triumphed at the Nürburgring 24. As a greater number of females participate in entry-level racing from a young age, we will eventually see another one meet and surpass the groundbreaking achievements of Lella Lombardi.
Photos Courtesy of and Copyright to Sutton Motorsport Images