F1’s Forgotten Women: Lella Lombardi

F1's second female driver: Lella Lombardi
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Updated: Oct 17, 2022

In the second article of this series, we look back at F1’s most successful female driver Lella Lombardi.

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After the cancellation of the final two races of the 2022 W Series season, it feels pretty unlikely we will see a woman in F1 soon. Three-time champion Jamie Chadwick has been robbed of the spotlight to see off her 2022 season in style. With little response from F1 about the difficulties the series has faced, it shows that helping women progress in motorsport isn’t the highest on F1’s priority list.

It is disappointing news for female racing drivers and fans, proving that accessibility for women in motorsport remains ever-gruelling. Fundamentally it robs young girls of the chance to see women competing in motorsport, integral inspiration to bolster the next generation of female racing drivers.

However, this article sources another story of inspiration for young girls. Or just anybody interested in motorsport! We move back in time to the 1970s and look at the life and career of F1 driver Lella Lombardi. Her success in motorsport is a fascinating example of women shining in a male-centric sport.

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Maria Grazia Lombardi, also known as Lella Lombardi, was born in Italy in 1941. She was the second woman to race in F1 after Maria Teresa de Filippis. Unlike the daughter of a Count, Lombardi arose from more humble beginnings, driving a delivery van as her dad was a butcher. Yet, her passion was racing, beginning with karting and making her car debut in 1965 for Formula Monza.

She enjoyed a successful 1968 season in Italian Formula 3, finishing as a runner-up. By 1970 she had wrapped up a championship in the Italian Formula 850 series, winning four out of ten races that season.

Her talent and racing reputation undeniably secured her a seat in Formula 1 for 1974 and the backing of Count Googie Zanon. It is staggering that during an era where sexism within Formula 1 was rampant, think of James Hunt’s womanising ways; a working-class woman managed to earn her spot in F1 on merit.

1974 was a less eventful debut for Lombardi. Racing in a privately entered Brabham, supported by the Italian Automobile Club, she failed to qualify for the British Grand Prix that year. However, failing to do so did not deter her from a career in Formula 1.

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Lombardi entered her first entire season with March in 1975. At the opening race in South Africa, she became the first woman since Maria Teresa de Filippis to qualify for an F1 race. Unfortunately, she retired 23 laps in with a fuel system issue.

Lombardi’s most triumphant outing in F1 came at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix. She finished 6th, becoming the only female driver to score World Championship points. However, this result arrived alongside a tragedy.

An accident involving Rolf Stommelen resulted in the death of five spectators. A broken rear wing caused Stommelen to fly over the barrier and into the crowd, the driver suffering a broken leg, wrist and cracked ribs, and undoubtedly trauma from the incident. The race continued after the accident but eventually stopped 29 laps in, with half points awarded to the finishers.

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Lombardi’s other best result was 7th at the German Grand Prix, making gains after starting 25th on the grid! Championship contenders such as Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt retired during this race.

The Italian’s race pace prompted a one-off drive during the last race of the 1975 season at the US Grand Prix with Frank Williams Racing Cars. In the early 1970s, this team was the initial failed project of Frank Williams, eventually gifting us one of the most successful teams in F1 history- Williams Racing! Lombardi managed to qualify for the Grand Prix but did not start due to ignition issues.

Once again, Lella Lombardi signed with March for the 1976 F1 season. 1976 was a less fruitful year for the driver. A 14th-place finish at F1’s debut race in Brazil saw Lombardi sacked from the team in favour of Super Swede Ronnie Peterson. She then had a short-lived relationship with RAM Racing, her best result with them taking place at the Austrian GP, finishing 12th.

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After F1, she continued to race in sports cars. She dabbled with NASCAR and competed in the 24 hours of Le Mans four times! Lombardi's talent produced victories, never settling for mediocrity, winning 6 hours of Pergusa and the 6 hours of Vallelunga in 1979.

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Lella Lombardi retired from racing in 1988 but could not stay away for long, founding her racing team, Lombardi Autosport, in 1989. However, this project was never fully realised due to Lombardi's death from cancer in 1992.

Lombardi's F1 career ended far too soon, never allowed to race to her full potential. She remains the most successful woman ever to have raced in F1. Her early career exposed her raw talent, and she was lucky enough to attract the proper backing early in her career.

More than anything, Lombardi was the antithesis of her era. A working woman openly in a same-sex relationship with her long-term pattern Fiorenza. Yet she managed to make it into the hyper-masculine world of F1. How she managed to coexist with the era of James Hunt is remarkable and a testament to her raw talent as a racing driver.

Lombardi remains the most successful female racing driver and an icon for any woman aspiring to succeed in motorsport. Despite the barriers for women, she managed to showcase her abilities at the pinnacle of motorsport. In the 1970s! There are significant accessibility issues for women today, but her story offers hope that we will one day have a successful female Formula 1 driver!

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