Lella Lombardi (pictured right, facing camera) is Formula 1’s most successful female driver
Sauber made the news last week by signing IndyCar racer Simona de Silvestro as an ‘affiliated driver’. The signing has brought back into life the possibility of seeing a female Formula One driver on the grid in the foreseeable future, with De Silvestro aiming to compete in a race as soon as 2015.
Before De Silvestro can do so, however, she must first obtain the FIA mandatory FIA super license which any F1 driver much hold before competing in a Formula One event. To qualify, the driver must satisfy certain requirements which include running in other forms of Motorsport and a minimum of 300 kilometres in an F1 car.
The last woman who was working towards a super license was the tragic Maria de Villota who held a reserve role with Marussia before suffering a freak accident at the Duxford Aerodrome in July 2012. The Spaniard, son of Emilio de Villota who competed in Formula One between 1976 and 1982, hit the loading board of the lorry which carried her Marussia to the aerodrome that morning. She sustained serious head injuries and eventually lost her right eye during surgery to save her life. Tragically De Villota died in October 2013 as a result of neurological injuries she sustained in the crash over a year beforehand.
Maria’s crash ended her career and, with it, the hopes of a female driver on the grid in the not-too-distant future. Her death was not the end of important females in the paddock however. Monisha Kaltenborn, for example, became the first female Team Principal in 2012 when she replaced Peter Sauber in the team which bears his name. Claire Williams, the daughter of Williams team founder and Team Principal Frank Williams, followed suit soon after when she became the deputy Team Principal of the team which also bears her name. Scottish born Susie Wolff also plays a role in Williams, having moved to the team from the German Touring Car series in 2012. Susie works with the team as a development driver, but doesn’t hold a super license and looks unlikely to start a Formula One Grand Prix.
What many won’t know is that, should Simona de Silvestro be successful in competing in an F1 race, she will not be the first woman to do so. Indeed five other women have raced in F1 events, totalling twenty-nine entries over eight seasons.
Maria Teresa de Filippis was the first lady to compete, eight years after the birth of F1. Her first race was the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix which Maria entered in a private Maserati 250F. Due to the tight nature of Monte Carlo the grid was limited to 16 entrants, meaning over half of the 31 applicants who took place in Qualifying could not compete. De Filippis missed out on the race by almost six seconds. She returned to racing at the Belgian Grand Prix later that year when she qualified in dead last – 43 seconds shy of the pole time. She finished the race the following day in tenth, which served as last of the finishing cars.
Encouraged in some part by finishing the race, she entered the next Grand Prix which was the French round of the ’58 season. However her gender stood in her way as the race director told her that the only helmet a woman should wear is a hairdresser’s, and barred her from competing. She entered the Portuguese Grand Prix but again qualified at the back of the grid and eventually retired with engine issues. The same fate befell her at the Italian Grand Prix where she was nearly at full race distance when her 2.5 litre Maserati engine gave up. Her final stab at Formula One was the 1959 Monaco Grand Prix which she again failed to qualify for. Finally deterred by her lack of success and disgusted at the level of danger in F1, she retired. 87-year-old de Filippis now lives in Naples.
A fifteen year gap separated her last race and the first race of her countrywoman Lella Lombardi – the most successful female racer to date. She entered the 1974 British Grand Prix with a Brabham but failed to qualify. She qualified for, but failed to finish, the 1975 South African Grand Prix when she suffered a fuel system failure on her March 741.
The following race was the Spanish round which is famous for the incredible lack of safety standards by the organisers. Amid Jackie Stewart’s safety crusade, armco barriers were one of the most important developments in contemporary safety. The armco barriers were poorly constructed, some of which had been tightened by hand. The race, as if to reflect the safety considerations, was disastrous with a myriad of crashes, one of which led to the death of five spectators. Many drivers crashed out or suffered some sort of mechanical failures. Lella Lombardi’s humble March was one of the eight finishers and she was classified sixth. As the race ended prematurely only half points were awarded, meaning she gained 0.5 points. To date no woman has scored another point in the F1 World Championship.
Lombardi competed in a further eight races in 1975, one of which saw her finishing seventh and just outside of the point scoring positions. In 1976 she competed in the Brazilian and Austrian Grand Prix (finishing 14th and 12th respectively), and failed to qualify for the British and German rounds. She subsequently left F1 to head stateside for Nascar and continued to race cars until her death in 1992.
Divina Galica, a British national, was entered in the 1976 British Grand Prix. Rather superstitiously she was using the unlucky #13 car, the first one to use the supposedly unlucky number in 13 years. She failed to qualify for the race and left the international stage for the British Formula One series. She returned in 1978 with Hesketh but again failed to qualify for the Argentinian and Brazilian rounds. This was the extent of Galica’s F1 career. Desiré Wilson, a South African woman, entered the Brands Hatch round of the British Aurora F1 series and won the race – the only Formula One race she entered. Ironically, Emilio de Villota was the Champion that season.
The final woman to race in F1 was Givanna Amati who joined the struggling Brabham team in 1992. As if to represent her Formula 3000 career, she failed to qualify for the South African, Mexican and Brazilian Grand Prix, the three she tried to enter.
Clearly the female involvement in Formula One is nothing particularly ground-breaking; excluding Lella Lombardi’s seventeen races and half point, there has been nothing noteworthy of the five women who stood out in Formula One. Although F1 remains a typically male sport, Simona de Silvestro’s new role with Sauber has hopes rising that a woman could compete in, and maybe even win, a race in the not-too-distant future.
Image courtesy Gahetna collection.