She made her point
…or at least half of one. Lella Lombardi remains the only woman on F1’s score sheet, but her passion brought impressive racing achievements elsewhere, too
Writer Paul Fearnley
Formula 1 was at its most macho: James Hunt was having sex for breakfast; the ‘Monza Gorilla’ was muscling a works March; and, on a hill overlooking Barcelona, officials, team bosses and drivers were at each others’ throats.
Though officials erected barricades and bosses manned the barriers because the drivers were rightly unamused by Montjuïch’s laughable Acme Inc Armco, the latter would eventually kowtow and race with a collective madness – bar world champion Emerson Fittipaldi, who stayed true to his word and refused to start.
The joyless Spanish Grand Prix of April 1975 ended in tragedy when the rear wing of Rolf Stommelen’s leading Hill failed with catastrophic result: dead bodies pinned beneath its wreck. Even Jochen Mass, declared the precipitate winner after 29 laps, scrambled from his McLaren with a face like thunder and threatened violence to smug officials.
Hardly man’s finest hour.
Newcomer Lella Lombardi, at just 5ft 2in, had wisely kept her head down – unlike her hairy-chested March team-mate.
Vittorio Brambilla was one of only two to set a time on Friday afternoon. He eventually qualified fifth, from where he triggered a first-corner pile-up. Pitting on lap seven because of flat spots, he would, amid the chaos, recover to finish a lapped fifth. One place and one lap behind him was Lombardi: the first – and to date – only woman to score a point in a world championship GP, but in a half-points race.
“But the Nürburgring was her best drive,” says March co-founder/designer Robin Herd. Lombardi finished seventh in August’s German GP, despite a puncture. “That’s the one I remember. Quietly impressive, it was much better than her Montjuïch performance.
“She wasn’t one of those tossers that arrive in F1 from time to time. She wasn’t there to make up the numbers. We knew what she’d done beforehand and clearly she was very capable.”
Maria Grazia Lombardi had spent 10 years climbing motor racing’s rungs, beginning with the Monza-based Formula 875. With assistance from her partner Fiorenza, sister and brother-in-law, the ‘Lella’ cover was soon blown by newsworthy results and, by 1967, she was contesting Italian Formula 3 in a Branca-Ford. It was too much too soon. Progress would require a backwards step first.
Lombardi won the Fiat-engined Formula 850 Championship of 1970 in a Biraghi, scoring four victories at Monza against future F1 DNQ-ers Alberto Colombo and Giorgio Francia. After a further two category victories in 1971, at Monza and Vallelunga, she returned to F3 in 1972 and, with her Lotus 69 running under the Jolly Club umbrella, finished 10th in the standings.
She finished 10th again in 1973, with a best of second place at Casale, in a Scuderia Italia Brabham BT41. She also beat Maurizio Flammini’s March to win a heat at Vallelunga.
This was Lombardi’s breakthrough year. By the time she arrived at Monaco in early June she had scored half of the six victories that would help her become Italy’s Ford Escort Mexico Challenge champion.
Now she impressed racing’s international set by finishing 12th in F3’s most prestigious race. The likes of Tony Brise, Brian Henton, Alan Jones, Larry Perkins and Danny Sullivan didn’t even make Monaco’s final.
“That was the first time we saw her,” says John Webb, the UK’s most go-ahead promoter of the period. “She performed exceptionally well. We’d just started the ShellSPORT Celebrity Series [for Escort Mexicos] and my wife Angela invited her to compete at Brands Hatch in July. She won [from the third row, beating Jacques Laffite and Mike Wilds] and we became very friendly and kept in touch.
“Jackie Epstein was running a Formula 5000 team out of Brands and we persuaded him to give Lella a try that winter. She impressed him not only with her driving but also by her mechanical knowledge and feel. Towards the end of the test she pitted because she correctly thought that the car was developing a puncture; not severe but enough to make a difference.”
Lombardi thus joined the ShellSPORT Luxembourg squad for the ’74 Rothmans F5000 Championship and her Lola T330 wore 208 as a nod to the famous radio station’s frequency.
Her team-mate was established series front-runner Ian Ashley: “She was the first woman racing driver to seriously impress me. Those were not easy cars to drive – basically a Formula 2 with a big, tall lump stuck in the back – but she got quicker and quicker during the year. If she’d been a bit more glamorous perhaps more people would have noticed.”
Fourth at Brands Hatch at the first time of asking, Lombardi matched that result at Monza, Oulton Park and Mallory Park during a consistent campaign: she finished all bar the last of 18 rounds to be fifth in the points.
Qualifying was more problematic, but by the end of the season she was only two tenths shy of Mallory Park pole-sitter Ashley; the gap had been 4.6 seconds back in March.
It was clear that the ‘Tigress of Turin’ – a geographically misleading nickname coined by a lazy press – would not be disgraced should she be given an F1 opportunity. In fact she had already come close to making her GP debut.
