Lady racer: the Lella Lombardi story
- Geza Sury
- 8W Special, May 31, 1999
- Giovanna Amati - Motor racing's glamour girl, by Mattijs Diepraam/Rainer Nyberg
- Maria Teresa de Filippis - Grand Prix's fastest lady?, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Divina Galica - Female speed addict, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Desiré Wilson - F1's only female winner, by Mattijs Diepraam
1975 Spanish GP
A day to remember in many ways. On the dark side we had Rolf Stommelen's dramatic off into the Montjuich crowd, sparking off the elimination of the Barcelona street track from the international calendar. On the bright side of life we saw Jochen Mass' only GP win and witnessed the single occasion a woman driver scored championship points. Well, scrap the plural, as it happened to be a half point, the race cut off before three-quarters distance because of Stommelen's accident. Of course it was a freak result but the circumstances weren't all cause of Lombardi's remarkable points drive. As it was, only eight cars - not counting Regazzoni's delayed Ferrari and Stommelen's slow team mate Migault - were circulating on lap 26 when hell broke loose. By then, some seven cars had crashed and at this rate of retirement it would have been hard to have a podium ceremony with three classified runners. For Lella, only in her second race, debuting the '75 March and keeping it on the track, albeit two laps down, it was a major achievement. Later in the year she almost did it again, missing out on a full point by two and a half minutes in a German GP which again proved an enduro event. It seems Lella Lombardi was at her best on the toughest tracks...
Maria Grazia Lombardi was born March 26th, 1941 in Rome. Within her family, no one was interested in motor racing, nor driving on public roads. Actually, the fastest vehicle they owned was a ten-speed bicycle...
But Lella had a passion for sports: she was playing in the local handball team as a back. In one of her matches the team's coach provided her with a tough job. The opponent team had an aggressive forward, and Lella had been given the task to prevent her from scoring goals. Young Lella was as hard as metal, the blonde forward unable to score a single goal! Five minutes from the end, the girl had enough. She punched Lella on the nose with the ball, sending her to the floor... Lella's team won the match, but no-one was aware that one of their players suffered a broken nose... After the match Lella was waiting at the bus stop with her nose buried in a handkerchief when a blue Alfa Romeo stopped in front of her. The blonde forward was driving. "Come on, I'll take you to hospital," she said, so Lella jumped in. The pair was heading for St. Margaret hospital, a half an hour's drive, at least for a wide cab driver. But they arrived in ten minutes! The blonde, seeing Lella's injuries, drove like crazy. Pushing the horn continuously, she zigzagged between the cars, even crossing the tram lines and riding the pavement to gain time. Lella suddenly forgot all her troubles. She was so impressed by the speed and the excitement that the damage was done. Not just to the young girl's nose, because after a half-hour surgery everything was all right, but also to her soul, as the passion for speed remained forever.
Many sleepless nights Lella walked onto the balcony and dreamt of fast cars. And finally she decided to become a racing driver. But she had no driving license! Sp she collected all her hard-fought money and went to a driving school. Lella practised a lot with her boyfriend's little Fiat, and in three months' time, she got her driving license on hand. Immediately after that she bought a scarlet Fiat, a very, very second-hand example indeed. She didn't care about handball anymore. If she had time left, she drove around the city just for fun.
One day Lella met a young man, who as it later turned out, was a racing driver. From that day on, she followed him wherever he went. She was in charge of the tyres, changed the spark plugs, and timed the laps. On one occasion the guy entered his Alfa Romeo for a rally. Lella was his co-driver. She enjoyed that 'high-speed weekend', and persuaded her friend to swap places for the next event. When Lella appeared in the driving seat, the other drivers were just smiling... Lella was very upset and put all her anger into her driving. She won the debut race! After that tremendous success, with the help from an Italian company, she was given the chance to drive a works Alfa Romeo in the Italian Touring Car Championship. In the beginning, her results were modest, but she finished in third position at the Palermo event. The Alfa Romeo was to be followed by a BMW and later Lella's attention turned to single-seater racing. Her biggest success came in the Ford Mexico Championship in which she became the 1973 champion. The next year she stepped up to Formula 5000, and was racing in the Shellsport championship. That year marked her first appearance in Formula One.
She was supposed to make her Grand Prix debut at the British Grand Prix in an Allied Polimer Group-entered Brabham-Ford BT42 sponsored by a radio station from Luxembourg. Their frequency was FM 208, so Lella's car wore the very rare high starting number! But unfortunately, out of 34 drivers, Lella was 29th quickest, so she had to watch the race from the pit wall. That turned out to be her single outing that year.
For 1975, things changed for the better. Multi-millionaire Count 'Guggi' Zanon bought her into the works March team alongside Vittorio Brambilla. According to rumours, Count Zanon paid 200,000 dollars for that season! For this race only, Lombardi ran in an ex-Brambilla 741, still in Brambilla's familiar orange Beta colours. Lella's first attempt came at Kyalami where she recorded 26th time and just scraped to the back of the grid, beating the likes of 27th fastest Wilson Fittipaldi, and 28th placed Graham Hill... It had been some 17 years since the last woman driver Maria Teresa de Filippis had started a Grand Prix! For the race, Lella drove her March-Ford 741 as far as the 23rd lap, when the fuel system broke. By that time, Brambilla had been already out with an overheating problem.
