“Women already have their place in motor sport; they have proved it” – Michele Mouton, President WMC
After an untimely delay, the new F1 season starts this weekend. F1 is one of those sports you either love or hate, and given I’ve camped in the wettest field in the wettest country in Europe eating nothing but waffles to watch the Belgian Grand Prix last year, I think you might guess what side of the fence I sit on (OK, so loads of waffles isn’t such a bad thing, but it’s synonymous with Belgium so I had to include it).
I could go on for all eternity about this year’s competitors and everything related to the sport since 1997 but to me that’s all old hat, and in F1, heroes tend to get sung a lot; even Damon Hill’s amazing drive to near victory in an Arrows around the Hungaroring is too well known about to write about (plus he’s won a world championship and is an immeasurably dull man, but that’s an aside).
So I need to look back in F1’s history; back to momentous occasions which weren’t covered ad infinitum on television by The Count or three men at the BBC in slightly different shades of pink. No, we’re travelling back to the dark dark times of disco, flares and John Travolta; the 1970s, and in particular to Lella Lombardi, who holds the the distinction of being F1’s first and only female points scorer.
For a sport dominated by men, it would be strange to see any woman who wasn’t paraded around the grid for people to gawp at, but it’s even more strange for Lella, given that her family didn’t even own a car, let alone her have any interest in them in her younger years (the fastest vehicle they owned was a 10-speed bicycle). She was in fact quite an accomplished handball player. It was only after getting a broken nose in a match and being rushed in an ambulance to hospital that she discovered her love for speed and danger. This sudden passion grew very quickly and in no time she was a makeshift mechanic for her then boyfriend, and in what seemed like no time, she had persuaded the driver to let her race instead, resulting in a debut win.
From a carless woman who couldn’t drive, she was now involved in racing and progressed through the various formulas quicker than my cat and her newly found appetite for wool and eventually found herself in the highest echelon of the sport, F1. Of course, being thrust into F1 into a lowly team (sorry March), success was scant, but her day came in only her third race in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix. Unfortunately, that day was also the scene of the death of 5 spectators due to poorly maintained barriers after Stommelmen crashed. The race was stopped and only half points awarded, and at that point Lombardi was classified in 6th, the final points paying position, out of the remaining eight drivers.
However, the reason Lella is here is not just down to one race. She’s the only woman in F1 to have had any sort of career there, albeit only 16 races worth. She finished just out of the points around the Nurburgring (the cool one, not today’s shorter circuit), on which finishing is an achievement in itself. Although she dropped out of F1 the next year, she found success in sportscar racing, setting fastest laps and winning races but retired through illness. She died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 50.
Lombardi may not have been the most successful driver ever, certainly not the most famous female driver in motorsport and not even the first female F1 driver; however, she was the most successful female F1 driver by a long way. Given the rise of female drivers, it’s only a matter of time until F1’s only female points scorer becomes F1’s first female points scorer.
My fiancée is walking the Great Wall of China and raising money for Great Ormond Street in the process through giving things up all the way up to knitting things for donations. If you’re so inclined, rock up to her blog for details.