“The £5000 we spent renting a car from Bernie Ecclestone was our only investment in Lella,” says Angela Webb. “She lived well and had little trouble getting sponsorship. She stayed in Italy and flew to each race, yet never asked for expenses. That’s unusual for a racing driver.
“She was charming but stubborn and independent, and a tremendously careful road driver. I went with her from Snetterton to Norwich once: 30mph all the way. Painful. People were staring and peeping. She didn’t care.
“She did her own thing. She wasn’t interested in fashion and usually wore trousers if she was in civvies. She had an image to keep: ‘I’m tough so don’t mess with me’. She was a loner, really. No entourage. She never brought a girlfriend.
“Her sex and sexuality were not topics of conversation in the paddock. She was judged purely as a racing driver. The boys ganged up and got horribly rough on the track – filthy tricks, kart-style – but she could look after herself. She was tough and had great duration.”
That £5000 stretched to a year-old Brabham BT42 sponsored by Allied Polymer Group and run at the British GP at Brands Hatch by Hexagon Racing, with help from Epstein. Lombardi was within 1.1 seconds of John Watson’s sister car by Thursday’s end and had improved by three tenths when a broken driveshaft denied her a final Friday push.
Nine tenths shy of the grid, she had, in a better car admittedly, lapped as quickly as Tom Belsø and faster than Vern Schuppan, John Nicholson, Howden Ganley, Wilds and Leo Kinnunen.
Motor Sport correspondent Denis Jenkinson reckoned hers, “A game try. Anyone seriously expecting the Italian girl to qualify for a place on the grid must show a lamentable knowledge of Grand Prix racing today, but this is no reflection on her efforts, which were very commendable.”
Philanthropic enthusiast Count Zanon agreed – and offered March £50,000 to run Lombardi in F1 in 1975.
“We’d been a disaster in terms of sponsorship since bursting into F1 in 1970,” says Herd. “We were too busy building production racing cars. So we were perfectly happy to have Lella. It wasn’t a publicity stunt. In fact we got zero PR from it. She wasn’t a publicity seeker. BBC News came to her first test with us at Goodwood and she wanted to know why. That she was a woman was an irrelevancy to Lella. She was a racing driver first and foremost. She was very professional and we enjoyed working with her. Delightful. No trouble. She spoke okay English by then, plus I’d worked with so many Italian drivers that I could almost speak the language.”
Something, however, did get lost in translation. After a crash during Monaco practice, Lombardi would complain consistently of a quirk with her 751: understeering badly into corners, its rear end would suddenly ‘fall over’ into a big oversteer when power was applied.
Herd: “Max [Mosley], a much better engineer than people might think, asked me if he could borrow Vittorio for a few laps. Vit would come back in and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, car’s perfect’. But I don’t think he ever did a flying lap in that car. I totally trusted him. On reflection, however, he was probably looking after himself.”
Enjoying his most competitive spell of F1, and with time against him at 37, the oldest man in the field can perhaps be excused his lack of concern for a friend and future co-driver. Only when Ronnie Peterson described the same handling characteristic in 1976 did the penny begin to drop.
“We gave Ronnie a new chassis for Monaco after his ‘misunderstanding’ with Carlos Reutemann in Belgium,” says Herd. “He did a few laps and said, ‘It’s neutral. It’s perfect’.
“The damaged monocoque was still in the workshop so we took it apart – and discovered a crack in its cast-magnesium rear bulkhead. Poor Lella, she’d had bad traction all along. I feel sorry for her and wonder about it even now.”
Peterson’s return from Lotus after the Brazilian GP also signalled the end of Lombardi’s time with March. (She’d already been farmed out to Williams at Watkins Glen the previous October, when her FW04 conked on the warm-up lap.) Though Zanon, a huge fan of Peterson’s, smoothed matters by helping her find employment elsewhere, the transition was not without problem.
She failed to qualify RAM Racing’s BT44B at Brands – where Divina Galica, the Webbs’ latest fast lady, outperformed her – and in Germany the car was impounded by court injunction.
A very distant 12th place at the next race, Austria, was Lombardi’s final GP. Bar a disappointing appearance at a Mallory Park round of the 1979 Aurora AFX F1 Championship in Zanon’s FW06, it would be sports cars, GTs and saloons from here on.
Lombardi had had experience of sports-prototypes in the 1975 World Championship for Makes, finishing sixth at Mugello and a class-winning fourth at Monza in Equipe Elf Switzerland’s 2-litre Alpine A441, co-driven by Marie-Claude Beaumont.
And in 1976 she shared a Lancia Stratos Turbo with Christine Dacremont at Le Mans and finished 20th – one lap and one place ahead of the Cosworth DFV-powered Inaltera of Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, Jean Rondeau and Belgium’s Christine Beckers.
“Initially we had wanted Inaltera as a sponsor,” says team manager Vic Elford. “But its boss Charles James wanted to be involved lock, stock and barrel. He was very ambitious and so we signed big names – Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo – to show that we meant business.