Then came Spain and the race on the Montjuic circuit, where Lella's new red-and-white Lavazza livery was presented. Before the race on Thursday, reigning world champion Emerson Fittipaldi was scheduled to do a photo shoot out on the circuit for one of his sponsors. The photographer asked Emerson to sit down to the armco but to both men's amazement the armco succumbed under the Brazilian's weight! So Fittipaldi started to examine other parts of the track and found out all the surrounding armco was totally useless in case of an accident! So he called upon a meeting, where he himself, Niki Lauda, Carlos Reutemann, Carlos Pace and Jody Scheckter were present, and of course Denny Hulme, who at the time was the chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association. On the drivers' behalf Denny requested the organisers to strengthen the armco, otherwise they would boycott the race. The organisers would have none of it, so the atmosphere in the paddock was tense. First practice had been cancelled, but for the second one Jacky Ickx took the track. 'Crazy' Vittorio Brambilla followed him out, but the others, Lombardi amongst them, stayed in their garages.
For the following day, the two rookies Roelof Wunderink and Bob Evans also went out, and after practice the drivers had to vote what to do next. Lella voted to race, with Mario Andretti, Mark Donohue, Ronnie Peterson, Vittorio Brambilla, Tony Brise, Jacky Ickx and Bob Evans sharing the idea. But finally everyone bowed to the pressure of team bosses and agreed to race. Well, almost everyone, as Emerson Fittipaldi stuck to his word, boycotted the race and flew home. "This is a good decision, even if I lose the title because of it," the Brazilian explained.
So the race got under way. Lella in her new March-Ford 751 lined up 24th on the grid. On lap 26 leader Rolf Stomellen's car broke its rear wing, and the German lost control of the machine. The car went airborne, crashed into the armco, which broke immediately, and the car came to halt in the spectator area... Five spectators were killed. The race was stopped on the 29th lap, and due to the very high attrition rate Lella was up to sixth. Jochen Mass won, but since more than 33% but less than 66% of the race had been run, the drivers were awarded half points. So Lella got 0.5 point for her efforts. That was the very first timein the history of Grand Prix racing a female driver scored a point.
After Spain, the lady making history showed only one creditable result in the form of a seventh place at the 'Ring, although seven and a half minutes behind winner Carlos Reutemann. When Mark Donohue was killed during the Austrian Grand Prix warm-up, Lella almost retired from Formula One. But the desire to compete in the highest level of motorsports made her stay. For the US Grand Prix Lella switched to Frank Williams Racing. She was supposed to race the Williams-Ford FW03, but after recording 24th (and slowest) time in qualifying, ignition problems occurred in the warm-up, and she forfeited. That failure marked the end of her first full year.
For the first race of 1976, Lella was back at the wheel of a works March, this time a 761. Her solo outing in that car resulted a 14th place after starting 22nd. For the rest of the year, Ronnie Peterson, who returned to the March team after having begun the year with Lotus, replaced Lombardi. For three events the Italian lady signed for RAM Racing, the team fielding a year-old Brabham-Ford BT44B. For her first appearance at Brands Hatch Lella recorded slowest time in practice, even beaten by another female driver: Divina Galica in her privately-entered Surtees-Ford TS19. At Hockenheim, police impounded Lombardi's car, so she couldn't start. At the Österreichring, she finally made the grid. Her 12th place in the race marked her last appearance in Grand Prix racing.
But Lella didn't give up racing altogether. Amazingly, she drove the Firecracker 400 NASCAR race at the Daytona International Speedway in 1977. Actually, there were no less than three female drivers in the field: American Janet Guthrie, Belgian Christine Beckers and of course Lella Lombardi of Italy. Hall of Famer Lee Petty presented flowers to all three of them before the start. Petty was Grand Marshal of the race. It was the first time since 1949 that three women had competed in a NASCAR event, and the only time on a superspeedway. None of them had a good day though. Guthrie left with engine failure after 11 laps, Beckers wore out her brakes in 33 laps, while Lombardi parked her Chevrolet after 103 laps with rear-end problems.
In 1979 Lella's attention turned to sportscar racing. Her first notable performance came at the Mugello circuit, where she and Giorgio Francia drove the Osella-BMW PA7 to fourth place in the 1000 km event. Things went even better at Pergusa: the Lombardi/Grimaldi duo won that race, Lella recording fastest lap in the process. The win at the last event at Vallelunga was the icing on the cake, as Lella, once again teamed with Giorgio Francia, finished four laps ahead of their nearest rivals, Pasquale Barberio and young Enzo Coloni, who later went on to establish his own Formula One team.
So Lella found her way in sportscar racing, and later in touring cars. She raced them into the late eighties, contesting the European Touring Car Championship in the now legendary Ford Sierra RS 500 Cosworth. But illness forced her into retirement. In 1992, the woman who carved her name into Formula One history books forever, died of cancer - far too early...
Lella Lombardi's F1 record