Lella Lombardi’s significance to Formula 1 history cannot be understated. As one of two women to qualify for an F1 race, she is the only one to have scored points, and half a point at that. However, while the majority focus is on that fateful day at the Spanish Grand Prix, her career is so much more significant and multi-dimensional than the simple attribution of a point on a given day.
|Date of Birth
|March 26th 1941 (though some sources claim 1943)
|Date of Death
|March 3rd 1992
|Allied Polymer Group (1974), March (1975-6), RAM (1976)
|6th (Spain 1975)
Known as Lella, her real name was Maria Grazia Lombardi. Born in Frugarolo in north-west Italy during the Second World War, she grew up with the intention of becoming a professional dancer. It seems there was something of a biking culture in her hometown that she drew much of her early racing bug from, and she would race Lambretta scooters while her parents, who couldn’t drive and didn’t own a car, ran a butchers’ shop. Two and two came together, and when she hit her early 20s, Lella was running errands for the family business, driving trucks up and down the northern regions of Italy and into Switzerland.
Her fascination for two- and four-wheelers continued. Scooters became mopeds, and then more powerful motorbikes. Against the will of her family, Lella bought a Fiat 850, secreting it at an arcade in town so that her parents wouldn’t find out. In 1965 she began, with the help of her colleagues at the butchers’, to transport, tow, and drive the car to the Monza circuit 100km on the other side of Milan, in the Formula Monza series.
Her hobby increased in scope and purpose as the years went by. This would be Lella’s racing life up until the late 1960s, when she was able to finish runner-up overall to Franco Bernabei, an obscure local racer who had made a strong impression in his only F1 appearance at the non-championship Rome Grand Prix of 1963.
From 1967, Lella also drove in the Formula 875 spec series, as well as the more stratified Formula 850, in specially made Biraghi 850s. These cars were built to be priced at under 850 thousand lira (around $1 700 in those days), and Lella’s personalised 68.1 model was taken to win the series championship in 1970, with another runner-up overall in 1971. There was no questioning her talent on the local and regional scenes, with four victories in 1970 out of the ten races.
1972-1974: Attention Outside of Italy
In 1972 she moved upward to the national scene when she joined Italian Formula 3. There and the following year, she applied herself against a higher calibre of competition, against which she held herself remarkably well. Taking a second-place finish in 1973, and being a woman, Lella started to draw the first attention of the national and international media. She began to receive guest invitations to race in the UK, in France, and as wildcard entries at events. The most fateful one would be the Celebrity Escort Mexico series, where she met UK promoter John Webb, who took a shine to her.
A one-off appearance at Brands Hatch saw her win the event, beating a young Jacques Laffite and future F1 reject Mike Wilds. The attention drawn prompted Webb to test her out for a Formula 5000 run in 1974.
Lella was able to drum up support in sponsorship from Radio Luxembourg, and participated in a Lola T330 in the F5000 championship in 1974. Ian Ashley (pictured in the car above), a race winner the previous year, and a championship contender in this one, was to be her teammate:
“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.”
That impression was to be made when Lella took fourth on her debut at Brands Hatch. Repeating the feat another three times, she got agonisingly close to a podium. Her qualifying runs were much more wanting, but by season end at Mallory Park she was only 0.2 seconds off Ashley – a gap that had been upwards of 5 seconds when the year began.
Admirers of Lombardi tend to point to her race that season at Snetterton as one that got away. On a day with changing conditions, she had been able to push her way up to third before a stoppage due to intense rain. Later on in the day, when the event was restarted, she sadly bumped wheels with Keith Holland, lost a few places, and ended up fifth by race-end.
Elsewhere, she drove in Formula 5000 down under in Australia for a longer period of time, as well as briefly in the United States, where she was paired up with (of all people) James Hunt. Another race considered among her finest was in Australia, where she finished third to that year’s champion Max Stewart and the former champion ‘Big Rev’ Kevin Bartlett, only two seconds off the latter.