“Inaltera [a wallpaper manufacturer] was about to launch in America in 1977 and so we entered the Daytona 24 Hours, too. And because it’s usually the woman of the house who makes the major interior design decisions, we decided to run an all-woman crew.
“Lella was my recommendation. She had done F1 and so knew the business. She always worked hard, was easy on the car and understood how to get what she wanted from it. Stamina was no problem, either, because you couldn’t drive flat out back then and expect to last the distance.”
Lombardi and Beckers qualified fourth at Daytona, but crashed out after 78 laps when a slower Porsche suffered a blow-out as Beckers drew alongside. And they finished 11th at Le Mans, despite a long delay because of an electrical glitch that stranded Beckers without engine or headlights; her resourceful fix surprised the team.
“Lella was the perfect co-driver,” says Beckers. “She was much more concerned by the settings than I was, great with the mechanics and very speedy. But she wanted me to be just as fast and was always giving me tips and help.
“She was passionate about racing. She was not interested in music, reading, culture or anything else. Just racing – and fishing.”
Lombardi’s uncanny knack of pulling fish from the sea became apparent when they stayed on NASCAR boss Bill France’s boat in the Bahamas. With Elford’s help, Lombardi and Beckers had accepted an invitation to contest Daytona’s Firecracker 400 on Independence Day, along with home star Janet Guthrie. Fresh from bridging the Indy 500’s gender gap, and contesting the Winston Cup on a shoestring, Guthrie was dismayed by the Europeans’ red-carpet welcome. Feeling this to be an overt bid by NASCAR to discredit her operation, her offer of help to these sisters-in-arms, though genuine, was made through gritted teeth.
Lombardi, in contrast, had nothing to lose and charmed the media by peeking over the language barrier.
Elford: “When asked in a press conference how she was coping with such a hefty car, she replied, ‘I don’t have to carry it, I just have to drive it’.”
She admitted privately, however, that it “felt like riding a buffalo” and, unsurprisingly, Guthrie, who had finished a fine 12th in that year’s Daytona 500, outqualified her by nine places. But the Italian would outlast the American in the race. Having coped with her Chevrolet’s worsening transmission problem, Lombardi chose not to restart after a long stoppage for rain and was classified 31st.
“Sometimes Lella told us that she could have been rich and famous if she had stayed in America, but her feeling for Italy triumphed,” says Giusy Remondi of Lella Lombardi Autosport. “She remembered how foreign people appreciated her but at the same time she wanted to be known in Italy despite the difficulties of being accepted in a very male world.”
Long and successful associations with Osella and Alfa Romeo followed. It was in one of the former’s nimble BMW-engined 2-litre prototypes that Lombardi became the first woman to win a round of an FIA-sanctioned world championship: the 1979 Enna Six Hours, co-driven by hillclimb specialist Enrico Grimaldi. Later that same year, partnered by Giorgio Francia, she won the Vallelunga Six Hours; they would win the 1981 Mugello Six Hours, too.
Thereafter she turned her attention to the European Touring Car Championship and played an important role in Alfa’s quartet of titles from 1982 by notching numerous class wins in its Group A GTV6 alongside a gamut of co-drivers: Anna Cambiaghi, Antonio Palma, Giancarlo Naddeo, Francia and Rinaldo Drovandi.
The subsequent 75 V6 model was less successful and so Lombardi, though she had managed an eighth place in the 1986 Spa 24 Hours co-driven by Drovandi and Roberto Castagna, switched to a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth for 1987.
After a difficult and unrewarding ETCC campaign she failed to start the final round at Nogaro – due to illness.
“I first met her that year when she and Fiorenza asked my husband Bruno to help create a team,” says Remondi. “She was sure of her illness by 1985. She told me she’d been hit on her breast during a sailing trip and it hurt very much. But she was a fighter and never gave up even through the operations.
“She would often speak of sacrifices. She wasn’t rich – her father was a butcher – and, with no sponsors to begin with, she slept in her truck to save money. She worked hard to get what she wanted. She had the strength of a man but a woman’s sensibility: she was kind and transmitted serenity. She and Fiorenza were a beautiful couple, reserved; the spotlight was never on them.
“Lella only complained about the inequality of Formula 1 – because nobody had listened to her about changes for the car.
“On her deathbed she asked us to continue the team to preserve what she had achieved. We miss her passion, determination and modesty.”
Lombardi checked into Milan’s San Camillo Clinic in February 1992 and died on March 3, days short of her 51st birthday. (She’d knocked off a year or two to avoid another prejudice.)
She is commemorated by a bust in her birthplace Frugarolo, near Alessandria, and her eponymous team in Lombardy exists to this day. Her legacy, however, was assured 40 years ago when, on a hill overlooking Barcelona, she scored that half-point and proved her point: “I am not a feminist, only a free and independent woman.”