1974: In a Rich Man’s World
That year Lella, let us not forget, was applying herself mostly through her own means, and the transportation equipment was provided and driven by her sister, her brother-in-law, and her partner Fiorenza. The fact that, between them, they were able to get by most of the time on their own in the European environment is a testament to herself and so many other budding drivers of the era.
Her biggest feat of daring was when her entourage got themselves entered into the British Grand Prix in 1974. They rented a Brabham BT42 from Bernie Ecclestone for a tidy £5,000, that got them just about qualified for the race, but not enough. John Watson, driving the same chassis, was able to do times around two seconds quicker, and terminal problems with the driveshaft meant that Lella did not qualify. For a piece of trivia, her car bore #208 to match the wavelength of Radio Luxembourg, and remains the highest number for a car entered into an F1 race.
The event had absolutely not been in vain, however, as she suddenly drew more attention than ever before! The first woman to enter a race since Maria Teresa de Filippis 15 years prior, and with a serious intention to qualify – it was a recipe for success in and out of the cockpit. Suddenly Lavazza was knocking at the door, coughing up £50,000 in sponsorship for 1975. An avid car enthusiast and Sammarinese aristocrat by the magnificent name of Count Vittorio “Googie” Zanon de Valgiurata, whose wife coincidentally happened to own the Lavazza company, had taken a personal interest in funding and helping develop Lella’s career, as he had done so for a young Ronnie Peterson and would later do for Michele Alboreto and Ayrton Senna – the list is not limited to them.
What the money did more than anything else was to get Lombardi into a position whereby she could approach serious Formula 1 teams and get her foot in the door of the top series. She did just that with the March team, run by Robin Herd and Max Mosley, in 1975.
“I really think that there are too many women who perhaps feel that motor racing is essentially a masculine affair. Well, I don’t agree at all. I feel it’s simply a competitive sport.” — Lombardi.
At this time, in the presence of a “serious” F1 team, Lella packed up and moved to the UK. Rather amusingly, her personality out of the limelight seems to have changed, as while she had been reported as a daredevil on her native roads in northern Italy, she was sheepish and slow on the other side of the road in England. She was taking her new chance seriously, and so were her new bosses. Robin Herd has maintained that “her hiring was not a publicity stunt. The PR we got from the event was almost non-existent.” Other reports differ: Lella famously did not encourage the attention she got, for example when the BBC wanted to interview her at a Goodwood test, and she wholeheartedly declined. Her determination to get things done on her own terms was a central part of her personality – it got her this far, but would bring its own limitations.
She started the 1975 season at the third round in South Africa, qualifying for the first time ahead of Graham Hill and Wilson Fittipaldi – the first woman to qualify in fifteen years. Some quiet running at the back ended a third of the way in with a fuel collection issue.
The following race at the Spanish Grand Prix was a fateful event for so many reasons. As has been well-documented, the event was cut short when protesting drivers were pressured into starting, and stopped when eight runners remained, one driver was injured and five spectators were dead. It was one of the darker events in Formula 1’s blood-soaked history, but it remains an historic event for one other reason – that being Lella Lombardi finishing two laps down, in sixth place, and therefore in the points. For this statistic, Lella Lombardi towers as a name as the leading representative of lady drivers in F1.
The next grand prix brought the sting in the tail of her story. At Monaco, she crashed heavily in practice, permanently cracking the rear end of the chassis and giving an imbalance to the driveability of her March. While her English was “ok” at this time according to Mosley, Lella was unable to convince her mechanics or managers that there was anything fundamentally wrong with her car. Mosley did send her teammate Vittorio Brambilla around the Zolder circuit for a few testing laps, who remarked that the car was absolutely fine. Whether or not this was all part of a great conspiracy is something that is lost to time, but when Ronnie Peterson complained of the same issues upon taking Lombardi’s place in early 1976, they discovered that all her complaints had been justified.
Therefore, while Brambilla beat Lella fair and square, she was perhaps further behind him than she otherwise might have been without that crash. Brambilla after all managed to take poles, wins, and lead multiple races over the course of 1975. While Lombardi did not achieve those dizzying heights, her race at the Nürburgring that year is often cited as her greatest moment in F1. After qualifying last, she pulled her car up to the top ten on Sunday when, a few laps from the end, her tyre exploded halfway around the circuit. She kept herself on the road, dragged the March back to the pits, got it repaired and back out, and kept her cool to finish the race seventh. While it didn’t reward with points, Max Mosley certainly thought it was her best moment in F1.
The rest of Lella’s year wasn’t so fruitful, with back-row qualifying followed up by lapped finishes on Sundays. She did become the first woman to qualify for the Race of Champions in 1975, an achievement in and of itself. With continuing cash reserves, Lella signed herself up with March on a race-by-race basis for the following season.
1976: Final F1 Attempts
At the opening round of 1976, Lella qualified last and finished last, four laps down. Buying Ronnie Peterson out of Lotus, Herd and Mosley replaced her after one round of the year, leaving her on the sidelines and looking for work again. She got picked up again by the RAM team for Silverstone, the same track she had debuted on two years prior. Here, times had changed: now Divina Galica was the new woman on the grid. At the only grand prix featuring two women entries, Galica the Brit was able to outqualify Lombardi by a whopping two seconds, though neither made Sunday’s cut.
At the following race at the Nürburgring, Lella and teammate Stommelen’s cars were impounded by the local German police on Saturday. It turns out that there had been a contract row with the team’s former driver Loris Kessel, whom Lombardi had replaced, and it meant no running would be possible until the legal matter was settled. At the Österreichring, Lombardi’s final race, she qualified on the back row and was the last of the classified runners, four laps down. It was a short tale at RAM, and it signalled the end of Lella’s run in F1.
1977-1981: Between Jobs
During the mid-1970s, Lella partook in other series, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in which she participated four times. While her best result was an overall 11th in 1977, her most interesting endeavour was in 1975 when she was teamed up with Marie-Claude Charmasson, a veteran lady driver since the early 60s, to tackle the event. During the year of the “economy run”, their Renault had been a leading chassis in the reduced field, but a fuelling error took them both out of the running as early as an hour in. It was terrible luck, albeit somewhat redeemed in the following years, where she paired up with a succession of other women such as Christine Beckers, and Christine Dacremont. Her most famous teammate was one Mark Thatcher, son of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and most known for getting lost during the Paris-Dakar Rally a few years later.
After her F1 possibilities dried up, Lombardi took part in more and more sportscar events. Along with Le Mans, she and Charmasson did more races together in the mid-1970s, and in 1979 she was able to win the Six Hours of Enna along with the blue-blooded Enrico Grimaldi. Being a round of the World Sportscar Championship, this meant that Lella had become the first women ever to win an FIA championship event. She would come runner-up at the same event in 1981, and would win the 6 Hours of Vallelunga that year.
She received a wildcard entry to the Mallory Park round of the Aurora F1 series, which was heralded as a potential comeback moment for her. However, a disappointing show had her finish plum last and she never returned. From here and for the rest of her career, she stuck to sportscars and stock cars.
The most famous of her stock car runs was her one-off appearance in NASCAR. The Americans had recently opened up NASCAR as a fully gender-neutral event, and were keen to invite some international female stars for a marketing coup and some positive media attention. Lella and her former Le Mans teammate Christine Beckers were on the guestlist, along with the American Janet Guthrie, who had partaken in some NASCAR races the previous season.
Guthrie was angry to say the least at this development. She herself had grafted hard to make her way in the series to no fanfare, and the song-and-dance provided for Lombardi and co. stained the relationship between the female drivers from the start. Guthrie soundly defeated the other two women, and made the narrative a “catfight” between the three, which the event had never been intended to focus itself on. All three retired with mechanical issues at the end of the day, and Lombardi had made an impact on the wider American motorsport press.
Offers followed in stock cars and other series, and Lella toyed with the idea of staying in America. Her gender was a much bigger deal in the States than it had been in Europe, and opened up many doors to a steady paycheque as she reached her late 30s. She ended up turning down all these lucrative offers and returned to her homeland of Italy – her personal choice.
1981-1987: Later Career and Touring Cars
Then, from the early 1980s Lella settled into touring cars and the ETCC. After gaining support from Lana Gatto, a wool and clothing retailer, she was set financially to join the Alfa Romeo team for much of the following decade. Especially in the early years, a few class victories came her way, and running in Italian national touring cars filled out the rest of her calendar.
Her main wish at this point in her life was to start her own team and manage her fortunes herself. She therefore founded Lella Lombardi Autosport out of a shed next to her house, employing long-time colleague Giusy Remondi to co-manage it with her. Their intent was to start in national touring and sportscar series, scouting out for young national talent, and they entered the ITCC in 1988. For this and another reason, Lella bowed out of motorsport and announced her retirement from driving at the end of 1987.
1988-1992: End of Life
Fatefully, Lombardi’s retirement was brought on by necessity. While she had continued part-time running in touring cars until 1987, her health was taking a downturn. In 1983, she had been involved in a sailing accident off the coast of Italy, which had left permanent scarring and was a continuous pain to her. On top of this, the symptoms of breast cancer began to form, and were diagnosed as such in 1985. Initially in denial about this – attributing it to the sailing incident – remission was a long and tough process. When the cancer relapsed in 1987, it was more persistent and meant that Lella’s intentions to get Lella Lombardi Autosport off the ground were tragically short-lived.
Remondi, her partner in the project, took up the full-time role of team principal, while Lella reduced her own part to driver training and car testing. Eventually she withdrew from the project to undergo stronger treatment, before succumbing to her illness in early 1992. She spent her final years resting and fishing on the island of Lošinj off the coast of then-Yugoslavia.
Given her trailblazer status, it is easy to get drowned in love for Lella, given what she was able to achieve seemingly with minimal help through the rankings. This author sees the greatest value in the flaws of her character, and how her own human frailties, in no way connected with her gender, were to define her character. She did not make a big deal about being a woman in a man-dominated racing world: “I am not a feminist, only a free and independent woman,” she said. Aside from her brief flirtation with America, she did not use her gender as a gimmick to drum up easy PR. In her own statements, the real inequality in motorsport was of the cars, not the people.
However, the most important thing is to avoid the kind of hagiography that devalues her achievement as an individual. In spite of what some commentators might tell you, her chances of winning Le Mans in 1975 were minimal. Likewise, her bemoaned cracked March chassis was her own fault when she rammed the wall at Monaco (it should also go without saying that was neither the first nor last driver to run around with a broken chassis). Her later lack of funding and inability to draw sufficient financial attention to her cause was likely self-inflicted as well.
Just about everyone who knew Lella proclaimed her as shy and without ceremony. Her workaholic attitude to her career extended to her not using hotels, sleeping in her car, and even doing the loading/unloading of her equipment herself every race weekend. There are countless anecdotes about her being very uncomfortable meeting fans, signing autographs, or talking about her career even later in life. Even her age is disputed, so hard did she work to keep details of her life private.
All this leads to one of the most significant things about Lella Lombardi outside of the car: as well as being a rare woman driving in the top echelons of motorsport, she was also openly a lesbian, and therefore one of the few F1 drivers openly in a same-sex relationship. For most of her adult life, she had a female partner named Fiorenza, who accompanied her during her career from the early 1970s until the end of her life as a bona fide member of the paddock. Part of her quietude has been noted as a way to purposefully draw attention away from her private life in this regard.
All these factors and more contribute to the reputation of a well-loved and respected woman racer who earned a point at the height of the “sex for breakfast” era of macho F1. She achieved these feats without grabbing the low-hanging fruit, which likely stunted her potential for longer-term success. She was not above criticism, and relied on the benefaction of charitable figures like Count Zanon (to whom so many hopeful drivers of that era owe their careers). The lucky half-point at Montjuic obscures her greatest achievements at Le Mans and the Nürburgring just months later, and threatens to turn the fascinating career of Lella Lombardi into a one-note story. Let us hope this profile does something to clear that record.
Sources: is.fi; formula1.com; alongtheracingline.com; jalopnik.com; motorsportmagazine.com; lellalombardi.it; petrolicious.com; f1i.com; autodiva.fr; historicracing.com; nytimes.com; motorsportmemorial.org